In Uganda, conservative civil society is becoming more influential. In a recent and notable example of this trend, conservative groups joined forces to defeat a proposed law to accord equitable rights to women over marriage and divorce. Their campaign was striking because Christian and Muslims united against the bill. Politicians from different parties in parliament united as well, and even some women legislators opposed the law. The defeat left Uganda’s women’s movement and allies shell-shocked, as they seek to overcome yet another setback in a nearly five-decade struggle for gender equality. This specific example of conservative civil society’s rising influence demonstrates several key lessons that are of broader relevance for civic activism.
Efforts to liberalize Uganda’s marriage laws go back many decades. Conservatives have mobilized against each successive iteration. In 2013, a multi-actor conservative movement defeated what was then called the Marriage and Divorce Bill. Now, the bill has been reintroduced in parliament as the Marriage Bill. The proposals have been watered down in an effort to get some conservative groups on board.
The New Proposals
The stated objective of the Marriage and Divorce Bill was to reform and consolidate the laws governing marriage, providing for different types of marriages, marital rights, and duties arising from marriage. It covered a range of issues, including prohibiting marriage before the age of 18, prohibiting same-sex marriages, banning widow inheritance (the cultural practice in which a man may “inherit” the wife of a deceased male relative) without the free consent of the widow, in addition to stipulating acceptable grounds for divorce. The bill also appeared to undercut the customary payment of a bride price as the first step toward marriage, making bride price optional and outlawing the practice of returning marriage gifts upon the dissolution of the marriage. It introduced other significant areas of legal reform, including property rights in marriage and cohabiting relationships, along with the concept of the irretrievable breakdown of marriage being the sole ground for a divorce petition (as opposed to requiring one petitioner to prove a matrimonial offense such as adultery, cruelty, or desertion).
Conservative civil society groups opposed most of these measures. They were not hostile merely to the specifics of the bill but also to its broader social ramifications. The Marriage and Divorce Bill was fundamentally about dignity, justice, and equality before, during, and after marriage. Consequently, it was also seen as a wider attack against patriarchy, which is still dominant in Uganda. The bill reflected a societal evolution that would affect traditionally held conservative values, institutions, and monopolies. This shift posed a threat to institutions that consider themselves to be custodians of tradition and culture, causing anxiety in some sections of these institutions over what their role would be if Ugandan law challenged some of the strongly guarded doctrines that accord them power and privileges.
A Conservative Alliance
The three major groups in the conservative alliance against the Marriage and Divorce Bill were religious institutions, traditionalists, and supporters of the patriarchy. The Mother’s Union also held a conservative view but were not as active in the mobilization against the bill. The religious institutions—including Catholic, Protestant, and Muslim groups, their attendant constituencies, such as archdioceses around the country, and affiliated organizations, such as the Uganda Joint Christian Council and the Inter-Religious Council of Uganda—had major concerns centered around religious doctrines and beliefs on issues such as divorce and cohabitation. The traditionalists comprised cultural institutions and ethnic groupings who sought to maintain their relevance by defending cultural and social values. Their major concerns regarded cohabitation clauses, property rights, and the return of bride price after a failed marriage. Finally, the third group contained male chauvinistic and patriarchal individuals who were most concerned about women gaining property rights in formal marriages, cohabitation, and matters relating to conjugal rights. These relatively unstructured groups were led by mostly male members of parliament who reinforced patriarchal views at constituent and national levels.
Religious conservatives: Strong religious objections to the legislation came from Christians who drew on biblical teachings to vehemently oppose the clauses on cohabitation and divorce. Muslim leaders likewise drew upon the Quran to support their arguments. Opponents of the cohabitation clause justified their antipathy toward the practice by quoting the injunctions of religious texts as a principal rationale. They argued that cohabitation is morally wrong. Some members of parliament likened cohabitation to outright prostitution and declared they would never support laws that encourage children to go against “church laws.”1
Traditionalists: To justify their opposition to the Marriage and Divorce Bill, some conservative groups argued for the need to protect traditional social values by upholding family unity and stability. Traditionalists opposed the practice of cohabitation and the idea of abolishing the return of bride price, which they consider one of the most important cultural mechanisms to confirm that a marriage had been dissolved. They also argued that the practice of widow inheritance was an important avenue through which women were protected and guaranteed care following the death of a husband. Traditionalists also agreed with Muslim religious conservatives that the proposed legislation should not cover polygamous marriages, which are still common in Uganda.
Patriarchy: Beyond the religious and traditional justifications that resonated with the diverse following of different groups, conservatives essentially feared losing power and privileges. For male chauvinists, it was inconceivable that a woman would be able to claim a legal right to matrimonial property, have a say regarding the next woman to join a polygamous marriage, or have a stake in co-owning property even though they came empty-handed into their union. The patriarchal notion that women come into marriage without any property and should receive nothing if they leave it was the epitome of abuse to the value women bring to marriages and the failure by society to recognize the immense contribution women make.
Fundamentally, the resistance and rejection of the Marriage and Divorce Bill was ultimately about protecting self and group interests, power, and privileges. For religious- and tradition-based conservatives, their custodianship of certain social norms and widely held doctrines were under threat.
The conservative alliance against gender equality and justice deployed diverse tools to influence public discourse and give the impression that the proposed legislation was unpopular. These tactics included propaganda, deliberate distortions and misinformation, bribery, and, in some cases, threats about society’s disintegration.
