As Africans especially Christians, society tells us that once you get married to one man or woman, you can never get married again. You are joined together and only death should separate you. Well, for many women and men death has indeed separated them from their spouses, because they (spouses) were death itself. When you tell anyone that your husband is violent, they will say you are being a bad wife, why are you even sharing with anyone, what is happening in your marriage? It is supposed to be between the both of you, and as a wife, it is your obligation to suffer all torture, but stay in your marriage to avoid shaming yourself and the family. They will say, our daughter cannot be the one that failed at marriage, you will shame us. But isn’t it better to be one with a failed marriage but live on? Well, I would rather live, than be in a violent unhappy marriage.

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There are situations where violence comes later, for example when a man can’t function sexually, or a woman had her uterus removed way before meeting the husband. While these are unfortunate events, one should inform their partner of such permanent issues before marriage, as failure to do this could cause violence in the long run. In the past, when a man was unable to function sexually, the family would go ahead and force him to marry. The woman would have had no idea, until the brother or father in-law showed up in the bedroom to perform conjugal duties on behalf of the groom. While in some cases it worked, in others it was impossible.

Some years ago, a young senile man in western Uganda was forced by his family to get married, so as to keep the secret. Remaining unmarried would have indicated that he had a problem. So, a lady was identified and the duo tied the knot. At no point did the man nor his family tell this woman that he was senile. After wedding, the woman was let in on the secret and it was agreed that the man’s brothers would sleep with her so as to have children and ensure the rest of the world did not suspect that her husband was senile. They lived happily, had children and all was well, until one day when the family went to attend the wedding of their neighbor. Unknown to the man, his secret had been leaked. On the fateful night, the man asked his wife to head home but she still wanted to enjoy the party, and said her in-laws would escort her home. On his way out, a few young men laughed at him and made remarks in regard to his condition. Angry that the secret had leaked, the man went home and prepared his machete. As soon as the woman got home, he closed the door and chopped her into three pieces, before drinking poison and taking his own life. Now, not the man nor the woman should have died if there was honesty from the beginning. Also, the man’s family should not have forced him to get married, well aware of his condition and insecurities. But to date, the same still happens.

Growing up, a neighbor in our village used to tell his daughters that after getting married, they were not allowed to come back home ever again unless they were visiting. “When I give you away, you cease to belong to this house, I never want to see you return here with your suitcase claiming separation or divorce from your husband. If you ever leave him, find another home and live there. I did not raise any of you to be marriage failures. Your mum and I have been together for over 40 years and never separated” he would say. This put pressure on his daughters to find perfect husbands who would not harm them, and gave them thick skin to be at the receiving end of whatever punch or slaps their husbands swung at them, and accepting to keep some grave secrets that would have led them to leave. Imagine getting married to a thief but you cannot leave because your father does not want you back at his home.

There’s a lot of crime and unnecessary anger that can be avoided if people could just walk away. Many innocent children were murdered by their parents just because they could not get along. Not to mention the amount of cheating and unhappiness in families. But why should things get bloody when one can have the option of walking away?

Growing up, it was easy to see such things happen in many families. Our home was near a small village road and at least every day, a different man would pass running after his wife with a panga, spear or cane. Sometimes, there was a crowd cheering, or family members and friends trying to stop the man from killing his wife. Oh, not forgetting the naked children crying, running after their parents that could hurt each other in broad daylight. My mum was a sort of judge or counsellor and I can remember every evening women coming to our home to tell her their problems. “My husband is beating me” some would say, or “I am scared for my life” and she would advise them to go to the police, or back to their parents’ homes, to avoid dying at the hands of their abusers.

I remember her trying to talk to the husbands and asking them to stop behaving like animals towards their wives, especially for the sake of their children. There was talk that some women were also beating up their husbands, meaning the abuse was not one way. Two women in particular, were accused of beating up their husbands, but the men were too shy to seek help.

One day, our neighbor who always fought with his wife, separated and got back together, decided not to bring her back when she left. He was determined to raise their children single handedly. So my mother decided to speak to him, why don’t you go, apologize to your wife’s family, and bring her back so you two can raise these children? She asked. He whispered to her, that it was better they went separate ways, because the woman was abusing him, beating him up every night but he feared that speaking up would make him appear to be a weak man. He said; “How do I tell my in-laws that their daughter beats me? No one will believe me. Utmost, they will laugh at me for being so weak”. This man was in pain but was not willing to speak up. Eventually he would later go, pay a fine to the in-laws and beg her to return. He paid the fine levied by his in-laws before they would allow him to take his abuser back home. At the start of this year, he died abruptly and the entire village turned on the woman, blaming her for poisoning her husband to death. Whether she did it or not, we may never know. 

