More women are initiating divorces in Uganda, a conservative East African country where women are becoming empowered to leave a bad marriage in a way their mothers could not, rights activists and legal experts say.
Has your marriage broken down beyond repair? That's the question Ugandan magistrate David Batema asks women in divorce proceedings against men who often are reluctant to let their wives go. Whatever the husband has to say, according to Batema, a woman who wants to leave a failed marriage shouldn't be encouraged to linger.
"I usually turn my court into a learning classroom," he said in an interview. "In this age of gender equality we are saying that ... if marriage can't be a bed of roses, it shouldn't be a bed of thorns. The major aim of the lesson should be to point out to the man that marriage, as of now, is a partnership of equals."
Women's rights activists say Batema's position is a sign of changing times in Uganda, where it used to be extremely difficult for a woman to get a divorce. Such proceedings almost always were initiated by men, a legacy of traditional beliefs that stress women should be submissive and of a now-unconstitutional divorce law.
In 2004 a Ugandan court nullified a law that set the evidential bar impossibly high for women who wanted a divorce. At the time a woman was required to give evidence proving sodomy, desertion or — perhaps most strangely — bestiality on the part of her husband. He, in turn, had to prove only that the wife committed adultery.
Although Uganda's bureau of statistics doesn't compile national divorce figures, court clerks, activists and lawyers now say they are handling vastly more divorce cases now than a decade ago.
"The numbers kept going up," said Ismail Jjemba, a clerk at Uganda's High Court, referring to the effect of the Constitutional Court's ruling. "It's almost always the women who complain first."
Divorce is still stigmatized in Uganda, where church officials complain that divorce is becoming rampant. But the fairer legal climate and increased educational opportunities for women are contributing to what one activist called "the normalization of divorce" in the East African country.
Ugandan lawmakers are considering legislation, expected to pass this year, which would make it clear that a man and a woman are equal in a marriage. The bill even proposes the offense of "marital rape" and a provision for the equal sharing of matrimonial property in the event of divorce. Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni, widely seen as sympathetic to women's rights, has said the country needs such a law.
"People don't have to die in a marriage," said Maria Nassali, a divorced activist who teaches family law at Uganda's Makerere University. "We need to kill the stigma associated with divorce. She's not being selfish when she gets a divorce. She's not being immoral. She just wants to be a human being."
Studies show that about two-thirds of married women in Uganda have been physically abused by a partner. Activists say the traditional practice of a bride price, where the man presents gifts — usually livestock — in exchange for the bride strips women of their dignity and exposes them to domestic violence.
Batema, the magistrate, said some men want a refund of their bride price in court when divorce proceedings begin, often forcing him into arguments with those who "seek to trivialize the role of women" in marriage.
"That's why in my career I have never refused to grant a divorce where one partner wants it," he said. "Marriage is supposed to be voluntary. We shouldn't wait to try cases of murder; we should grant a divorce when we have the chance."
Women lawyers have taken notice of such thinking among magistrates, and these days they openly encourage women in unhappy unions to get legal help. The Uganda Association of Women Lawyers, or FIDA, organizes legal aid clinics for women in distress across the country.
"I think the reason why divorce is going up is because the women are breaking out of that cycle, the image that a good woman is a submissive woman," FIDA's Peace Amito said. "In the past very few women were getting educated, very few were experiencing life outside of their villages. Now most of them who come here say, 'I am fed up.' They are coming to realize that divorce is an option."