The justice and equality challenges faced by cohabiting women in Uganda
Shahinaz Sabeel from FIDA Uganda (a women’s rights organisation and GRRIPP Africa partner) examines the inequality and discrimination risks faced by women in cohabiting relationships in Uganda and highlights the urgent need for changes in law.
Laws relating to marriage and coupledom in Uganda have for the most part pertained to individuals in traditional marriages, which are mostly religious unions under the Christian or Islamic faith. Although a variety of different ceremonies and customs are now recognized as formal unions under the marriage law, legal marriage remains a necessary condition for women who wish to receive any portion of what has been acquired by the couple or the man during the relationship. Ugandan laws do not recognize cohabitants as owning shared assets and there are no laws pertaining to cohabitation. This creates a legal vacuum for women in cohabiting relationships who are not able to fight for their rights as partners or exercise entitlement over their homes, land and other assets acquired during the relationship. In the case that a man dies and leaves behind children and a female partner, women risk being evicted from their deceased partner's land due to inheritance laws which only recognize blood relatives and marriages.
Bills attempting to regulate cohabitation in order to have it recognized as a formal union, such as the “Marriage and Divorce Bill of 2009”, have been benched by Parliament. In another example, the Domestic Relations Bill distinguished between cohabitation and marriage and would have allowed for registration of a ‘‘cohabitation status’’ and the disclosure of assets by parties. However, the Bill has also never been passed by Parliament. Legislation which recognizes and regulates cohabitation relationships is yet to be enacted in Uganda.
The legislative framework which regulates marriage barely recognizes cohabitants and disregards the fact that many in cohabitation relationships make the same contributions and perform the same duties as those who are legally married. Thus, women in cohabiting relationships are likely to share their earnings with their partners as they would in a marriage, perform domestic duties, care for the children, and so on. When these women are left in situations where their partners have passed away or they no longer want to stay in the relationship, their investments into the union are not recognized under the law. Currently, Ugandan laws only see cohabitation as a halfway point to marriage. In other words, in cases where women who were cohabitants seek to collect on their investments, they cannot turn to the courts as there is no law or legal precedent supporting the cohabitant.
Furthermore, traditional beliefs (which place the responsibility of finding a home on the man) and patriarchal customs (which encourage fathers to leave land to their sons over their daughters) contribute to a situation where women are particularly vulnerable when property and marriage laws exclude cohabitation. Due to the fact that cohabitation is already unrecognized, when such relationships dissolve, disputing parties often opt not to involve lawyers, as they do not see how they would benefit from it. This situation can lead to one partner (typically the man) dictating the terms of asset division. Furthermore, the idea that cohabitation is a more liberal union which affords cohabitants more freedom than marriage has been proven to be incorrect. Studies comparing rates of domestic violence between cohabiting couples and married couples in central Uganda found that “there were insignificant differences in the experiences of physical violence in cohabiting compared with married women”, showing cohabiters need the same oversight and legal protections as married people.
There is little empathy for cohabiting women under the law, as having not been married is often interpreted as a personal or relationship weakness, which is deeply unfair. Moreover, the formality of marriage is not always clearly understood, and women can become confused into thinking they attained certain rights that they are not actually entitled to under the law. Informal ceremonies and traditional marriages may not be recognized by courts, yet many cohabiters may believe that they are legally married after conducting such a ceremony.
Resistance to legally recognizing cohabiting relationships can be linked to the same discourse which seeks to exclude women from property ownership. Men continue to own three times as much land as women in Uganda and most land tribunals that determine ownership rights consist of men. Furthermore, customary laws often work to the benefit of men who take advantage of the fact that women have no right to property under cohabitation. One case which brought to the attention of FIDA Uganda was of a woman named Flavia who had contributed over 4 million Ugandan Shillings (USD 1,000) to the purchase of a home with her partner whom, she later found out, only registered the deed in his name. Flavia also took out several joint loans with her partner, which went towards the construction of their home, and which she paid back on her own – though she had not kept the receipts. The relationship broke down and, during mediation, it was agreed that Flavia’s former partner was to pay her back the bulk of money that she had contributed to the construction of their home in monthly instalments. However, the mediation hinged on the goodwill of the partner and, should he default, Flavia will not be able to turn to the courts to enforce their agreement. Flavia’s case is a prime example of how cohabitation functions to exclude women from joint assets such as land and property, regardless of their contribution to the increased value of said assets.
The implication of refusing to recognize cohabitation as a formal union under the law is the continued dominance of the assumption that women do not own property. However, this legal assumption undermines women’s contributions to land and property ownership and maintenance, and makes women especially vulnerable to homelessness. Cohabiting women have no means of requesting that investments made during the relationship be returned to them, nor do they have a legal mechanism for demanding compensation, or even potential visitation with their children if they are separated from them. A woman may find she has no legal recourse and has no choice but to leave with nothing. Even in cases where women are not separated from their children, if a woman finds she and her children have been removed from land which they occupied during cohabitation, there is no means for her to re-acquire the land or request funds for relocation. Many women are left homeless with children following failed cohabiting relationships, inflating poverty rates among women and children and further marginalizing women from land ownership.
In conclusion, many Ugandans continue to practice cohabitation, with and without children. Women who enter cohabiting relationships do so in order to maintain their relationships as well as for their convenience and that of their partner. Cohabiting women make contributions to these arrangements; they contribute finances, childcare services, domestic labor, emotional labor and more. Yet when these relationships end, they are treated in law as if their contributions were of no value or not of equal value to their partners. They are made to feel that they do not own anything and the legal system validates these feelings. This is why women in cohabiting relationships need to be aware of their rights or lack thereof, and take steps to protect themselves. Adaptive mechanisms may entail not being totally transparent about their finances within the relationship, or opening a savings account and investing in their own land or property registered in their own names. Cohabiting women navigate these intersectional hardships on a daily basis and they shouldn't have to. There should be legislation that affords people in cohabiting situations the security of knowing that their contributions and investments do not go unseen and, at the very least, which guarantees some form of dispute settlement mechanism overseen by legal professionals. Without these changes, women will continue to bear most, if not all, of the risk when deciding to enter into these relationships.
Author Bio: Shahinaz Sabeel is a Programs Volunteer with FIDA Uganda. She grew up in Kampala and in 2021 acquired her undergrad in history and political science at Brock University. She has been working with FIDA for almost a year in the programs unit where she continues to develop her writing and reporting skills while learning about how FIDA mitigates barriers to access to justice in Uganda.
NOTES  Kabumbuli, R. (2016). Joint Ownership of family land in Uganda: Examining the responses, challenges and policy implications. African Sociological Review / Revue Africaine de Sociologie, 20(1), 67–86. http://www.jstor.org/stable/90001846  von Struensee, S. (2004), The Domestic Relations Bill in Uganda: Potentially Addressing Polygamy, Bride Price, Cohabitation, Marital Rape, Widow Inheritance and Female Genital Mutilation (July 2004). Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=623501 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.623501  Kagoya, R. (2010). Cohabitation and intestate succession: A Human Rights Perspective.  Lwanga, C., Kalule-Sabiti, I., Fuseini, K., Wandera, S., Mangombe, K., & Maniragaba, F. (2021). Is cohabitation as a form of union formation a licence to intimate partner physical violence in Uganda? Journal of Biosocial Science, 1-14. doi:10.1017/S0021932021000444  Acidri, D. (2014). Women’s Rights to Land Ownership in Uganda: Policy and Practice. Critical Social Thinking, 6, p. 184-203.