To be or not to be… married, that is the question: Emerging perceptions of marriage in Kanungu, Uganda

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In the UK, if a man approached a woman he barely knew and declared his “love” for her, whilst interrogating her with questions such as “how old are you?”, “are you married?” and “do you have any babies”, expecting to receive a response, we (society) would view this as an infringement of personal privacy. Nevertheless, when this happened to me three months ago in Kanungu, Uganda, I saw it as a matter worth investigating. I wondered, in this case, what’s “love” got to do with it? Why did the man, I barely knew, want to marry me? As a foreigner or, in correct Ugandan terms, a “Mzungu” (which literally translates into “white person”/of European descent), am I perceived as a figure of monetary gain? Or, was the gesture that I witnessed the conventional way of proposing a marriage in Uganda? As flattered as I was, however, my attention diverted to understanding the socio-cultural importance of Ugandan marriages – a topic which seems to be commonly discussed within the Kanungu community. Are matrimonies based upon “love”, consensual contracts, or obligation and duty?

To address these forms of unions, I asked the following questions to members of the public in Kanungu town centre so as to better understand their beliefs, values and cultural norms:

  1. What is the importance of marriage in Uganda?
  2. What is a woman’s role in the household?
  3. What is your view on “bride price”?
  4. What do you think about married men having more than one wife?
  5. Do you think that men and women are equal? If yes, why? If no, why not?

Many of those who I first approached seemed very sceptical about answering these questions without any notice beforehand. They felt as though they were being tested and so, affirmed their reluctance almost immediately. The responses below were received from a group of young men who were willing to answer:

  1. Marriage is good, to impregnate a woman (have babies, love the woman, arranged marriage)
  2. To cook, work on the farm – digging, plan for home – look after babies, cleaning
  3. A gift to thank the parents of the girl
  4. To satisfy sexual needs
  5. No, because a man has a good job *men laughed*
    *women spoke softly* – did not want to talk

What fascinated me the most was the way in which the local women refused to answer any of the questions. Even when asked directly, they looked to the men around them, exhibiting signs of confusion; thinking, “why me?” I could sense the cultural constraints on these women’s rights and options in this male-dominated conversation. There is an explicit power imbalance in the rural community whereby women are, habitually, denied their basic human rights: they lose their voice when in the presence of a man. So, how do these predominant attitudes affect the constitution of marriages in the Kanungu District?

1. In Uganda, a family which is created outside of an orthodox marriage is considered by society as egregious misconduct. Those who are not married are viewed as incomplete, incompetent even, and are not to be trusted; on most occasions, these people are ostracized from the social circle to which they belong. Thus, a person’s marital status contributes to their social status; it is a “sign of success“. Irrespective of your well-being (education, wealth, class, etc.), you are viewed as unhappy if you are not married. In his book Culture and Customs of Uganda, Kefa M. Otiso states: “because many Ugandan ethnic groups are communal, marriage has been a central means of uniting families, lineages and clans”. This aspect best elucidates the meaningfulness of marriage in Ugandan culture and exemplifies the pressure put on women, by the community, to marry young.

2. From speaking to a female graduate of Makerere University, I learnt that both cultural and religious factors influence a woman’s role in the household. She elucidated the significance of women’s responsibilities. She disclosed how “even working women must make their children, husbands and houses a priority because before a woman is an employee of some company, her first office is the home. If she fails at that, society considers her a failure at all other things. Women don’t have to work, they’ll only do it if the man cannot take care of them. But, this work is only a supplement to the man’s. Such a woman must remember that, despite how much she makes, the house is her first line of duty and that she is only a helper – the man is always the main show”. Consequently, women lose their autonomy and identity – becoming yet another, typified housewife. They are coerced into servitude; although these women may not see it clearly themselves, they are technically deprived from most of the freedoms written in The Constitution of the Republic of Uganda.

