Meet Suzan. She fell in love with a man, they bought a house together and later a piece of land that he put in his name. Eventually, they started a business together. A few months later, he got a more secure government job, met another woman, left the country and got married to the other woman.
Now, Suzan’s only form of communication is through her former partner’s relatives, who tell her that he wants to take the children. If she loses custody, she could be evicted from the home that she helped build.
Under Ugandan law, Suzan has no rights because her relationship was one of cohabitation, not a legally recognised marriage. Suzan’s true story is typical of what many Ugandan women in these types of domestic relationships experience. According to government statistics, 30% of women in the country cohabit, which leaves many in precarious situations. Some end up homeless, some lose the right to see their children and some are left financially destitute, with little access to economic and business opportunities.
FIDA-UGANDA is an association of women’s lawyers which would like to see the law changed so that women in cohabiting relationships have equal access their property. This is crucial for women’s economic empowerment – without the ability to access and control their own economic assets, women cannot have economic autonomy or access credit. Founded in 1974, FIDA-Uganda has a long history of promoting socio-economic rights for women, which helps them to take a more active role in the country’s economy. One of the organisation’s key achievements was advocating for and helping to pass a reform to the inheritance law in the Ugandan Parliament in 2021. Cohabiting rights, however, is a conversation that remains stalled, and there are many influential figures – from religious leaders to politicians – who are satisfied with the status quo.
To mobilise more support from allies, FIDA Uganda launched a campaign to educate people about why it was important to protect cohabiting women, the effects of the current law on their ability to access economic opportunities and, ultimately, the negative impact on the Ugandan economy as a whole. The campaign is currently gaining momentum as one of Uganda’s women members of parliament proposed adding a clause to the MARRIAGE BILL 2022 to protect people in these unions.
As part of its ongoing investment in accompanying ACP countries to improve their legislative and regulatory support to create conducive business environments, the ICR Facility offered FIDA-Uganda TECHNICAL SUPPORT in spring 2023. The aim: to build capacity, enhance FIDA’s strategic partnerships, and train staff in advocacy. These initiatives would enable the organisation to take action and lobby the government and parliament for change, as well as build more campaign awareness – not only for the current campaign about women’s cohabitation rights, but for the association’s future work to support women’s economic empowerment.
As part of this project, the ICR Facility organised interviews with women who bravely told their stories. “The point of law is justice for all, and we do need justice for our lives,” said one cohabiting woman. “We don’t want to see a situation where not being married means that you opt out of legal protection,” says Elizabeth Kemigisha, an advocacy lead at FIDA-Uganda. She explains that 80% of their clients are unmarried women, with a majority of cases about cohabitation. In one district, for example, the percentage was 72% of all cases in 2020, 69% in 2021, and 76% in 2022. “This has a social and economic impact on the lives of women,” Elizabeth says. The legal process is also long and complicated, with women having to prove their contribution outside of financial earnings, such as childcare and domestic support.
Many women enter these cohabiting unions hoping to marry eventually, but in reality have limited agency and bargaining power in the patriarchal society. Marriage proposals and dowry arrangements as a rule are left to men to arrange through formal family visits, which can’t be forced. What’s more, property in Uganda is largely controlled by men and there can be many vested interests. THE WORLD BANK ESTIMATES that only 7% of Ugandan women own a house alone versus 40% of men.
The issue is complex because of social and cultural norms in the country. It also affects women across the class spectrum, and in both in rural and urban settings. No matter how they end up cohabiting, whether through choice or coercion, the goal is simply to offer them the same rights and legal protection as their married peers. “There are many ways in which families are formed,” Elizabeth observes, “and it’s imperative that parliament mirrors society.”
Debating through dialogue
To take the temperature on the issue, the ICR Facility used its expertise to mediate a ‘Stakeholders’ Dialogue’ between private and public stakeholders on 23 June 2023 in Kampala. It invited parliamentarians, public agencies, businesswomen associations, civil society, traditional and religious leaders, FIDA members, as well as a cross-section of women affected by the issue from both urban and rural areas. The meeting enabled a frank discussion and helped rally new allies to the campaign for a reform of the law, putting forward economic arguments that resonated with the audience and gave them a different perspective on the issue.
Technical consultant Laura Nyirinkindi has been working with FIDA-Uganda on behalf of the ICR Facility, to develop an advocacy strategy and map key stakeholders to engage with. She recognises that overnight change is unlikely and she’s expecting opposition, including from some women, but is hopeful that new allies can be found thanks to the campaign. The “frank” discussion during the ICR Stakeholders’ Dialogue, the consultant says, was useful to gain ideas about how to move forward with the transformation of the law.
In addition, staff have received advocacy training with the ICR Facility to increase their chances of success. “We are trying to educate the public on the issues … because sometimes a message gets distorted and you face the wrath of the population because they haven’t understood what you said,” explains Laura.
The messaging – developed in partnership with the ICR Facility – will go out via radio talk shows, TV appearances, social media, and through community outreach with FIDA-Uganda’s paralegals.
Economic realities for women
There has been much progress for women in Uganda, but it’s still a mixed picture. In 2021, 33% HELD NATIONAL PARLIAMENT SEATS. In 1997, it was only 18%. What’s more, 51% of women aged 15-49 said they made important decisions in the household in 2016. Yet the same statistics show that 46% of women in Uganda have experienced “intimate partner violence”, far higher than the estimated world average of 27%.
Issues such as cohabitation affect women’s economic empowerment because if they don’t have protection of their assets under the law, they face serious financial hardship and are left with no legal recourse to challenge these inequalities. Ultimately, this affects not only their individual financial situation but also their potential contribution to the Ugandan economy. ACCORDING TO 2022 ESTIMATES, 68% of women in Uganda, 15 and older, participate in the labour force.
Madinah, one of the women interviewed by FIDA-Uganda and the ICR Facility, explained how a man she spent 16 years with convinced her to sell a plot of land she owned, which he then used to set up lucrative rentals. He never gave her a penny and eventually married another woman. Her plea? That people in positions of power consider people like her.
Working with the ICR Facility and its partners, FIDA-Uganda will be in a better position to highlight key issues for women’s economic empowerment with policy-makers, even after the collaboration has finished. If enough decision-makers and lawmakers back a new clause in the law, then women like Madinah can get legal recognition, and this will lead to financial protection under the law, new economic perspectives and a renewed sense of hope.
The ICR Facility supported the production of this publication. It is co-funded by the European Union (EU), the Organisation of African, Caribbean and Pacific States (OACPS) under the 11th European Development Fund (EDF), the German Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ) and the British Council. The ICR Facility is implemented by GIZ, the British Council, Expertise France, and SNV. The contents of the publication are the sole responsibility of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the EU, OACPS, BMZ or of the implementing partners.