In Uganda, a woman can be VP but have few rights

By , Contributor to The Christian Science Monitor

The controversial career of Specioza Wandira Kazibwe, Uganda's first female vice president, was dogged by allegations of political backstabbing and financial corruption. She publicly critiqued the romantic prowess of African men. Once she made headlines after complaining that the socks of male members of Parliament smelled.

But nothing approached the public opprobrium following Ms. Kazibwe's decision to leave her husband of 20 years. "Enough is enough," she said in a March speech before filing for divorce on the grounds that Charles Kazibwe had routinely beaten her, philandered, and fathered two children by another woman.

Nearly 10 months later, she has resigned and left the country. But her influence is still felt as Uganda debates new laws that would outlaw marital rape, ease divorce for women, grant property rights to wives, and regulate polygamy, which remains common throughout Africa.

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But the bill is currently tied up in Parliament. In a country that is at the forefront of promoting equal opportunity for women - Kazibwe was the first female vice president in all of Africa - it is the changes to traditional home life that are proving the hardest to make.

"Even the 'liberal' man has certain expectations at the family level," says Jackie Asiimwe of the Uganda Women's Network, a group that is lobbying for the new laws. "He wants a woman who works and also one who serves him dinner."

In the ensuing debate that filled Kampala newspapers and call-in radio shows following the vice president's announcement, some congratulated her for speaking out against domestic violence. But many others criticized Kazibwe, a surgeon and mother of five, for "encouraging rebelliousness in marriages" and for violating the strict African taboo against speaking publicly about matters of the home. One Kenyan legislator was quoted as grumbling that the whole matter was a good example of why women shouldn't be allowed to work in politics at all.

Uganda's president, Yoweri Museveni, is credited for his "affirmative action" policies, which have increased the number of women in high-ranking government positions in recent years. In Kampala, Uganda's capital, many women with sensible pumps and smart handbags now wait for buses at rush hour alongside the men. But in Africa, where professional men in business suits still use antiwitchcraft charms, it is one thing to encourage women to vote and join the office workforce; it is another to promote equality in the home.

But Kazibwe's case was eye opening to many professional women who admit they are far from emancipated in their private lives. "Kazibwe was the example," says Ms. Asiimwe. "She was a powerful vice president, but in private her husband was hitting her."

It is common for married Ugandan men to take mistresses or second or third wives, but divorce is rare. At a court hearing in March, Mr. Kazibwe opposed his wife's petition, citing his Catholic faith, and protested that he'd "only slapped her twice," after she had come home late without a good explanation.

A month later, after nearly a decade in office, the vice president resigned. Kazibwe said she was going abroad for further medical studies, and her divorce case was postponed. But some say that a public divorce was simply too messy for a woman of such high political station. "In the end, she's a woman in a society that believes that a married woman must put up with anything and everything that happens in the home," says Sylvia Tamale, a law professor at Makerere University in Kampala.

Kazibwe is now at Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass., pursuing graduate work. Her lawyer says she does not want to speak to the press.

Activists have been lobbying to reform Uganda's domestic laws since 1995, when the country adopted a new Constitution that guaranteed equality for all. The proposed legislation has since been hampered by an unusual number of delays, technical snags, and outright opposition, most vocally from the Muslim community.

Imam Kasozi, who heads the Uganda Muslim Youth Assembly, argues that the proposed bill is based on Christian marriage customs. Under the new law, a man wishing to take a second or third wife would, for example, be required to prove he was economically capable of maintaining his wives and provide separate living quarters for each, conditions that Kasozi says contradict the teachings of the Koran.

"They are trying to create a law to outlaw us in our own country," he says.

In November, the Uganda Women's Network began running a series of newspaper ads to drum up support for the bill by telling the familiar stories of a few rural Ugandan women. In one, a first wife loses her home and her inheritance after her husband takes a second. In another, two co-wives are furious to learn that their husband has sold off their land without their knowledge to pay for a church wedding to a third woman whom he has impregnated.

Muslims account for about 15 percent of the country's population, but polygamy is strongly rooted in Ugandan tribal culture, as are ideas about gender roles.

"Those things have changed with the Western influence, but they are still there," says Nsubuga Nsambu, a member of Parliament who is fighting the new law, calling it a conspiracy on the part of single and "highly learned" women. "In public, Ugandans are very good Christians, but when they get home it's a very different matter."

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