According to the man, through the role of a wife, the woman is subjugated to child bearing: this is her “duty”. Otiso explains how this agricultural “society has placed a premium on children (especially males) because of their importance in the social support system, especially in old age – female children had not been as valued because they join other families on marriage”. Children are regarded as valuable assets since they help with farming and household chores. If you are married but do not have children, your marriage is deemed incomplete or cursed and it is usually the woman who is to blame; in many cases, the man will find another wife and this is accepted.

Given this pressure to be married and have babies, it comes as no surprise that Uganda is among one of the Sub-Saharan African countries with the highest ratings of child marriages and teen pregnancies: with girls as young as 15 becoming brides, even though it is illegal to marry before 18. Joy for Children-Uganda reported that:

“child brides are likely to become pregnant at an early age and there is a
strong correlation between the age of a mother and maternal mortality.
Girls ages l0-14 are five times more likely to die in pregnancy
or childbirth than women aged 20-24 and girls aged 15-19 are twice as likely to die”.

Teenage pregnancies hinder both the academic and social development of young girls in schools; these adolescents are forced to advance prematurely although they are still growing, both physically and mentally, themselves – this is detrimental to their health. Being young, defenceless and pregnant is not the best position to be in in Kanungu as it usually means having to drop out of school.

In 2009, New Vision declared that Kanungu was one of the poorest districts in Western Uganda, with records of 19.3% of people living in dire poverty. Experts have distinctly linked poverty with child marriage and early pregnancies. A few years later, in 2013, New Vision revealed that “the district is reported to have one of the highest prevalence of teenage pregnancies in Uganda”. In their 2011 report, UNICEF discovered that 62% of children in Uganda’s poorest quantiles are married before the age of 18, versus 26% of women in the richest quantile. Since young girls from poor backgrounds are “immediately objectified” and indoctrinated at an early age to adopt the socially constructed role as housewife in this “oppressive system”, their future prospects (both education and employment opportunities) are limited. There are strong normative expectations for young girls to become both child-bearers and caregivers; hence, they are usually trained by their own mothers to help: cook, clean, work on the farm and look after their smaller siblings.

Unfortunately, a number of these girls from poor households become victims of sexual exploitation as their vulnerability provokes older men to promote cross-generational and transactional sexual relations. “The majority of these girls are victims of circumstance and married off to older men. In their struggles to make ends meet, parents are giving away their daughters for monetary gain”. The innocent adolescents are assured prosperous futures – not having to worry about money ever again, or gifts – in exchange for sex. However, as adequate protection is not always used, what these girls actually get in return is either becoming pregnant or catching HIV/AIDs. In many adverse cases, girls are left with nothing, and in the process have lost their dignity, as the men realise that they can no longer support them financially.

Consequently, action has been taken by Kirima Parents Primary School to deter young girls from throwing their lives away. Phrases are imprinted on the outside walls of classrooms and dormitories to publicise abstinence from sex and to advise girls not to accept gifts for sex. This method aids the prevention of child marriage, teen pregnancies and the prevalence of HIV/AIDs which, in turn, helps to keep teenage girls safe and increases their educational opportunities.

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3. Hegemonic masculinity is predominant in a patriarchal society such as Kanungu; it is conservative, cultural practices like “bride price” which allows this nature to perpetuate. In 2013, New Vision recognised that one of the main instigators of teenage pregnancies in the Kanungu District is due to “rural folk offering their daughters to men for the gains in bride price“. Essentially, “bride price” or “bride wealth” “consists of a contract where material items (often cattle or other animals) or money are paid by the groom to the bride’s family in exchange for the bride, her labour and her capacity to produce children”.

Teenage girls are objectified as commodities; even in the absence of the girls, fathers advertise for their daughters and settle an agreement with the groom-to-be who has to pay up at face value. The problem with this way of proposing a marriage is that it gives the man a sense of ownership in the form of dowry; hence, before the marriage is even official, there is already an imbalance of power in the couple’s relationship. Resultantly, by practicing bride price, gender-based violence has enhanced.