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Terms for Church Annulment

The Catholic Church in particular allows a couple to annul a marriage 14 days after wedding. How does this work? Fr Paul tells me that many couples do not know about this because even when they are told about such important information, they are too excited to get married and do not give it enough attention. After the Sacrament of matrimony has been administered, a couple has 14 days to consummate it. In case they find that either man or woman does not function sexually, they have a right to go back to church and annul the marriage. Also, in case someone finds out a grave secret about their partner that they are unable to live with for the rest of their life, they can use the 14 days to annul the marriage before they start a life of regret. However, Fr Paul explains that the marriage can only be annulled if it was not yet consummated; or making a marriage complete by having sexual intercourse. If you have sexual intercourse with your spouse in the first 14 days following your wedding, then you can’t come back to make a claim.

The Catholic Church states “a ratified and consummated marriage cannot be dissolved by any human power or for any reason other than death” (CCC 2382). Annulment of marriage can only be granted by the Pope, given the fact he was given the authority by Christ to 'bind and loosen'. Fr Paul tells me about annulment, commonly known as Catholic divorce. He says there are strong reasons for it and explains that civil divorce (one that happens in the courts of law) does not end a church marriage. While one may go to court and divorce their husband or wife, if the marriage is not annulled by the Church, their marriage stands forever. Moreover, when the Pope annuls the marriage, it is a decree that matrimony was never valid.

I asked Fr Paul what would warrant an annulment and his reply was consent; annulment comes when there was no consent. Fr Paul explains that in some cases, some people do not intend to get married. Maybe a woman or man intentionally lied to the other about something so important like their inability to have children. However, the spouse that has made a claim for annulment must provide evidence that their partner never divulged such information during their courtship. The other reason a marriage could be annulled on the argument of consent is if a wrong woman is presented at the wedding day, and the man is threatened by family to marry her. Back in the day, a younger sister was not allowed to get married before her elder sisters. So if a man came to a family and asked for the hand of the young one, at church the elder sister would be presented and the man was forced to marry the one presented on that day. Thus, if one ends up in such a marriage, they are allowed to seek annulment of the marriage.

Another reason to seek annulment is adultery; but this is the hardest to prove. Nonetheless, if one has evidence, this can also lead to annulment. However, when a man catches his wife in adultery, or a woman catches her husband, they should not sleep with them again. According to Fr Paul, a case is reported and the issue is sent to the tribunal at diocese. From here, it is sent to Rome for perusal. The process takes not less than two years. This is in order to give the couple a chance at reconciliation, just in case the aggrieved party decides to forgive the other. If there is no intimacy or reconciliation for over two years, and there is overwhelming evidence, then the marriage is annulled. While it is easy for a woman to forgive a man caught in adultery, the reverse is not the same. Many husbands would not forgive a woman caught sleeping with another man. While this is a genuine cause for annulment, proving it seems impossible.

The third cause for annulment of marriage, and the one I am most interested in, is physical abuse. According to Fr Paul, this is handled immediately, but usually separation is the first step. When a man or woman is continuously physically abused by their spouse, the Church tries to reconcile them, but if it is grave, they are advised to separate. The reason the Church does not immediately go for annulment in this case, is because most victims tend to forgive their abusers. Fr Paul tells me that it would be weird to annul a marriage and three years later, the same couple shows up claiming to have reconciled and want to get married again. This is somehow the same with most domestic violence cases reported to the police, where a woman reports a man and he is arrested, but two days later she is begging the police to release her abuser. It is one of the most complicated issues to deal with, but when the victim reports a case of physical abuse that results in harm, they are immediately given special attention and advised to separate. A letter is then written to Rome where evidence is reviewed and the marriage is annulled.

Meanwhile, unlike in civil divorce, the Church has no right to decide which of the two parents get the children. After a marriage has been annulled, the couple is now advised to go to civil courts for child custody. One of the reasons the Church does not grant divorce is because it believes that God himself unites a man and woman, and that what God has put together, let no man put asunder.

Fear & Stigma

There is a lot of blackmail in the community when you save yourself from a marriage, you are deemed a selfish person, if you don’t, you are a coward. Many people are confused on whether they should leave, or stay and be abused. Many people risk the possibility of getting killed in their homes by their spouses if they continue living with them under the same roof. I believe that giving someone space helps them think clearly on what they would like to do with their lives, and once someone has decided that moving on alone is the best thing, let no one convince them otherwise, as this could end in the worst-case scenario. Divorce and separation should not be avoided, but instead, accepted by the community. Just like relationships between boyfriends and girlfriends fail, a marriage can fail too. People should not be told what to do, each couple, person would decide what’s better for them and if divorce is the way forward, then they should do that. I wish the Church could make it easier, but there’s fear that many men will walk away, marry other wives and neglect children from the first marriage.

