First Wives' Club Unites In Africa


After 10 years of marriage, Maria Yozepha Nansaramba's husband came home with a surprise: a second wife. "He told me to go back to my parents' house in the village," says the twentysomething mother of two. "He kicked me out of the home we built together and out of the land I worked."

As in much of Africa, polygamy is common in Uganda, where the right of a man to take as many wives as he wishes is protected under law, provided he can secure their comfort.

Yet studies have shown that in many cases, a second wife has disastrous implications for the first. Either she is relegated to a secondary, often humiliating role, or she is pushed aside, her property confiscated, her children left to fend for themselves.

But more and more, women are challenging the practice. Ms. Nansaramba, sitting rigidly in the offices of the Ugandan Association of Women Lawyers (FIDA), is seeking advice on how to move against her husband.

One legislator is on the front lines of Uganda's polygamy debate. Miria Matembe stands close to six feet tall - a fiery woman with a deep voice, a powerful frame, and no-nonsense shoes.

She promised her rural constituency one thing: a bill defining their rights "before, during, and after marriage."

But two years after being elected to parliament as a special representative for women, she's stuck.

Her bill has been drafted - 54-pages' worth - but a raging debate over a provision attempting to regulate polygamy is now threatening its survival. "I expected it would be problematic," says Ms. Matembe, "Now I'm worried that it will never make it."

The Domestic Relations Bill exploded in the hands of the Law Reform Commission earlier this month. It pitted Muslims against Christians, traditionalists against progressives, and, more interesting in the broader African context, newly empowered women like Matembe against men.

There are no clear statistics on polygamy in Uganda, but experts believe between 40 and 50 percent of all unions here are polygamous. In rural Africa, it was seen as an economic necessity, since multiple wives and children provided unpaid farm labor.

The Law Reform Commission set out to regulate polygamous unions. In essence, it recommended that a man be restricted to two wives and that he justify "the need for marrying a second wife before a Family and Children Court." In case of separation, it set ground rules for the equal division of property.

What followed was a debate of unprecedented virulence. The exchanges at one symposium were so heated that Harold Platt, the head of the commission, decided to back down on the two-wives restriction. Says Mr. Platt: "I suppose I would have to say we are not prepared to overrule polygamy at this stage."

IN the ongoing debate, Matembe takes a contradictory, greatly emblematic stance. While coolly arguing that any legislation of polygamy is ultimately of little use - only taking women out of the fields and putting them into the workplace will do the job - she loses her composure at the sheer mention of the word "co-wife."

"All right," she booms, "If we are going to legislate for men's immorality, let's legislate for women's immorality too. Let's say: 'Any spouse can take on another spouse' ... and let's watch this country explode!"

In the muted chorus of disapproval over the commission's handling of the issue, the Muslim community, officially just over 10 percent of Uganda's 21 million people, has taken a leading role.

In a blistering speech, Abaasi Kiyimba, secretary general of Uganda's Muslim Youth Association, described the provisions as an imposition of Christian values on Muslims.

Sitting in his office at Makerere University, Mr. Kiyimba points out that the sharia, Islam's code of law, bestows on men the right to four wives. Any limitation of that right would amount to a gross violation of the freedom of religion.

"Our argument is not about wives, it's about letting people marry according to their beliefs," he says.

Matembe differs. "Whenever a gender issue comes up in this country, religion and cultural sentiments are invariably brought in because then you cannot reason, you just appeal to people's emotions."

She adds, "Like rape, like incest, [polygamy] is all about power relations."

Second or third wives have to compete for a man's money and attention, she points out. In many villages, co-wives share a single, cramped space.

Unless, like Mary Goreti Nakabuye and her two children, they are kicked out entirely.

"When I left," she recalls, "he took everything except the nightgown I had on. I asked for money for the children, and he sent me two maternity dresses."

Lawyers at FIDA question polygamy on the assumption that it violates the principle of equality enshrined in Uganda's three-year-old Constitution. They belong to a new urban elite taking forceful issue with tradition.

Among them is Barbara Kaija, features editor of the daily New Vision. "I advocate the extreme principle of one man, one wife," she says, smiling. Like Matembe, she does not believe a law could eradicate polygamy at this stage.

But as more women gain access to education and power, "there will be a clash," says Jeanne Kyazze of the Law Reform Commission. "It is inevitable."

What will be at stake then is the definition of individual and collective freedom, Platt says. "We will be debating to what extent does freedom of religion go hand in hand with women's emancipation and to what extent the freedom of women is restricted by polygamy."

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