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Women’s Divorce Rights: Progress in Uganda

skd284550sdcAlthough there are many circulating opinions regarding divorce in the U.S., we are lucky enough to have fair divorce laws in this country, whether you’re a man or woman. Until about a decade ago in Uganda, their law made it unfairly difficult and rare for a wife to initiate divorcing her husband, while letting husbands divorce wives quite easily. Now that Ugandan laws are changing, and representatives are standing up for the rights of women, the oppression of women in divorce is finally lifting.

Change of Law, Change of Heart

Cases of women initiating divorce in Uganda have been on the rise ever since 2004, when a court got rid of a sexist divorce law. The law allowed a man to swiftly divorce his wife merely upon proof of adultery, while a woman only had a case if she could prove her husband had committed sodomy, desertion, or bestiality.

Now women can file for divorce on account of abuse, adultery, or for any other matter in the marriage that lowers their quality of life. As a result, legal officials and activists report, the number of divorce cases overall has multiplied, showing how needful the unfair law repeal actually was.

Thanks to sympathetic Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni, even more progressive changes may take effect within the year. Lawmakers are working to pass a law that would solidify men and women as equals within marriage, including making marital rape an offense, and securing equal distribution of property upon divorce.

Taking a Stand

Referring to how he likes to turn his courtroom into a classroom, Ugandan court magistrate David Batema pronounces,“[t]he major aim of the lesson should be to point out to the man that marriage, as of now, is a partnership of equals.”

Batema is a forward-thinking man who, among other activists and legal authorities, is admirably standing up for women, thereby helping to create a better, more egalitarian future. Many times during feminist revolutions like this one, oppressed women are the ones leading the way. It’s refreshing to see males stepping up to the plate, defending and empowering women.

Batema believes in protecting women’s freedom of choice, saying “that’s why in my career I have never refused to grant a divorce where one partner wants it,” he said. “Marriage is supposed to be voluntary.”

Confronting Stigma

Still lingering among traditionalist and church official thinking in the conservative, East African country is that the rise in divorce is shameful. What this kind of opinion disregards as unimportant is the overwhelming instances and likelihood of abuse from which these women are rightfully escaping.

As Maria Nassali, a family law teacher and activist, emphasizes, “[w]e need to kill the stigma associated with divorce. She’s not being selfish when she gets a divorce. She’s not being immoral. She just wants to be a human being.”

When a culture teaches and expects women to be submissive to their husbands, and disables them from making choices about their own well-being, the women are deprived of human rights. Thankfully, voices like Batema and Nassali’s are being heard, and the culture of female submission in Uganda is changing for the better.

Collaborative Divorce: Stuck Between Contested and Uncontested

78630844The availability of the collaborative divorce process is gaining steam as more states sign it into law. A less adversarial form of divorce, collaborative divorce still allows the couple to make all separation agreements without sitting, or heatedly standing, in a courtroom.

Although uncontested divorce is the most ideal case in which spouses can settle things peacefully on their own, a collaborative agreement involving two lawyers keeps the situation out of any court drama that often ensues during contested cases. Thankfully, a new collaborative divorce law was just passed in Washington, solidly making available a more peaceful divorce experience for all involved.

Terminology Lesson

Just so we’re all on the same page, here are definitions of most kinds of divorce:

Uncontested Divorce: A divorce in which the couple agrees on all allocations of marital property, child custody, child support, and/or alimony. Uncontested divorce essentially eliminats the need for lawyers or a judge in court. An uncontested divorce usually gives a no-fault grounds for divorce.

Contested Divorce: The opposite of uncontested, contested divorce means the couple cannot make a settlement agreement on their own due to disputes. Lawyers and a judge are needed to make the settlement for them. The process is longer and more expensive.

Mediated Divorce: A divorce where the couple hires a mediator, who is usually a divorce attorney trained in mediation, to help them settle allocations agreeably.

Collaborative Divorce: Similar to mediated divorce, except the couple hires two lawyers, one for each spouse, to help them come to an agreement and draft the divorce settlement.

Good News for Washington

Despite its effectiveness, the collaborative divorce option is only enacted in a few U.S. states. One state that just made it available and signed it into law is Washington, to the joy of many supporters.

Called the Uniform Collaborative Law Act, it enables couples to utilize mental health professionals and child specialists as well as lawyers to make the out-of-court option run even smoother. Child therapist Kristin Little remarks, “You’re helping people to be good parents through the divorce, so you’re actually preventing a lot of the damage that can occur during the divorce.”

Indeed, going through divorce is especially hard on children, who tend to be caught in the eye of the storm. “I have been doing family law litigation 25 years and court is no place for families,” says Washington based lawyer, Cynthia First. When disputes need to be resolved themselves, leaving them out of the court’s hands means less hassle and more peace.

Amicable Splitting

The best way to settle any conflict or disagreement is through reasonable compromise and speedy resolution. That kind of attitude and problem-solving leads to feelings of goodwill for the ex-spouse and life after divorce. Even though spouses often have serious disagreements over what will happen to their life’s possessions during divorce, they can find a way to temper them independently through options like collaborative divorce. The collaborative divorce process frees up more time and resources for the divorcee to focus on other things, like moving on.

Alimony & Sexism

76755050When the word sexism pops up, it’s common to tag it as a women’s problem; women face injustices in the workplace, and in home-life expectations. But sexism affects men as well. Questions and activism are on the rise regarding the fairness of alimony, and the regular handouts men are oftentimes required to pay ex-wives after filing for divorce. A centuries old system, alimony is beginning to be labeled as out of date with the changing times and gender roles of modern society.

Although every divorce case is different and requires special discretion, many states still require husbands to pay lifetime alimony, with few exceptions. It is especially deemed unjust by these husbands when the wife is fully capable of supporting herself if she so chose. The alimony law’s unfairness in these cases brings up the question of its value and promotion of a different kind of sexism that holds firm to strict gender expectations that are no longer appreciated.

“It’s not fair; it’s the law”

The main argument against lifetime alimony law is that ex-wives are reaping these monetary benefits for no good reason, other than the law states they should because it’s stuck in a 1950’s mentality. Opponents, consisting of both men and women, as discussed in an NPR article, are in favor of modifications, such as the new law in Massachusetts that customizes and determines alimony according to marriage length.

One such alimony opponent discussed in the article is Tom Leustek, a New Jersey based professor whose ex-wife has a Ph.D. Still, he was ordered by a judge to pay her lifetime alimony, since she had ended up quitting a high-paying job to start a less financially rewarding psychology practice. Leustek argues her earning potential is still alive and well. He quotes the judge, who said, “It’s not fair, Mr. Leustek; it’s the law.” That was the turning point leading him to take up activism through a group, called the New Jersey Alimony Reform, that seeks to modify the law in a similar way Massachusetts did.

Stuck in the 1950’s?

The term sexism comes into play when you consider the state of marital affairs of the past, in which most women in America stayed home to care for the house and children, while the breadwinning men trotted off to work. It was and continues to be a limiting stereotype that is still in the process of being eradicated as more and more women step into the workforce and increase their opportunities.

Businessman Raymond Posa is another alimony questioner who faced a similar situation to Leustek’s, agrees that the divorce law needs to change with the times. Referring to the assumptions made by alimony enforcement, he says, “It’s like you’re incapable of getting on your own two feet, and you need to depend on this person for the rest of your life?” If women are making their own money, it makes sense for the patriarchal notion of depending on a man to fall to the wayside where it belongs.