By Sarah Waliwo Kagale Kulubya
A first year LLB student at UCL, writes about her experience volunteering with MIFUMI – a women-led organisation based in Uganda that seeks to end domestic violence.
Indigenous customary law defines some social and domestic arrangements, namely marriage, in certain Ugandan tribes. However, the rules of customary law perpetuate inequality in relationships between men and women. Women are severely dependent on their husbands; as a result, domestic violence and fear undermine the security and love that most young women seek in a marriage. In 2007, the MIFUMI organisation, an NGO that works to end domestic violence in Uganda, filed a petition in the Ugandan Constitutional Court to abolish the bride price, the price paid, in cattle, goats or money, by the groom to the bride’s parents in return for her hand in marriage.
One of the most abhorrent relics of the customary union is domestic violence. When one thinks of goods on the supermarket shelves they normally think of Cereal, Milk or Bread. In my native Uganda, women in customary unions were seen as goods on the shelves. They are valued like items in a supermarket, their value is based on their level of schooling, manners or housekeeping skills. This occurs because women are seen as objects in shops who can be easily bought and returned for the dowry the husband made for his wife. If the marriage is dissolved the man may ask for refund of his payment. This commercialisation of marriage dissuades women who feel trapped in abusive marriages from filing for divorce.
Last Summer, I came across a startling statistic by the MIFUMI organisation: “68% of women in Uganda have faced some form of domestic violence”. At the time I was looking for material for my Legal minds radio programme and I decided to provide an in-depth coverage of the MIFUMI organisation’s petition. Sections of my interactions and work for MIFUMI were serialised in Monitor Newspaper and on 99.3 Kfm in attempt to raise awareness of domestic violence to young adults. Successfully conducting the first-ever radio debate between Ladislaus Rwakafuuzi, a human rights lawyer, who represented MIFUMI and Principal State Attorney, Ms. Sarah Naigaga, allowed me to highlight the nuances of the legal arguments and the dichotomy between the civil liberties and the abolition of the bride price.
Prior to working with the MIFUMI organisation as their volunteer media affiliate I was unaware of the impact that customary unions had on rural women. My Legal Mindssegment provided a forum for young and enlightened Ugandans to discuss the legality of the bride price. I achieved this through a series of debates, reports on the court case, interviews with the MIFUMI organisation representatives and Q&A session with the audience. The Supreme Court has outlawed bridge price refund and this has had positive effects: first, most of the beneficiaries of the Supreme Court in Kampala’s decision to outlaw the “bride price” refund have sought divorces and certain poorer families have rebelled against divorces that are based on domestic violence. Second, after hearing my Legal Mind segment, several teenage girls were empowered to stand up to their families about the “haggling” that characterises bride prices and seek refuge in MIFUMI’s domestic violence and advice shelters in Tororo.
I was empowered to hear that some girls were inspired to leave their marriages because they no longer felt the need to protect their poor families from having to refund the “payment” their husband made in return for her hand in marriage. I was also glad to hear the responses from some people who were happy to see greater visibility for an issue that has been largely stifled in the mainstream press. Similarly, the debate I chaired on the bride price ruling inspired several girls to visit the MIFUMI village.
One unexpected challenge I experienced was some of the criticisms and angry callers who were unhappy that I was working to dismantle a centuries old tradition. I learnt that Indigenous Customary law can regulate social relations, but it needs to be reconciled with changing sentiments. In addition, shirking the customary law is not whitewashing our history it is simply upholding civil liberties.
I also learnt that the customs and traditions that define tribal interactions are hard to reverse. MIFUMI is continuing to lobby the Ugandan government to abolish the “bride price” altogether, as many men have continued to seek refunds after the dissolution of marriage and tribal leaders have encouraged their subjects to ignore the supreme court’s ruling. My work with the MIFUMI organisation empowered me to question certain tribal customs that have promoted gender discrimination.
 It should be noted that, not all tribes in Uganda adhere to a strict application of the customary laws that define marriage, and there is a clear disparity between the way that customary unions are interpreted in rural areas and cities.