WHAT ABOUT US?

“I want you to also address us, the unmarrieds, because the law seems to protect only those in a recognized marriage”

On Saturday, 15th March we carried out a community outreach in a kampala suburb know as kikubamutwe. As Public Interest Law Clinic(PILAC), we went with an agenda to address the forms of marriages according to Ugandan law, the rights of the married during and after the marriage and Domestic Violence. I am writing to share my experience because it brought me a lot of insight.
In kikubamutwe as in most of Uganda, man and woman live together, start families, say they are married but they never satisfy the requirements of a valid marriage, either traditionally, religiously or legally as in the case of civil marriages. However they face the same issues as married people, they encounter the same joys and sorrows, and in essence they are married people. Just because the law does not recognize them does not take away the fact that they live in a union as husband and wife. The inadequacies of Ugandan law remain glaring following the rejection of the Marriage and Divorce Bill that sought to recognize cohabiters as legally married individuals.
One woman asked, “what about us who are not “married”, how are we protected?” She asked this following a talk about equal ownership of property and the divorce laws that provides for equal division of property upon dissolution of a marriage.  Her concern was that women like her work all day, they wash clothes, wash dishes, nurse babies, do the entire domestic work but they are never paid, and they never ask for any payment. What disheartened her was that after supporting a man for so long, enabling him to concentrate on his waged job, to build an empire, in case the marriage fails, she walks away with nothing.
At that point I was lost for words. The whole day we had discussed the challenges that the community members have, women complained about being beaten by their husbands, men complained about women who bounty hunt in marriages and run away with everything, and we told them that there are laws such as the Domestic Violence Act, the Penal Code with all crimes such as theft and assault codified. Unfortunately I had no answer to her question because technically Ugandan law does not protect such women and men. It doesn’t.
Society hates feminists especially African feminists. It is always said to us that we advance western values at the expense of African culture. I once listened to Ngozi Chimamanda Adichie on TED talk and she said that we are all feminists. This woman in Kikubamutwe who barely speaks English, who has no PHD in Gender studies, voiced an issue that has for long been rejected as western. Cohabitation needs to be respected as a marriage.
The institution of marriage has been greatly abused especially by the patriarchs to the extent of denying protection to the unmarried under the law. You tell me, what is marriage? Is it being wed in a church or a mosque or going through a traditional ceremony or even a visit to the civil registrar of marriages?
I think marriage is a union of love, companionship and it ought to be respected whether or not there has been a wedding. Where the law has no answers for us, I learnt that love, respect and communication do. If men and women can respect each other as fellow human beings then we have a solution to all marital concerns. The importance of an appreciation of gender equality cannot be overemphasized. It is a requisite for the sustenance of family life. Regardless of who does the domestic work and who earns from the work they do, the property obtained during the sustenance of a marriage should belong to both parties. That is why it is a union.

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