How many ladies of the house? Polygamy: A government group is trying to limit the number of wives Ugandan men can take. The move is prompting some unusual criticisms.

Sun Journal

March 06, 1998|By Scott Straus | Scott Straus,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

KAMPALA, Uganda -- Grace Nerima, a 30-year-old mother of four, suspected trouble when her husband stopped wanting to have sex with her. Soon he started picking fights with her over inconsequential matters. Finally he admitted that he had a girlfriend -- and wanted to take her on as his second wife.

Polygamy is common in Uganda, as it is in many African countries. Estimates vary, but somewhere between 40 percent and 50 percent of married Ugandan women share their husbands with at least one "co-wife," and sometimes as many as three. Still, Nerima objected to her husband's plans.

"I said I didn't like it," she says, balancing her daughter on her hip. "That's when he abandoned me completely."

Thrown out of her house, she is supporting two of her children on her own. The other two she sent to her husband, who has since married a second time, but he refuses to care for them.

Because of Nerima's story and others of women whose husbands have taken on second, third or fourth wives, a government commission decided this winter to try to restrict polygamy, though not outlaw it.

The Uganda Law Reform Commission published a draft bill that officials thought would be an acceptable compromise: They proposed to limit a man's wives to two and to require men to prove that they have the resources to support two wives if they choose to marry twice.

The proposed polygamy rules were part of a larger reform package that creates a standard marriage law in Uganda, which currently cobbles together rules from English common law and traditional customs.

The intention of the proposed polygamy rules was to "ameliorate the position of ordinary women," says Justice Harold Platt, the head of the Uganda Law Reform Commission.

Even if the practice of polygamy continues, he says, men will be legally responsible for caring for and supporting their wives and their children. In theory, then, wives like Nerima would have some insurance against being abandoned if their husbands marry again.

But instead of being hailed as a step forward for Uganda, the proposed restrictions on polygamy have sparked a bitter controversy.

Leading the charge against the draft bill is Uganda's small but vociferous Muslim community. Islamic law allows men to take as many as four wives. Muslim leaders claim that any attempt to change the rights enshrined in the Koran would breach their freedom of religion. Some see the bill as part of a larger Christian conspiracy.

But, in fact, some Christian men oppose the bill, too -- not openly, according to Barbara Kaija, an editor of the state-owned New Vision newspaper. "They don't want to be restricted," she ** says. "They want to keep their options open. The whole thing is just disgusting.`

Muslims make up a little more than 10 percent of Uganda's 21 million people, and some, at least, seem defensive about their minority status.

"There is a master plan to impose Christian values on Ugandan society," says Abasi Kiyimba, a leading Muslim opponent of the draft bill and the head of the literature department at Uganda's Makerere University.

"The laws of Islam do not aim at suppressing the nature of men," Kiyimba says. "Experience has shown that more men than women have the urge or desire for another partner. Any attempt to police that desire will be broken. We don't want that. We don't want to regulate sexual arrangements.`

The intensity of the Muslim protest -- Kiyimba has issued a tract against the bill, religious leaders have used Muslim holy days to galvanize opposition, and Muslims have flooded the local press with angry letters -- has caught the Uganda Law Reform Commission a bit off guard.

Justice Platt says that opposition has been so strong that the commission is recommending a reform bill that scraps the two-wife restriction. "It has proven untenable," he says. "The key issue is, to what extent do freedom of religion and emancipation of women go hand in hand?"

That is not the point, says Miria Matembe, a fiery member of parliament and a leading advocate of women's rights in Uganda. She says that every time questions of gender equality surface in Uganda, men use "culture" and "religion" to avoid the issue. She calls the claim that restricting polygamy violates Islam a "blackmail" meant to intimidate the commission.

In fact, for Matembe the bill did not go far enough in its original form. If men have the right to marry two wives, she says, then women should have the right to marry two husbands. She is threatening to block the bill in parliament on the grounds that it violates a section of the constitution guaranteeing women's equality in Uganda.

"If we are going to legislate for men's immorality then let's legislate for women's immorality, too," says Matembe. "Let's say any spouse can take on another spouse, and not any man can take on another wife. Then let's watch this country explode!"

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