Women Activitists should go Slow on Cohabitation Laws

By abbey semuwemba

I love men and women who fight for women rights all over the world but I think the latest proposals from Uganda women activists that appeared in the Newvision are kind of pulling the women behind. I'm not going to go into issues like 'divorcing a man with a big penis' because there is no law that can effect that, but I would like to pick on the issue of cohabitation because I think our society is again promoting concepts that are anti-cultural and anti -religious, something I find disappointing to our generation. We are copying a lot of things from the developed nations but we never asses them properly before we bring sell them to our people back home.

In these developed nations such as the UK where I live, marriage has been steadily weakened as cohabitation and homosexuality have intruded and fought to be accepted in the society. The marriage we have grown up knowing which is a sacred union between a man is and a woman before God and man, has been rejected as unworkable, laughable, hopelessly old fashioned and contrary to the basest of human sexual urges. Marriage is now openly being supplanted with cohabitation which I find so contrary to our African beliefs and religion.

Therefore, if we give legal rights to couples cohabiting in Uganda, the laws safeguarding marriage between man and woman will not be promoted so much, yet in no way can cohabitation be placed on the same level as marriage. The sense of responsibility for another that distinguishes marriages from alternatives such as cohabitation will be lost in the process if it becomes a respectable alternative to marriage. For instance, in 2007, The Church of Sweden announced its willingness to allow gay couples to marry in church and suggested that marriage laws be renamed "cohabitation laws''.

In USA, cohabitation is not legally allowed in about seven states though most of these laws are not enforced, among these include: Virginia, West Virginia, Florida, Michigan, Mississippi and North Dakota. Four other states -- Illinois, Minnesota, South Carolina and Utah -- have laws against fornication, defined as unmarried sex, according to Dorian Solot of the Alternatives to Marriage Project, a group based in Albany, New York which advocates for equality and fairness for unmarried people. Yes, Supreme Court, in 1967, ruled that Florida's criminalization of interracial marriage and cohabitation was illegal, but I'm yet to find out how this case progressed. The American Civil Liberties Union has also unsuccessfully been trying to overturn some of these laws in several states but at least the Americans who made these laws should be applauded for fighting for marriage, religion and culture.

Some people claim that living together outside of marriage is the only way two people can learn if they are right for marriage, something some people call 'testing' or 'okulozako' in Luganda, but the truth is that the increase in cohabitation has been accompanied by an increase in the divorce rate. The 'testing' may become too much and leads to someone losing interest after a while, yet sex is one of the main sources of women bargaining power in a relationship. For example,Britain now has the highest divorce rate in the European Union. In 1983 there were over 147,000 divorces granted by the courts. By 1994, this number had increased to 165,000. In USA the divorce rate increased from 708,000 in 1970 to 1,175,000 in 1990. Whereas during the same period the marriage rates have remained virtually static, despite the rise in 'marriageable age' populations. One survey carried out in USA indicated that marriages are more likely to fail if preceded by cohabitation.

That said, I agree that if couples have been cohabiting for at least 10 years then they should have some rights but not at the same level of marriage, for the sake of protecting the institution of marriage. For instance, France in 1999 introduced a civil contract called the Pacs, which gives some rights to cohabiting couples, regardless of sex. These do not include the full rights of marriage, notably over taxes, inheritance and adoption. Uganda being a poor country, most couples take about 10 years to do something meaningful with their lives- so that time frame for cohabiting couples looks fine. But the truth is that every parent who has got a daughter in marriageable age would like to see them settled in a proper, secure, and recognised relationship, and this can only be marriage, not anything else.

Abbey Kibirige Semuwemba