There is no existing literature which surrounds the perception of marriage and the issue of bride price and domestic violence in the Kanungu District. Nevertheless, the work presented by CEHURA, which focuses on the Bundibugyo District, recognises bride price as an instigator of violence against women. “Since modernization the practice has been influenced by economic, social, and cultural changes and its historical integrity, benefits and significance has been affected. It is however the recognition that bride price could result or exacerbate problems of exploitation of women and increase the economic burden on men”.

One of the 8 Millennium Development Goals for 2015 endorsed the promotion of gender equality and empowering women. Within this aim, the United Nations Development Programme in Uganda inaugurated a National Development Plan to aid socio-economic development by addressing “the challenge of women’s decision-making at the household level, which is exacerbated by high levels of gender-based violence. It is noted that 59% of ever-married women aged 15 to 49 have experienced some form of physical and/or sexual violence”. In these cases, it is imperative to focus on the victim’s needs by providing adequate support and protection; a shift in attitude is required to lift these exposed women out of such hostile situations.

Bride price is a controversial affair. One the one hand, it is a sign of appreciation to the girl’s family. It also proves that the groom is capable of supporting the girl once she has left her family. On the other hand, due to the culture of love marriages, there are now more inter-tribal relationships and sometimes their understanding of bride price is not the same; thus, posing a quandary for Ugandan marriages.

4. Kanungu is a Christian-dominated district whereby monogamy is encouraged. In the Bible, in Matthew 19:3-6, Jesus says “the two will become one flesh”; this can be literally interpreted as a man should only have one wife and vice versa, not two or more. Similarly, in Corinthians 7:2, Christ expresses “because of immoralities, each man is to have his own wife, and each woman is to have her own husband”. Therefore, most Christian men in the Kanungu District, who try to justify their polygynous nature (a man having more than one wife) with the reason of “to satisfy sexual needs” do not coincide with the Bible’s teachings; instead, they augment sexual immoralities.

One outcome of sexual immorality is the rapid spread of HIV/AIDS. Despite one of the Millennium Development Goals in Uganda being to “Combat HIV/AIDS, malaria and other diseases”, the practice of polygyny exacerbates transmission; the prevalence rates of HIV/AIDS being 8.1% with 315 out of 6737 pregnant women being tested HIV positive. This is particularly dangerous for school girls who succumb to marriage at a young age.

Another outcome, which can be suggested, is that it aggravates domestic violence. If the man thinks the woman is unfaithful and vice versa, due to infidelity and committing adultery, they fight. Sometimes the man kills the woman because of this. However, it is more socially acceptable for a man to have more than one wife than the other way round. As the man is denoted as the breadwinner of the family, he is seen as having more power than the woman since he controls the finances in the household; therefore, it’s his way over hers – the woman must comply.

However, society has accepted the fact that Kanungu’s men will not restrict themselves to having one sexual partner since polygamy is legal in Uganda. Many male and female adults have said bluntly, “there is no man that has one partner, so don’t lie to yourself, accept it and find a way to manage it”. It is not surprising to find a man with several wives/partners. Nonetheless, there is a catch. The man must pick a woman to be his official wife by marrying her legally and then present her to the public. The other wives are acknowledged by the father who is financially responsible for them.

In their March 2014 report, Coffey identified that women’s voices need to be strengthened to lead to empowerment. Special attention is required with adolescent girls since they are most vulnerable; “their knowledge of land rights is low and they are more likely than older women to accept that a husband can beat his wife”. If these women and young girls’ voices are heard and critical matters are not overlooked, they will be able to improve their quality of life. The Kanungu District has the opportunity to unlock the potential of its women and girls; they should not have to jeopardise their future for the sake of their husband’s satisfaction by conforming to society’s ideals. By allowing men to have multiple partners, the progression of girl child education is inhibited.

