By Seth Nimwesiga
“So they are no longer two, but one flesh.
… therefore, what God has put together,
no man shall put asunder…”
In the verse above, the Holy Bible emphasizes union and oneness upon marriage of man and woman with crystal clarity. For the non-believers, the supreme law of the land suffices. The Constitution of Uganda is explicit on equality in marriage. It prescribes the entitlement of married people to enjoy equal rights during and at the dissolution of marriage.
For a couple, their equal rights necessitate equal duties and responsibilities, equal obligations, and equal contribution to acquisition, development and maintenance of matrimonial property. This contribution can be direct or indirect; monetary or non-monetary.
In a recent judgement vide Ambayo v Aserua (Civil Appeal 100 of 2015), the Court of Appeal recognized unpaid care work as that form of work that is not compensated by way of wages. It includes caring for children, cooking, cleaning, doing laundry, fetching water, et cetera. Court reasoned that the non-monetary contribution or unpaid domestic care work ought to be computed at the market value of the of the services offered based on the knowledge, skills and character of the service provider labourer, a spouse in this instance, so as to determine the value of one’s contribution to matrimonial property.
The judgment followed a divorce petition filed by a wife, and a counter petition filed by her husband in the High Court of Uganda wherein they both settled by consent on all grounds bar the wife’s claim for an equal share in the matrimonial property. At the court of first instance, the judge ordered for a sale of the matrimonial home and an equal division of the proceeds. In the opinion of the husband, the High Court occasioned a miscarriage of justice when it found that the wife contributed to the acquisition and development of their matrimonial property, and ordered for a 50% share of the proceeds from the sale of that property, which prompted him to appeal. The Court of Appeal has now reversed the decision of the High Court in part and instead deemed a 20% share sufficient to compensate for the wife’s unpaid care work.
The question of compensation for unpaid care work is a reasonable one. It is good music to my ears that unpaid care work is recognized, though unfitting to put a price to it for a married person. In fact, unpaid care work in a home should be shared. That way, the men would get to appreciate how priceless such work is. In prescribing for equal rights in marriage as stated before, the Constitution also implies equal duties, such as equal division of care. This, however, is not the practice in our society, generally.
The case in discussion could not have come at a better time for the court to give the text ‘equal rights in marriage” as is in the provision of a progressive constitution, their true and natural meaning. The case came at the time when our society is progressing on affirmative action for women empowerment. According to a 2022 UN Women gender snapshot of the progress on the Sustainable Development Goals, it will take about 286 years to overcome discriminatory laws and close the gaps in the legal protections for women and girls. Through judicial activism, courts have the power to build on the current steps to achieve gender equality, especially in a society that has apportioned gender roles that set men as the providers and women as primary caregivers, which creates power imbalances and often works against the latter.
It is not uncommon that many times, women lay their hands on domestic unpaid care work to act as springboards for men to run the errands that ‘put food on the table’. By shouldering this domestic work and creating room for men to do paid work, the women are directly contributing to the economic wellbeing of the family most times at the expense of their own careers. For married people, it should neither be categorized nor valued as a business.
Equality is just that; equality. It was never the intention of our Constitution to give with one hand and take away with the other, equal rights in marriage. Courts should therefore proactively promote gender equality and steer clear of any norms, customs, beliefs and practices that promote the opposite.
There is a need for a government policy to regulate and regularize equal division of care work in families. This would go a long way in countering the gender imbalances in our society.
The writer is a Policy Advocacy Officer, Generation Gender Project, CEHURD.
A version of this article was published in the New Vision newspaper on March 8th 2023.