Betty Amongi clears the air on the Marriage Bill
Posted Saturday, March 23 2013 at 00:00
Betty Amongi Ongom, the Woman Member of Parliament for Apac District, is also the chairperson, Uganda Women’s Parliamentary Association, and a woman activist, who has been Parliament’s face behind the contentious Marriage and Divorce Bill. She sits down with Ivan Okuda to elaborate on some of the issues in the Bill.
In a few words, what is the Marriage and Divorce Bill exactly about?
The Bill is a consolidation of the marriage act and divorce acts, which have been in existence for some time now. It seeks to bring harmony to the home, ensure partners fulfill their responsibilities and safeguard property for both men and women. This is a government Bill for which research has been done since 1962, so, it is not a women activists’ or even private members’ Bill as some people are claiming.
The bill proposes that divorce can only be possible after at least two years in marriage. As a woman and women representative, do you find this practical and fair?
Let me make this clear first. Divorce is provided for where partners fail to consummate (make love) in marriage from six months to two years, or a partner is impotent. Even in the Bible, divorce can be premised on impotence, so, there is nothing strange we are proposing. The other ground is extreme harassment and hardships, which can be determined by the courts of law. All in all, the Bill makes divorce the last option.
The same Bible you are quoting clearly states that what God has put together, no man should separate. Where do you accommodate divorce in a Christian setting?
Yes, but you see, if you are a true Christian, you actually do not need this Bill because you will stick to your marriage vows and have no reason for divorce. The Bill caters for scenarios of last options, so, it does not contradict the Bible.
Let us talk about the cohabitation clause. Ugandans think legislators want to formalise cohabitation and they have moral and cultural issues with that…
I have also heard about the misconception that the Bill is pushing for recognition of cohabitation as a form of marriage. This is wrong! What the Bill proposes is the right to share property once you have made 10 years in cohabitation. However, voices coming from religious and cultural circles, as you put it, argue that cohabitation is not a defined form of marriage, so, we should not be talking about the right to share property. We have taken their thoughts into consideration and resolved to delete that proposal so you can be sure the final text will not have it.
There is fear that this Bill is intended to fight men, and it does not help that most faces behind it are women activists. Does it accommodate the men’s interests anywhere?
Oh yes! One of the most contentious issues it handles is that of property sharing, which the men should welcome with open arms. It caters for separate property which you acquire before marriage, so, it remains yours alone and also the inherited property which is not tied to the marriage bond. That remains only yours and is not subject to sharing with your partner. This bit will protect rural men who possess inherited property or wish to have property registered in only their names. It is only property in the household that is to be shared.
Then why don’t you scrap off property sharing all together? I mean, what if the man is the one who acquired it all?
(Prolonged laughter) But it is the woman who has been maintaining the property so she deserves a share of it.
That sounds feminist. But anyway, is it true that the Bill is empowering women to deny men sex once they think they are not ready?
That bit is the one rubbing most men the wrong way! Most men want us to leave the issue of conjugal rights to the bedroom. The Bill says the wife can deny a man sex if she has reasonable fear that it will cause her mental or physical harm and if she is in poor health. Men insist those are bedroom matters, which must be dealt with internally not legislatively. We have listened to them and will consider their views.
From a woman’s perspective, what is your take on the bride price aspect of the Bill, especially where it seeks to make it optional and non-refundable?
That should be good news both to the man and woman. You know this bride price thing has for long tied the woman to the man to the extent that men harass their wives because they know even if she runs away, he will retrieve his cows. We are saying this must stop, once you give bride price, chapter closed. I think this will strengthen the marriage institution and make men more responsible.
Are you not crossing the red line in regard to the traditionalists?
Yes, but this Bill is out to protect the woman and marriage institution.
Can you briefly comment on polygamy as provided for in this legislation?
The Bill protects the rights and interests of the woman by mandating the man to first divide the property equally with her before marrying a second woman. If he marries the third one, he has to divide it again with wife number two and the circle goes on. The Muslims are catered for in another section we are working on.
How practicable is that and are you not squeezing the men too hard?
But why should the woman partake the sweat of another woman? I don’t even see implementation challenges because our society already has ways of dealing with these issues so the Bill is only coming in to formalise these.