5. Men and women are not equal to one another in the Kanungu District. The question asked was purposely designed to be vague as I wanted to learn how the public define equality – in this instance, it is by employment and status. Traditionally, “women’s” jobs have been both lower paid and less valued than “men’s”. Although women have the ability to do “men’s” work, both society and the women themselves acknowledge that it would be best not to since it will put a strain on social order, especially on the basic unit of society – family.

The Foundation for Sustainable Development discuss gender equity issues in Uganda: “gender discrimination means that women must submit to an overall lower social status than men. For many women, this reduces their power to act independently, become educated, avoid poverty, and/or escape reliance upon abusive men”. Thus, to tackle this matter, the Equal Opportunities Commission of Uganda launched their five-year strategic plan in 2014 which attempts to create equal opportunities for marginalised women. In spite of this, Uganda as a whole, let alone the Kanungu District, has not quite reached their targets yet; a lot of work still needs to be done.

So, how can the Ugandan government improve the future of their young girls and women in the Kanungu District? The answer is simple: education. Although “marriage remains an important marker of adulthood and a social expectation” in Uganda, it shouldn’t be the be all and end all of a young girl’s life if she chooses not to get married or have children. Improving access to education will open many closed doors for females; it will help to: eliminate child marriage, reduce teen pregnancies, grow greater awareness of HIV and AIDS to lower transmission risks, inspire career prospects, and teach adolescent girls new skills which can take them onto further education so that they need not be confined to the household or simply hold housewife status.

For example, advancements have been made in Kampala by using billboards to create awareness of HIV and AIDS – revealing safe condom usage and encouragement of testing. In the same way, it would be effective if the government adopted this method to promote the empowerment of young girls and celebrate the equality of the sexes – where both genders can work (in employment) and live (in a domestic setting) respectably among one another.

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Despite the fact that there are already billboards in rural areas increasing  knowledge of transmission of HIV and AIDS, these comparatively significant issues seem to be overlooked. Child marriage, teenage pregnancy and domestic violence are life-threatening diseases themselves and must be eradicated. They kill the very dreams and ambitions of many young girls, adolescents and women in the Kanungu District, and all across Uganda, who aspire for better, brighter futures.

Even though there has been massive improvement over the years in acknowledging: the relationship between bride price and domestic violence, the detrimental impact of child marriage and teen pregnancies, radical changes still need to be made so that young girls and women in Uganda are equal to their male counterparts. One solution, which will require a series of incremental changes, is for there to be a shift in Conservative thinking – transforming the status quo; especially targeted at the poorer, rural areas, where traditional Ugandan marriage customs prevail over many females’ life choices. Girls should be able to have a say in whether or not they would like to participate in cultural practices without feeling pressured by their family or society.

Additionally, not enough research has been conducted in the Kanungu District so presumptions cannot be made based upon observations of the other 110 districts in Uganda. Existing data on the prevalence of child marriage and teen pregnancies in urban areas cannot be applied to rural areas; hence, more studies need to be carried out, analysing the crucial issues of each district individually.

In line with Coffey’s vision to sustain a strong women’s movement to make developments in: “women’s equality in the workplace, reducing gender-based violence, and ensuring greater equity in national budgets, to name but a few”, society should champion female engagement in social and political issues – this would allow women (whether educated or uneducated) across all districts in Uganda to work together towards emancipation. Nonetheless, with Parliament delaying the passing of The Marriage and Divorce Bill, “which has the potential to fundamentally reform power relations between husbands and wives”, there is slow progress in closing the gender gap. Ergo, NGOs, charities and think tanks that endorse gender equality, including native girls and women advocates, must act together to lobby the Ugandan government and inform legislation to improve the future for generations to come.

11174909_10153157227456259_7649508346515367772_n David

I would like to thank Grace Asingwire, who graduated from Makerere University in Quantitative Economics, for kindly elaborating on the topics explored in this study.

I would also like to thank David for translating the interview questions and easing the language barrier between myself and the participants. David also gave invaluable insights from his own knowledge which made it possible to write this piece. I am extremely grateful for his boundless enthusiasm and commitment to helping me see this individual project through to completion.

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