Activists reveal why they are not behind her
KAMPALA, UGANDA |FLAVIA NASSAKA| When the Speaker of Parliament Rebecca Kadaga on July 07 met Vastina Rukimirana Nsanze, the chairperson of the Uganda Law Reform Commission, she made a pledge – that she would contact the Justice and Constitutional Affairs minister to fast track the tabling of the revised Marriage Bill.The Bill that seeks to ensure equity and fairness in marriage, according to Kadaga, is one of the critical three that are to be considered in this session of parliament.
Nsanze was sharing some of the proposals in the new draft bill;including changing its name from the Marriage and Divorce Bill to Marriage Bill.
But when news that the Marriage Bill will soon be tabled in parliament reached Eunice Musiime, a human rights lawyer, she said she was surprised. Usually, she said, for the bill which has been shelved for more than 20 years to get any mention, it would be either during a big women conference or after some bit of pushing by women’s rights organisations. She says this time it came without any of those props.
Musiime, who is the Executive Director of the women’s organization – AkinamamawaAfrika and former chairperson of the association of women lawyers (FIDA) is skeptical.
“This is one of their gimmicks,” she says, “They want to divert people from the constitutional amendments debate but we are awake to it.”
Musiime’s skepticism is partly a result of past dashed hopes. When Kadaga became Speaker in 2011, many women activists expected her to push their agenda; including stewarding the passing of a law to protect women in the domestic environment. After all, Kadaga was in parliament on the affirmative action for women ticket – as a Woman MP for Kamuli District. And Kadaga did not disappoint.
Although the Bill, which had been shelved amidst acrimony in 2006, had been dusted and renamed the Marriage and Divorce Bill in 2009, and tabled again in December 2010, at the beginning of the session of the 9th Parliament in June 2011, Kadaga reminded MPs about the need to debate and pass it.
But it appears the timing was wrong and gave the Bill no chance. Parliament turned chaotic and Kadaga was forced to order an impromptu two-week recess to allow MPs return to their constituencies to consult the voters about the Bill. When parliament resumed after a fortnight, the overwhelming majority of MPs proclaimed that the draft law had been firmly rejected by the grassroots in their constituencies. Many, including former leader of opposition Wafula Oguttu, said their constituents had threatened to end their political careers if they dared rally behind the Bill.
Musiime says Kadaga had no chance then. Resistance to her was inevitable because she was pushing the Bill at around the same time when it was rumored that she was nursing presidential ambitions and that President Yoweri Museveni could not risk throwing her another opportunity to rise in popularity.
Hitting a rock in parliament
But this was not the first time the Bill was hitting a rock in parliament. The quest to regulate the family started as early as 1964 when the new 1962 independence government established the Commission on Marriage, Divorce and the status of Women which came to be known as the Kalema Commission. This commission published a report with recommendations related to marriage, children and inheritance. But they were never implemented. Then in 2003, a Domestic Relations Bill (DRB) was tabled. The draft of this Bill was out-rightly rejected by Muslim groups opposed to the provisions outlawing polygamy. In 2006, the Bill was split into a Muslim Personal Bill, which covers Muslim marriages, and the Marriage and Divorce Bill for other marriages. But another provision was picked on as contentious. This time it was the proposal that a married man who wishes to marry another wife must seek consent of his current wife.
Based on this, although the Bill was originated by government, ministers and even President Museveni opposed it. The Bill took almost two years to reach parliamentary committee stage. Even when it finally got to the committee on Legal and Parliamentary Affairs, it never survived long. Parliament received numerous petitions and newspapers were awash with letters and opinion columns of newspapers condemning it. Museveni was told that if he endorsed the Bill it would not only be political suicide for him but he will have done a disservice to the nation. This was also around the time of the 2006 general elections and politicians; including women members of parliament, were not willing to be seen to support it. It was shelved until 2009 when it surfaced. It was shelved again in 2011 until now.
As the Bill gathered dust on parliament’s shelves, Nsanze’s Law Reform Commission undertook another rigorous process to prepare it for the next time an opportunity arose. They sieved out unnecessary provisions, consolidated the previous laws, and took into account the emerging issues. The outcome is what Nsanze was sharing with Kadaga on July 07.
The name was one of the issues that caused controversy around the Bill when it was tabled in 2009. Religious leaders and others argued that the name implied “people married to divorce” and made marriage meaningless. Other provisions that were contentious were on co-habiting couples, sharing property upon separation, and spousal consent in sex.
Under the new draft Bill, property to be shared out has been defined as marital property defined as that which couples jointly accumulates after getting married. Also, bride price has changed name to ‘marital gift’ and giving it is not mandatory and it is illegal to demand its return in case the marriage fails. A proposal that cohabiting couples could share property has been removed from the new Bill. Under the Marriage and Divorce Bill, there was an effort to present it as a form of marriage after a certain period. Then, activists argued that men often get involved with women for years and dump them. Activists argued that treating long-term cohabitation as automatic marriage would protect the women and some men from being abused. Under the new draft Bill, there is an optional proposal that couples make prenuptial agreement on property or money.