Womens' Rights on Agenda

Article excerpt

Ugandan women are eagerly awaiting the start of a parliamentary debate in February 1999 on a controversial Bill aimed at ensuring women equality and justice in marriage - and divorce - after ironing out differences over the issue of polygamy.

While most women's and rights groups would like to see the Domestic Relations Bill enacted without delay, its course so far has been chequered. Many public meetings to discuss it were initially dominated and nearly derailed - by religious groups protesting the Bill's early attempt to limit men to two wives. Currently, there is no limit on the number of wives in customary marriages. And Muslim men can take up to four wives.

There is little doubt that such legal measures are sorely needed. Coercive sexual demands expose women to unwanted pregnancies and sexually transmitted diseases, including HIV infection - the virus which causes AIDS. An estimated 900,000 Ugandan women have died from AIDS so far - the vast majority were monogamous wives infected by their husbands.

In addition, a mix of culture, tradition and lack of education confines most Ugandan women to the home and bars them from adequately paid employment should marriages break down. Although women are entitled to Ugshs2,000 ($2) per month per child in maintenance, it does not go far - and few receive it. "Women don't have access to resources to support themselves on their own," said Stella Mukasa of the Ministry of Gender and Community Development. "For most women, if their husbands were to leave them it would spell doom."

The Bill could offer a legal lifeline for women at risk, allowing them to seek separation or divorce knowing they will no longer lose their homes and belongings, face economic destitution, even the loss of their children. Ugandan human rights groups and women's organisations have been calling for such legislation since 1963.

Although the proposed legislation will not criminalise marital rape and domestic violence - plans are afoot to introduce a separate Domestic Violence Bill in 1999 - it mandates that sexual relations must be consensual and not forced. In other words, women will have the right to refuse sex if it endangers their health.

The proposed law also confronts traditions such as early marriage and bride price - where a prospective husband pays his future wife's family a large sum of money - in addition to polygamy, which many campaigners believe contribute to women's low status and ill treatment. …