Thousands of couples in illegal marriages without knowing

Thursday December 12 2019

On the hook. A couple makes vows in church.

On the hook. A couple makes vows in church. Thousands of matrimonial marriages were solemnised in unlicensed churches. Photo by Kelvin Atuhaire 

By Patience Ahimbisibwe

Religious leaders are in talks with government to defuse a national crisis after realising millions of matrimonial marriages were solemnised in unlicensed churches and majority of couples did not seek a registrar’s certificate of notice before their marriages as the law requires.

Data obtained from Uganda Registration Services Bureau (URSB) indicates that as of August, at least 2,995 churches had been licensed and authorised to celebrate or solemnise marriages.

However, closer scrutiny of the list indicates that majority of churches, which recently acquired their licences, had been wedding couples before they acquired the licenses, which makes those marriages illegal and a nullity in law.

In addition, sources at URSB who declined to be named, said more than 1,300 churches with licences conducted marriages before they obtained the licences.

The sources added that many other marriages are unreported because their churches have never registered them with URSB.

The 1904 Marriage Act states that “a marriage shall be null and void if both parties knowingly and wilfully acquiesce in its celebration in a place that is not licensed or the parties are without the registrar’s certificate of notice or minister’s notice duly issued.”


Mr Joshua Kitakule, the Inter-Religious Council secretary general, yesterday admitted that unless some clauses of the 1904 marriage law are withdrawn, unknown number of marriages, probably majority in the country, fall short of the legal requirements which religious leaders are working with government to rectify.

An earlier meeting scheduled this week was postponed to next month after the council chairperson travelled.

On the agenda was a discussion on how to formalise or solemnise retrospectively the marriages which were conducted in the churches before they acquired licences.

“The status is to petition court so that we do away with those phrases because the marriages were conducted without knowing. There were marriages conducted in unlicensed churches. They are so many. But the registrar also needs to be on notice and issue a certificate of marriage. Most marriages whether they were conducted in licensed or not licensed churches don’t have the registrar’s certificate. This means all of them are null and void,” Mr Kitakule said.

“We have to work with URSB and see how we work with court to remove some of those clauses. It is then for the court to declare. There was a lot of ignorance. We don’t want to apportion blame. We want to see how we can work with government to find amicable way to solve it. It is affecting many people even those in government. You are only safe when you don’t have a disagreement in your marriage. But when problems come up, you wish you had followed it up when you were still in love,” he added.

Mr Vincent Katutsi, the URSB director for Civil Registration, told Daily Monitor that many marriages are illegal either because they never notified the registrar of their intended marriage or they went to unlicensed churches.

He said URSB has advised the church leadership on the available options to salvage the affected marriages.

Mr Katutsi, said for example, that while the law provides that a marriage must be conducted in a licensed church, it also indicates that the parties involved must be in the know.

In such a case, the church can use this provision to seek a declaration from court to validate the marriages, arguing that they were conducted without their knowledge that the churches were not licensed.

“It is quite a sensitive matter both for the marriage institutions but also for the church who are the primary players. The law requires that every church that celebrates a marriage should be licensed. If you celebrate a marriage in unlicensed church that marriage is null and void. And that is the fate that many marriages have suffered today,” Mr Katutsi said.

“It is not our part to say that they did it knowingly or not. That is for court to pronounce. We are working closely with the Inter-Religious Council to see how we can handle that issue. They should go to court basing on Section 34 of the Marriage Act that presupposes that you must have done it unknowingly and seek to validate such marriages.”

According to Mr Katutsi, they have written to the Solicitor General seeking a review of the law.

“A law of 1904 governing activities of 2019 is unfair. It is obviously an obsolete legislation. There are certain things which don’t make sense today which probably made sense then. Churches came up not knowing this law and began operating. That is how many of these fell into the cracks and they are many including Catholics, Anglicans and many Pentecostals. As a registrar of marriages, it is a challenge to receive marriages from a church which was not licensed,” Mr Katutsi added.

However, he said there are some churches which were licensed but have since changed their names without updating the URSB’s register and asked that they submit their records to reconcile them with theirs.

“The law is going to bite. A new born does not know. But whoever lives today and is above 10 years old has knowledge. The church is fully aware. We have talked through the structures. We have talked to the house of bishops, the Episcopal Conference and the Inter-Religious Council. Today, you cannot feign ignorance,” Mr Katutsi said.

According to the URSB official, there will come a time when partners who want to claim their deceased’s assets, pension and NSSF benefits must prove that they were legally married.

“You know banks are losing money because of people who go on the streets and pick girls and present them as their wives and consent to giving in a house as security for a loan. When banks reach home at a time of recovery, they find a different woman. We are telling banks not to waste time. If someone comes and wants to take matrimonial property loan, write to us. Public Service will also be asking for proof if someone is seeking benefits for his deceased husband or wife,” Mr Katutsi said.