Human Rights Group Challenges Uganda’s Polygamy Laws

By Caitlin Shay

Ugandan women in traditional dress line up at a relative's wedding. By sarahemcc

The women’s rights organization MIFUMI filed a petition at the Ugandan Constitutional Court on January 28, 2010, asking the court to outlaw polygamy. MIFUMI claims that polygamy violates equality between men and women and leads to violence, abandonment, neglect, and an increased risk of HIV and AIDS. In answer to the petition, the Attorney General filed a response, arguing that polygamy is protected under Article 37 of the Constitution of the Republic of Uganda, which protects the right to culture, tradition, and religion.

Current polygamy laws in Uganda apply to people differently because Uganda recognizes four types of marriage: customary, church and civil, Muslim, and Hindu. Section 12 of the Customary Marriages Registration Act and Section 2 of the Mohammedans Act validate polygamy. In contrast, Section 42 of the Marriage Act states that a person who knowingly enters into a marriage with someone who is already married commits an offense punishable with a maximum five-year prison sentence.

MIFUMI contends that polygamy is the most significant factor perpetuating violence against women and children. Patriarchal hierarchy in polygamous unions often creates familial unrest and fighting, which leads to violence when men attempt to dominate and control their wives. Additionally, because husbands may divide property and assets unequally, there can be intense competition between wives. For example, on February 18, 2010, one woman stabbed and killed her fellow wife in a domestic dispute over fetching water.

The Domestic Relations Bill Coalition (DRBC) is a group of over forty women’s and human rights organizations that have advocated for a uniform domestic relations law that conforms with the constitutional right to gender equality. In a 2003 report, DRBC noted that children often suffer from neglect and abandonment in polygamous families. Since each wife often has her own house and the husband rotates to each house on different days, many children do not receive regular attention from their fathers and are not able to live with them. These effects of the polygamous system violate Article 34(1) of the Constitution, which gives children the right “to know and be cared for by” their fathers, and the African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child, which stipulates the child’s right to reside with her father and not to be separated from him against the child’s will.

The group also argues that polygamy contributes to the spread of HIV/AIDS, violating the constitutional protection to health. Each time a man adds a new wife to his family, all his wives are exposed to an increased risk of contracting HIV. Additionally, men sometimes inherit widows from other men or a relative who died from AIDS, making the spread of infection even more likely.

In response to allegations that polygamy violates Sections 33(4) and (6) of the Constitution, which prohibit any laws, traditions, or customs that violate women’s rights and protections that are equal to those of men, the Attorney General claims that polygamy is protected by Section 27 of the Constitution. Section 27 guarantees a person’s right to culture, and since women can freely choose what type of marriage to enter, he argues that the current legal system protects the right to culture and religion, while respecting a woman’s right to elect the type of marriage she wishes.

MIFUMI claims that the Attorney General’s position, that outlawing polygamy interferes with cultural rights, is unfounded. While culture is important, it cannot be used to oppress women or deny them equality within marriage. Additionally, polygamy violates equal protection because women cannot marry more than one man. Because polygamy does not afford equal protection and Section 33 of the Constitution says that customs that violate equal protection are illegal, the Constitutional Court should take advantage of the opportunity to clarify the nation’s laws and to declare polygamy unconstitutional.

Comments

  1. I think the issue is not about polygamy because women need happiness and if they can find happiness in polygamous marriages,then that is OK.My choice is not your choice so why should you give a general judgement to what does not affect you.I am in a polygamous marriage but i am happier than when I was in a monogamous relationship.Women ‘s Challenges are diverse and we can not give a single solution.For example what can you tell a woman who is married but the relatives of the man don’t want her?What can you tell a woman whose husband is impotent or does not erect?Should she die in such a relationship?What will you tell a woman who is the bread winner and all the family responsibility is on her?I think what we need here is to promote the rights of everyone because there are women who are trouble makers too but they want a man to endure in such a relationship.

    Secondly,polygamy exists in many forms.one is a man can have one woman and later separates and marries another one.The only difference is he is not staying with both of them but he has ever lived with all of them.Secondly,a man can have one woman in the house but several girl friends.Thirdly one can have several women but may decide not to officially stay with any.You see how complicated it can be.Lets tackle issues that are general but not specific because at the end we will cause more problems.If you are lucky to have a single man,then thank your God because you never know what can happen the next day.

    I work with community and women have not expressed this as a need.Not at all.Let ‘s economically empower women than talking about polygamy.Women have entered into them innocently as they are lied by men that they are not married after some years you get to find out that they are.So what will you do?

  2. avatar crichards says:

    My concern about polygamy regards the help and support metered out by NGOs and support groups. Should these groups develop a policy to either only help men with one wife or even only single women/mothers?
    Any support given to a polygamist, in my mind, will only allow him to continue making money and marrying more women and having more children. All of this does not help to improve the lifestyles of the children or women involved. I have heard little to persuade me that polygamists are genuinely interested in the education and well being of the many children they bring into this world.
    Any thoughts?

  3. avatar Anna Jagelewski says:

    I think that polygamy is a very complicated issue. Although polygamy may certainly be oppressive to women and associated with a number of crimes against women, I’m not sure that declaring it unconstitutional is the answer. Many relationships between consenting adults are oppressive to the women in them, are based on unequal power differentials, and lead to violence against women. Yet governments do not interfere with them because privacy and autonomy are also important human rights. Why should polygamous relationships between consenting adults be different from any other relationship that may be harmful, even fatal, for one of the parties? I think that a better approach would be to address the harms associated with polygamy rather than the relationship itself. I believe that declaring polygamy unconstitutional sets a bad precedent for other relationships and family structures. This is all also complicated by the fact that some women have positive feelings about their polygamous relationships. It seems to me that there must be a way to respect their autonomy in being able to choose such a family. I’m wondering what others think about this issue? I’ve had a lot of difficulty with it over the years.

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