Open letter to MP Sarah Opendi

A mini survey conducted by Daily Monitor indicates that cohabiting is the fastest-growing family type in Mbarara. Photo/istockphoto

What you need to know:

At the heart of this issue lies the assumption that individuals who cohabit for any duration inherently harbor the desire to marry. However, this presumption not only troubles me personally, but it also raises legitimate legal doubts

Dear Hon Sarah Opendi, ment to serving the Ugandan government and its citizens, I respectfully urge you to reconsider the provision that mandates the automatic transformation of cohabiting individuals into a legal couple after a brief six-month period. This particular clause raises substantial questions and necessitates careful re-evaluation. At the heart of this issue lies the assumption that individuals who cohabit for any duration inherently harbor the desire to marry. However, this presumption not only troubles me personally, but it also raises legitimate legal doubts. Moreover, enforcing marriage upon individuals who do not hold such intentions is disconcerting. By incorporating this clause into the Marriage Bill, there is a risk of infringing upon people’s constitutional right to marry based on voluntary and unforced consent. It is crucial to acknowledge that a valid marriage can only be established when both parties willingly give their consent. Thus, the proposed law undermines the essence of marriage and potentially violates the constitutional rights of those involved.

Furthermore, the automatic conversion of cohabitation into marriage fails to consider the autonomy and aspirations of the individuals concerned. It assumes that merely living together for a set period inherently signifies a shared desire for marriage—a presumption that may not always hold true.

Relationships are complex, and their dynamics can vary significantly. It is imperative to recognize that some couples may choose to live together without any intention of pursuing marriage. Neglecting this possibility is a significant oversight.

For example, let us consider the scenario of two individuals openly declaring themselves as content cohabiting partners without any desire to formalize their relationship through marriage.  Under the proposed law, the government would effectively be compelling university student couples who live in the same hostel to marry. It is worth noting that the current marriage law mandates parental or guardian consent for individuals below the age of 21.

However, the proposed law assumes consent on behalf of these individuals, effectively diminishing parental responsibility and placing it solely in the hands of the government. This coercive approach could force individuals into commitments they are unprepared for, disregarding their personal readiness and aspirations. Marriage entails financial responsibilities, inheritance rights, and legal recognition of the partnership for various purposes. Automatically converting cohabitation into marriage without the explicit consent of the couple could result in unintended legal consequences. Financial obligations or the division of assets may arise, imposing burdens on individuals who may not be prepared or willing to undertake such responsibilities.

Moreover, it may give rise to complex legal issues and potential conflicts. Determining the start and end of cohabitation, establishing consent between parties, and resolving disputes arising from the automatic conversion to marriage could place an overwhelming burden on the legal system, leading to administrative difficulties.

Instead, it is crucial to explore alternative legal frameworks that provide acknowledgment and protection for cohabiting couples. Domestic partnership legislation or contractual agreements, for example, would allow couples to actively choose legal rights and obligations based on their mutual consent and goals.

It is essential to recognise that financial constraints are often a primary reason for cohabitation. However, couples may have diverse motivations for choosing to live together, including short-term relationships unrelated to financial considerations. Forcing all cohabiting couples into marriage would undoubtedly result in conflicting responses and discontent. It is advisable to consider tailored solutions that cater to the needs and aspirations of all parties involved, rather than adopting a one-size-fits-all approach. I would like to draw your attention to the longstanding pauper suit remedy and the recent judicial innovation of small claim cases. The judiciary introduced small claims processes to facilitate access to justice for individuals of all financial backgrounds. These procedures have proven to be highly efficient, affordable, and expeditious. Consider implementing a similar approach for “small claims marriages” that accommodates individuals who find traditional wedding ceremonies financially burdensome. Provide people with options, but do not pressure them into marriage. Once presented with alternatives, parties can choose the option that suits them best, thus addressing the perceived concerns surrounding cohabitation and ensuring satisfaction for all involved.

The importance of avoiding the creation of unhappy marriages that no one enters into willingly. While I understand that you may have sincere intentions to preserve cultural values, it is crucial to approach this matter with sensitivity and careful consideration. I hope that this article sheds light on the concerns surrounding the proposed cohabitation law and encourages further discussion and exploration of alternative solutions.

Seyiga Abdullswabul, [email protected]