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Women lawyers force big rights gains in Uganda

This spring, a small group of lawyers helped overturn laws that gave men more rights than women.

– In the small, dusty waiting lounge of a law office in Uganda's capital, Kampala, a cluster of women sits patiently.

Some grip stacks of paperwork – about divorce, child custody, and wills – that they don't understand while they wait for free legal advice.

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There are hundreds of groups in Africa advocating women's rights. But few, if any, have been as effective in alleviating the injustices suffered by women as this small group of lawyers in Uganda.

In April, the Uganda Association of Women Lawyers (FIDA-U) achieved its most significant legal success to date when the nation's Constitutional Court overturned key parts of the adultery law – which allowed married men, but not women, to have an affair. It also scrapped parts of the Succession Act, which gave more rights to husbands than wives when a spouse dies. But more important for many of the lawyers here is the ability to improve the individual lives of the women they advise.

"I came here initially just to have a place to practice, and now I've stayed because of the way we are helping women succeed in getting their rights," says Faith Namono, who has worked as a FIDA-U lawyer for two years.

Helping women help themselves

Women come in a constant stream from the time the office opens to the time it closes. Cases are handled for no fee, on a first-come, first-serve basis.

"They're just people who need help at the end of the day," says Victoria Kirunda, who has been a lawyer with FIDA-U for over a year.

The majority of the cases that the team sees involve marriage benefits, or the lack thereof. Women who have been living with common-law husbands for several years often end up having to support children without any financial help after the arrangement ends.

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"A lot of the women don't even know that they are not legally married," says Rose Nsenge, sitting in her office with Juliet Makumbi, a repeat client.

Ms. Makumbi says she had been unable to persuade her former partner to provide assistance for her and her children until she sought legal advice. "I failed in all other places," she says.

Ms. Nsenge used prolonged mediation, a technique the lawyers call alternative dispute resolution, to get the partner to provide financial support.

Nsenge says that dispute resolution is the group's most commonly used method to settle domestic affairs.

FIDA-U says its success rate with mediation is about 60 percent, a number the lawyers attribute to the fact that many of their clients' partners fear going to court.

A few doors down the hall, Jennifer Nakibuka is in a similar situation. Dressed in a man's red-plaid shirt and long black skirt, Ms. Nakibula says that she was thrown out of her house by her partner when he found out she was pregnant.

She says she was forced by an uncle into a marriage in which she was the second wife. The marriage lasted less than two years.

But her problem arose because the marriage was not legal, and the Ugandan Constitution does not have a notion of common law marriage.

Nakibula came to FIDA-U because, as she says, "I have nothing at all, and here I could come for free."

Proscovia Nakanjako, her lawyer, has succeeded though dispute resolution in getting the partner to finally begin giving assistance in the last weeks of Nakibula's pregnancy.

"I enjoy helping these women succeed, and these cases have actually helped women on a daily basis," says Ms. Namono. "We are reaching out into the villages to create awareness about the rulings," she adds.

Decades of work bear fruit

FIDA-U has been responsible for the legal victories of hundreds of everyday Ugandan women since 1974.

But the group's recent legal success was born of years of hard work and strategic organizing. "We had all these brilliant ideas; we thought we could move mountains," says Regina Lule Mutyaba, who joined FIDA-U over 15 years ago to work on a project that helped women write wills during the height of the HIV/AIDS epidemic. FIDA-U was then becoming well known for its advocacy work in Uganda, attracting women from all over the country and, ultimately, the interest of the US-based Georgetown University Law Center.

In 1997, Georgetown helped the lawyers form a coalition, Law and Advocacy for Women in Uganda (LAWU), that would be the apparatus for launching landmark challenges to national marriage and divorce laws.

"Our key strategy was that we had commitment, international support in the form of money and research, and a diverse team of lawyers," says Mutyaba. "Nobody was doing this kind of work: strategic litigation to eliminate laws biased against women."

Though Uganda's 1995 constitution has a clause that upholds legal equality for both sexes, previous efforts to amend archaic marriage, divorce, and property laws by the ministry for gender were lackluster and failed. And by virtue of being a non-profit organization, LAWU did not have enough resources to compete with the abundance of the attorney general's resources.

"But we did our preparation," Mutyaba says. For over a year, the lawyers met weekly to pore over research and to perfect their pleadings. A prominent male lawyer was recruited to argue against legislation that was most harmful to women, in order to soften the team's approach.

Putting the government 'on its toes'

Good organization and a long history of activism have made FIDA-U "powerful" and distinguishes it from many burgeoning women's movements in sub-Saharan Africa, says Michael Wangusa, who works on gender issues for the British charity Oxfam. FIDA-U has established itself as an influential lobbying force, he says.

By forcing the courts to uphold the Constitution through eliminating laws biased against women, it has "put the government on its toes," says Carol Bunga Idembe, an advocacy analyst at the women's rights group Uganda Women's Network.

At the end of last month, LAWU petitioned a Ugandan court demanding that female genital mutilation, practiced by several communities in the eastern region of the country, be declared illegal. Though at least 16 African countries have banned the practice, the effort marks the first time a campaign against the practice has been launched in Uganda.

The overturning of the adultery law caused a public uproar over concerns that it would lead to increased promiscuity, and the female genital mutilation campaign has already stirred worries about cultural encroachment. But Mutyaba and her colleagues say that they are not worried.

As Mutyaba states: "There will be an outcry, but we are expecting it."