The first and perhaps most widely used tactic to delegitimize the Marriage and Divorce Bill was conservative propaganda about the intentions behind it. It was presented as anti-African and elitist, a view remarkably contained in a letter that the president himself wrote to parliament, criticizing legislation that originated from his own government. He allegedly told the ruling party’s parliamentary caucus that “the white man can come in the country to do politics, but we shall not allow them to distort culture.”2 This claim resonated with other critics who claimed that the bill was being promoted and funded by Westerners and that the whole agenda was against African culture and “seen as an unnecessary introduction of alien white man cultures to further distill their already eroding cultures and customs.”3 The men and women behind the legislation were accused of being gay or lesbians, and promoting homosexuality. This curiously implied that the bill’s drafters—the government of Uganda—were themselves agents of these “perverted ways of the West”!4
Similarly, an Anglican bishop authoritatively claimed that the proposed legislation was being promoted by a group of women whose marriages had failed. The bishop asserted the bill should be rejected, describing it as an effort by prostitutes to spoil the institution of marriage so that everyone would become a prostitute: “As a Church, we have learnt that this debate is being engineered by some women who have failed to stay in marriage and [are] surviving [as] prostitutes. Now they want to use that Bill so that many couples will join them in prostitution.”5 He added that there is no divorce in the Bible and that Uganda had more important issues to deal with: “There are a lot of issues affecting development in the country which the [members of parliament] should focus on and debate how to improve them instead of wasting time to debate issues of divorces.”6
Second, some conservatives deliberately misinformed or distorted the essence of the legislation. For instance, they suggested that the widely used concept of marital rape would give women license to deny their husbands’ “conjugal rights” and grounds to sue if the men insisted on having sex—even though this was not proposed in the Marriage and Divorce Bill. These legislators did not bother to explain the circumstances under which conjugal rights could be denied in marriage or other unions as provided for in the bill, including poor health, surgery, childbirth, or “reasonable fear that engaging in sexual intercourse is likely to cause physical or psychological injury or harm.”7
Finally, conservative groups used patronage against the bill. In Uganda, it has become something of a norm to bribe members of parliament to pass or oppose legislation or support the preferred positions of the president. The executive previously has advanced money to members of parliament to pass unpopular legislative reforms such as the removal of presidential term limits in 2005 and the removal of the age limit to be president in Uganda from the constitution in 2017. In this instance, members of parliament were given 5 million Ugandan shillings to go out and talk with communities about the Marriage and Divorce Bill. However, they did not genuinely consult their electorate. Some held rallies and openly told their electorate that they opposed the bill because it would erode men’s integrity; others used the money to support savings and credit groups in their constituencies in open contravention of the intended purpose of the funds. This practice further affirmed the view that the bill was a waste of time and that other issues, in this case the economic empowerment of rural communities, were more important.
Conclusions and Lessons
It is difficult to assess the strength or effectiveness of conservative civil society in Uganda unless the analysis is applied to a specific process, such as the Marriage and Divorce Bill. In this case, one can argue that it was quite effective compared to the human rights community that sought wide-ranging reforms to existing practices. Beyond traditional conservative civil society—comprising religious, traditional and cultural institutions, and affiliated groups—other groups bent on maintaining their power and privilege emerged or were activated by conservative forces. Emergent groups like these are often temporary—they greatly bolster the strength of typical conservative civil society but quickly wither once their patrons withdraw money.
Uganda now faces the prospect of a conservative alliance that easily regroups each time a new iteration of the proposed family legislation is brought to parliament. They can continue to block efforts to address deep-rooted historical injustices against women. The convergence of interests between groups that do not ordinarily agree on other issues has wider significance for conservative civil society in Uganda. On their own, and in isolation, the groups that formed the conservative alliance would probably not have succeeded in shaping what was considered a populist public rejection of the bill. In a population that is not well informed on matters of legislation and is quite conservative—and therefore easily accepts propaganda about perceived social norms—it was not difficult to present such a bill as an affront to acceptable morals.
The women’s and human rights movements have not yet formed a similar progressive alliance. These movements will need to engage with conservative groups by drawing on areas of convergence, which could either entice conservatives to shift their positions or weaken their collective resolve. The importance of a robust media and communications strategy to counter propaganda and deliberate disinformation cannot be understated. It is important that both genders be mobilized to actively take part in the equality and justice movement, lest the struggle be stereotyped as women’s selfishness—a framing that is always likely to attract negative reactions in a deeply patriarchal society. Sometimes, it is important to make some tactical concessions without losing the focus of overall strategic intent.
1 “The ‘Cohabitation Clause’ in the Proposed Marriage and Divorce Bill: Why Proponents Are Probably on the Wrong Side of History,” SpookyNewsUG, March 28, 2013, https://spookynewsug.wordpress.com/2013/03/28/the-cohabitation-clause-in-the-proposed-marriage-and-divorce-bill-why-proponents-are-probably-on-the-wrong-side-of-history.
2 “Six Reasons Why the Marriage and Divorce Bill Collapsed,” SpookyNewsUG, April 12, 2013, https://spookynewsug.wordpress.com/2013/04/12/six-reasons-why-the-marriage-and-divorce-bill-collapsed.
4 See Arthur Larok, “A ‘Contaminated’ Discourse Reflecting a Larger Failure of Leadership: Reflections on the Marriage and Divorce Bill in Uganda,” ActionAid Uganda, 2013, http://www.actionaid.org/sites/files/actionaid/marriage_and_divorce_bill_brief.pdf.
5 Steven Ariong, “Ugandan Bishop Urges Parliament to Halt Debate on Divorce Bill,” London Evening Post, March 11, 2013, http://www.thelondoneveningpost.com/ugandan-bishop-urges-parliament-to-halt-debate-on-divorce-bill/.
7 “Facts in the Marriage Bill 2017,” Uganda Women’s Network, March 30, 2017, page 4, https://www.uwonet.or.ug/wpfb-file/facts-in-the-marriage-bill-2017-2017-pdf/.