The Monitor (Kampala)

27 January 2007

Uganda: Is Your Marriage Legal?

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Thirty four-year-old businesswoman Nambi has been 'married' for three years. After a short courtship, her 'husband' had convinced her to move in with him.

"It will save costs and help us to start a family."

"We started living together and had two sons. We loved one another and the last thing on my mind was trying to formalise our relationship," she says.

Only recently, she was shocked to hear that another woman recently introduced her husband in a lavish ceremony.

But how? He was already 'married' for nearly three years! He had no right to get 'married' again, except that there was no proof of a marriage. A similar scenario featured in the marriage of Liberty Worship Centre International Pastor Imelda Namutebi Kula. Press reports revealed that Sam Kula was already married to another woman and had two children. Amid all this and the protests that ensued, Kula and Namutebi were wed at Rubaga Miracle Centre on February 14, 2003. So what exactly is marriage and when is it recognised?

Marriage in Uganda today boils down to something as simple as a woman and a man cohabiting. Of late, it has become difficult to differentiate between a formalised marriage and a relationship. The law only recognises three types of marriage. The Constitution of Uganda in its Rights of the family states that "A man and a woman are entitled to marry only if they are eighteen years old and above and are entitled at that age- to start a family and to equal rights at, and in marriage, during marriage and at it's dissolution."

Cultural marriage

If a marriage ceremony occurs according to any traditional marriage customs in the country, it is a cultural marriage. A legal expert from the ministry of Justice and Constitutional Affairs explains that "in a cultural marriage a couple gets married under the traditional customs of the tribes in the country." The commonest form of this type is the traditional wedding like Kwanjula in Buganda or it's equivalent in other tribes.

"Depending on what a couple is expected to fulfil in a given culture, they can marry. The witnesses, consent of parents and the payment of bride price are a major proof of the marriage," he explains. Adding that, "they must register with the gombolola chief (the sub-county chief) who will keep the records and provide proof of the marriage."

Unfortunately, the last thing on many couples' minds on a busy Kwanjula day is to secure proof of their marriage. Most of the elite barely regard it as a marriage and as a result, may not pursue the letter from the chief. Instead, they may only settle for a letter of approval from parents needed as a requirement at a house of worship for a wedding.

Besides payment of bride wealth, in a recent introduction ceremony, there was no proof of marriage. This is because neither the groom nor the bride received a letter of approval from either set of parents, and never registered at the sub-county office. In the event that the two lived together assuming that they were married, it would be difficult to prove because there was no document of proof. An unscrupulous partner can then exploit this kind of situation if he or she likes.

While the law recognises the cultural marriage if done as expected, many religious people are more content with a marriage at a house of worship. According to the expert, this is why most don't go to the chief after the kwanjula, because they are anticipating a "real" wedding.

Cultural marriages are "potentially polygamous."

"Most customs of Uganda concerning marriage allow polygamy. So there is no guarantee that a man will not have another wife. If he does one can't do much about it because he is doing it according to his custom, where it is not illegal," he says. He explains that this is why many people opt for either the civil or religious marriages, because they offer a more binding seal.

Civil marriages

Handled by the Registrar of Marriages, this is the best option for couples that want to get married without pomp and expense. "At the registrar of marriages or the district registrar of marriages, they can get married as long as they have at least two witnesses," the expert says. Wedding bans are usually put at the notice board for at least two weeks before the wedding, to notify the public of the marriage. The Kampala office is located at Amamu House on George Street. Most people don't opt for this type of marriage. That's because there is the stereotype that it is for those less honest or who are already previously married.

It is considered the cheapest and most exploited by many who need to get married fast or those who have been cohabiting. As a result most of these marriages are barely lavish and don't have much feasting and celebration compared to the other weddings.

The religious wedding

After the Kwanjula most people hold a religious wedding, which involves exchanging vows in a house of worship before witnesses. This is often a building that has been authorised to hold weddings as a gazetted house of worship like a church or mosque.

"It should have permission from the ministry of Justice and Constitutional Affairs to hold weddings," the expert reveals. The marriage should be in an authorised building, although those who have attained a special license can be wed outside the building." Many marriages if contested will be discovered null and void, because most of the proceedings are illegal. Some churches don't have the authority to hold weddings but they do so," he observes.

The house of worship is an agent of the registrar of marriages who keeps all records of marriage. Three options on how one can get married are enough for anyone who is genuinely interested. It is not expensive to get married, because the law is not bothered about the lavish ceremonies and affluence many people stress in pursuit of a wedding. Instead, all that matters is that a marriage is legal.

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