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Opendi proposes time limit on cohabiting among couples in new Bill

Ms Opendi said the Marriage Act, enacted 118 years ago, needs amendment and that “other than having different aspects of marriage scattered in various legislations, the new Bill will provide for comprehensive legislation on matters relating to marriage under one law.”

Tororo Woman MP Sarah Achieng Opendi. PHOTO / FILE

KAMPALA, UGANDA: Tororo district Woman Member of Parliament (MP), Sarah Opendi has proposed in her private member’s bill a clause that will recognize couples who cohabit after a certain period of time to have their marriage legally recognized.

Hon Opendi was last year granted a leave of parliament to introduce a private members bill entitled the “Marriage Bill” that sought among others to provide comprehensive legislation on matters relating to particular marriages.

Ms Opendi said the Marriage Act, enacted 118 years ago, needed an amendment and that “other than having different aspects of marriage scattered in various legislations, the new Bill will provide for comprehensive legislation on matters relating to marriage under one law.”

Speaking to journalists at parliament yesterday, Ms Opendi said she had finalized consultations on the bill from a number of stakeholders and expressed readiness to present the bill anytime soon.

She however said they are yet to finalize a clause that will recognize couples who cohabit after a certain period of time to have their marriage legally recognized.

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“So we’re finalizing this Bill and most of the issues have been resolved save for one, the majority of Ugandans are cohabiting. Close to 65 per cent of the population are living together. For them, they think they husband and wife but when legally they’re actually not registered,” said Opendi.

“Majority of Ugandans (close to 65 per cent) are cohabiting. It is unfair to live with somebody’s daughter or son for 10 years while not legally registered as a married couple,” she added.

In her submission, Ms Opendi argued that some aspects of the laws regulating the different types of marriages have become outdated, especially in light of the Constitution, government policies, emerging international best practices and the legal environment.

She said this would be like a case of Malawi where couples after six months of cohabitation under the law become married.

The proposed Bill seeks to conform with the Constitution and specifically deals with the age of marriage, consent to marriage as required by Article 31(3) of the Constitution, forms of marriage, solemnisation of marriage, prohibited degrees of relationship for marriage, conditions for polygamy, and marriage gifts among other elements.

Ms Opendi cited bridal gifts as one critical area that the Bill will redefine. The proposed Bill recognises marriage gifts but proposes that they should not be among the requirements for marriage.

This particular clause and other controversial sections strained similar attempts to enact a related legislation titled: the Domestic Relations Bill, the Marriage and Divorce Bill and now the Marriage Bill.

However, in 2019, the government asked for more time to carry out further consultations before Parliament can consider the Marriage and Divorce Bill, which has been in the House for 10 years now.

The Bill was initially called the Domestic Relations Bill, but was later split into three, which also include the Sexual Offences Bill, 2015, which was introduced and later withdrawn from Parliament and the Muslim Personal Bill, which has never been introduced. The Muslims rejected the Bill because it flouted the tenets of the Quran.

But Ms Opendi told the House that: “There is an urgent need to amend the laws governing marriage in Uganda in order to safeguard the institution of marriage, clarify the rights of parties to a marriage, incorporate the standards of fairness and equity in those laws and codify various decisions of courts of judicature pertaining to maintenance, sharing of matrimonial property, grounds for divorce, bride price, widow inheritance and parental consent.”

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