Women lawyers force big rights gains in Uganda
This spring, a small group of lawyers helped overturn laws that gave men more rights than women.
– In the small, dusty waiting lounge of a law office in Uganda's capital, Kampala, a cluster of women sits patiently.Skip to next paragraph
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Some grip stacks of paperwork – about divorce, child custody, and wills – that they don't understand while they wait for free legal advice.
There are hundreds of groups in Africa advocating women's rights. But few, if any, have been as effective in alleviating the injustices suffered by women as this small group of lawyers in Uganda.
In April, the Uganda Association of Women Lawyers (FIDA-U) achieved its most significant legal success to date when the nation's Constitutional Court overturned key parts of the adultery law – which allowed married men, but not women, to have an affair. It also scrapped parts of the Succession Act, which gave more rights to husbands than wives when a spouse dies. But more important for many of the lawyers here is the ability to improve the individual lives of the women they advise.
"I came here initially just to have a place to practice, and now I've stayed because of the way we are helping women succeed in getting their rights," says Faith Namono, who has worked as a FIDA-U lawyer for two years.
Helping women help themselves
Women come in a constant stream from the time the office opens to the time it closes. Cases are handled for no fee, on a first-come, first-serve basis.
"They're just people who need help at the end of the day," says Victoria Kirunda, who has been a lawyer with FIDA-U for over a year.
The majority of the cases that the team sees involve marriage benefits, or the lack thereof. Women who have been living with common-law husbands for several years often end up having to support children without any financial help after the arrangement ends.
"A lot of the women don't even know that they are not legally married," says Rose Nsenge, sitting in her office with Juliet Makumbi, a repeat client.
Ms. Makumbi says she had been unable to persuade her former partner to provide assistance for her and her children until she sought legal advice. "I failed in all other places," she says.
Ms. Nsenge used prolonged mediation, a technique the lawyers call alternative dispute resolution, to get the partner to provide financial support.
Nsenge says that dispute resolution is the group's most commonly used method to settle domestic affairs.
FIDA-U says its success rate with mediation is about 60 percent, a number the lawyers attribute to the fact that many of their clients' partners fear going to court.
A few doors down the hall, Jennifer Nakibuka is in a similar situation. Dressed in a man's red-plaid shirt and long black skirt, Ms. Nakibula says that she was thrown out of her house by her partner when he found out she was pregnant.
She says she was forced by an uncle into a marriage in which she was the second wife. The marriage lasted less than two years.
But her problem arose because the marriage was not legal, and the Ugandan Constitution does not have a notion of common law marriage.
Nakibula came to FIDA-U because, as she says, "I have nothing at all, and here I could come for free."
Proscovia Nakanjako, her lawyer, has succeeded though dispute resolution in getting the partner to finally begin giving assistance in the last weeks of Nakibula's pregnancy.