I felt I should pen this piece, if only to extract and explore what I feel within ever since the latest debate on the Marriage Bill started. As one of the proponents, maybe I see through hazy (and some will say crazy) eyes. My journey started as a young lawyer, fresh out of law school. I went and gave my time and energy as a volunteer at the legal aid clinic of FIDA. Day after day, I heard story after story, one woman after another, telling some horror or other, that she or her children were experiencing at the hands of a man. And our job was mostly to try and mediate between the two parties to try and find an amicable solution, failing which, we would proceed to court, if our client had a solid enough case.
Apart from the clinic work, I also traversed this country, along with other women lawyers – teaching men and women their rights and responsibilities, explaining the family laws, land laws and the laws on inheritance. It was always sad to see the shocked faces of men and women who thought they were married, only to find out they were cohabiting. It was always sad to see the realization hit their faces, as they contended with the illegality of their union.
Throughout the Constitution making process, as we gathered views from women – along side the Ministry of Gender, women everywhere said that they wanted fairer family laws to address the issues and challenges they were facing. When our Constitution was finally promulgated, it contained an Article on family rights. We felt that gave us the necessary impetus to then push for law reform in the area of family laws. By 1999, the Law Reform Commission embarked on the project of reform of domestic relations, through country wide consultations. We took to the road again, and we too sought views from men and women far and wide.
Several versions of the then Domestic Relations Bill were drafted and redrafted. In the meantime, we also took several cases to the Constitutional Court, to address the discrimination and inconsistency in the laws. We filed petitions challenging the current Divorce Act, the adultery provisions in the penal code, the unfair succession clauses in the Succession Act, we challenged the discriminatory nature of bride price, we also challenged polygamy. We won all the cases except the one against polygamy which has not yet been heard due to lack of quorum on the bench. In the bride price case, while the practice was not outlawed, the refund of bride price was.
And so we went back to the drawing board. We lobbied Parliament, we lobbied the Law Reform Commission, the Ministry of Justice, the Ministry of Gender – anyone who would listen – to deal with reform of our marriage laws. Essentially, our fight was that justice would prevail in the most basic, yet most important unit of society – the family. Along the way we won some gains – like the Domestic Violence Act, which for once named and shamed the heinous violence that goes on in our homes. We also worked with children rights organizations to ensure clear provisions on maintenance of children by both parents, since most of the clients we saw in our clinics were those that had been abandoned by their fathers. We also worked hand on hand with Women MPs to include protections of women’s land rights in our land laws – especially the right to co-own family land. We did all this work and still we waited for the reform of our marriage laws.
And now the moment is here – and for crusading for justice, I have been called a feminist who is anti marriage, anti family, a homosexual promoting abortionist. I have felt the hatred spewed in the public places – the bars, the radios and even the churches. I have confronted up close and personal, the underbelly of the beast called patriarchy – in all it’s ugliness. I have felt gagged and an endangered species for even daring to say that I support the bill. I have felt like running. I have felt like hiding, I have wished for this bad dream to be over.
But if I run and hide I would have betrayed my friend A. She lives in Entebbe. She has cohabited for almost 20 years. She has tried to persuade the man she calls her husband to marry her in church, but he won’t hear of it, or he dilly dallies. She has invested her all in the relationship, but she knows it is not a stable one. For her I must go on.
If I run and hide, I would have betrayed G, a young gentleman I met. He ran away from Karamoja, from his wife, who he was forced to marry when he was 16. His parents did not listen to his plea, that all he wanted to do was study. He did what was expected of him by his culture, and then he fled for his life, leaving a young child and wife. For him I must go on.
If I run and hide, I will have betrayed S, a young friend, who fresh from a C-Section, was taken back to hospital after a few days, with torn stitches, because her husband could not wait a few more weeks for her to heal. She was his and had to give in. After all, she had said her vows. For her, I must go on.
If I run and hide, I will have betrayed P, a young, beautiful lady, a client of mine, who came with a broken arm. Her husband broke her arm, she was scared of him. He had stopped her from working. Every day he locked their bedroom door and locked their gate, so she would not leave the house. This one day he forgot to lock the gate and she escaped to come to FIDA. I asked for a car to take her back to her house, before her husband came back. To this day, I wonder if P is alive. I don’t know. But for her, I must go on.
If I run and hide, I will have betrayed M, an elderly woman, who lives in Ntungamo, whom I met last year. She and her husband got married in church in 1968. Their marriage went sour in 2004, when the man took on a second wife. Her husband sought to dispossess her, but her daughters stood by her side. Yes, they forced their dad to give their mom land, but every time M grows some food, the man sends his cows into her garden to eat her food. For her, I must go on.
If I run and hide, I will have betrayed one other client who we fought hard for. Her marriage of 30 years went sour and her husband wanted his bride price back. Her parents were too old and too poor to pay it back, so the man organized for the removal of his parents in laws, iron sheets, so that he could sell them and get back part of his dowry. For her I must go on.
If I run and hide, I will have betrayed D, a caller on one of the radio stations where I am talk show panelist. She was in distress. For the ten years she has been married, she and her husband had worked hand in hand together to build whatever little fortune they had. She gave of her money, as did he, and together they bought some property. She trusted him to take care of the paper work. And now, when the marriage has turned sour, she recently found out that he had registered all their property in his mother’s name. She is at a loss of what to do. For her, I must go on.
For these and many more, – for my stories could fill endless pages, and I could go on for ages – for these, I must go on.
Yes I have told you the extremes, and indeed, not all marriages are like that. But for the those that are, they need the remedies that the law can provide. This is not to say our families, churches and wider society will not have a hand in trying to keep our marriages going, rather, it is to recognize, that even our best efforts sometimes fail, and when they do, we need the law.
And so, despite the weariness I feel, despite being vilified and misunderstood, I will take a stand to stand with those who fall under a heavy yoke. For them I will seek justice until my dying day. And that is my solemn vow.
By Jacqueline Asiimwe,
4th April, 2013