The notion of parents staying together under abusive marriages just for the sake of bringing up children together is ancient. Co-parenting has become a great solution and should be embraced by people even here in the banana republic. It will break a child to know that their father killed their mother more than it would break them if their parents just lived happily separated ways but got to bring up the children alive. A child having to listen to their parents fighting every night is more heartbreaking, than when a child has to see two happy parents who get along but live separately. Studies show that children who grow up in abusive homes, will tend to be abusive in their future relationships. If a boy grows up seeing their father beating up the mother, they are most likely to beat their wives in future, even girls whose mothers are abused, and tend to think it is okay for a woman to be assaulted by a man.

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Another report from Women’s Health indicates that “many children exposed to violence in the home are also victims of physical abuse. Children who witness domestic violence or are victims of abuse themselves are at serious risk for long-term physical and mental health problems. Children who witness violence between parents may also be at greater risk of being violent in their future relationships. If you are a parent who is experiencing abuse, it can be difficult to know how to protect your child”. Another research published in USA Today, indicates that Brain imaging in infants shows that exposure to domestic violence – even as they are sleeping, or in utero – can reduce parts of the brain, change its overall structure and affect the way its circuits work together.

Staying in an abusive marriage for the sake of children is not as helpful to them as society may think. Maybe being apart from your abuser could help this child get peace of mind and have a chance at a better future. Many women think it is impossible to bring up a child without its father, but it is not better to suffer working day and night to provide for a child, than watch them die at the hands of your abuser. In March 2020, in one of the fatal domestic violence cases, a man chopped his wife and their two children into pieces, packed them into sacks and ran away. According to neighbors, he had made the entire family some sort of drums and they often advised her to move out, but she always claimed not to have enough income to take care of the children on her own. Unfortunately, she and the children were killed. Who knows if she had moved out and left the man how things could have been different.

Civil Society Takes the Lead

We are unable to save the women, men and children who perished at the hands of their abusers, but we can save those suffering silently right now. If you or someone you know are suffering any kind of abuse, it may be emotional, psychological or physical, please walk away. Separate and think of what you want your life and the lives of your children, family and friends to be. In the meantime, several shelters have been founded by different Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOS) to help women who are living in abusive marriages find a safe space to stay in. One of the organizations offering this service is WORI (Women Rights Initiative Uganda) which set up the Nyonga Women's Shelter located in Jinja, Eastern Uganda. The shelter has a secure wall to keep the residents safe away from risk of further violence, stalking and other threats. It currently houses 12 women and 6 children.

Initially, WORI was running awareness campaigns on the prevention of domestic and gender-based violence. While WORI says this was a good approach to prevent violent acts from happening by making them socially unacceptable, changing people's mentality and breaking the silence around these topics- they found that violence still persisted. WORI noted that the rate of violence towards women in the region they work in is estimated at 75%, and the regional authorities lack the technical capacity & resources to meet survivors’ immediate and long-term needs. Thus, as a way to help victims stay away from their abusers, they offered them a safe space where they can escape the violence, seek refuge and rebuild themselves.

Other Organizations like Action Aid also have shelters that are run in partnership with MIFUMI and UKaid. The shelters are located in different districts spread across the country. These include; Bwaise in Kampala, Gulu, Nebbi, Pallisa,Kumi, Katakwi, Lira, Amuru, Kween, Mubende, Mbarara, Masaka and Moroto.

With these organizations & other groups running advocacy campaigns to influence behavior change & more acceptance of separation, divorce and speaking out about abuse, the stage is set for people to liberate themselves from the shackles of abuse. The pain of living with a monster for the rest of your life, just because you one time were head over heels in love with them, and made a commitment should not be a thing for this century. Society must know that we are all human and when two people begin to harm each other, the best thing to do is walk away before it all turns bloody. When happily ever after fails & you lose the sense of safety, you have to seriously consider walking away.

 

 
 

This post is also available in: Arabic


Sarah Biryomumaisho

Sarah Biryomumaisho is a Ugandan journalist, voice over artist, social media manager/influencer and blogger. Sarah worked with 4 major radio stations as a senior News Editor, English News Anchor and presenter for the past 8 years. She is currently a voice over artist, correspondent and News Editor at Hotshot Limited, a media and production house in Kampala. She is also currently the Managing Director of Andariya in Uganda.