Haley Bjorn. Haley is a 2L at the Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law at Arizona State University. She completed a summer internship with the Initiative for Strategic Litigation in Africa in 2021.
When I accepted an internship with the Initiative for Strategic Litigation in Africa (ISLA), I had no idea how important property law would be in the fight for gender equality in Uganda. ISLA is a South Africa-based organization that works to further women’s and LGBTQ+ rights in African countries.
The Uganda Law Reform Commission has stated that cohabitation of unmarried couples in Uganda is common and is attributable to factors such as expensive marriage ceremonies, commercialization of marriages, and early pregnancies. Often, couples cohabitate for many years and both partners contribute financially to the acquisition of a shared home and other property, but never marry. This year, ISLA intended to facilitate the enactment of a law that would provide for the property rights of women in unmarried, intimate domestic partnerships in Uganda. The goal of this project was to address the economic challenges faced by unmarried women who cohabitate with domestic partners, especially after the dissolution of the partnership or the death a partner. Many women in these situations can be evicted from the couple’s shared home and denied shared property, even when they have directly contributed financially to the acquisition of the home or property. Currently, many women in unmarried cohabitating partnerships in Uganda have neither constitutional nor statutory rights to marital property.
My first assignment during my internship with ISLA was to research the property rights of unmarried cohabitating couples in Uganda and other countries. Other African countries have varying approaches to addressing property rights of unmarried cohabitating couples. For example, in Tanzania and Malawi, couples who live together for a number of years are presumed to be married; women in these partnerships therefore have the same rights as married women upon the death of their partner or the dissolution of the cohabitation.
In other countries, unmarried women have rights to property acquired by the couple during cohabitation, even if they did not directly financially contribute to the purchase of the property. Case law in South Africa in recent years has supported the idea that cohabitating partners can enter into “universal partnerships” that provide both partners with rights to the shared property. Furthermore, some South African cases have asserted that nonfinancial contributions to the partnership, such as childcare and homemaking, should be taken into account when determining what rights unmarried cohabitating women have to shared property after the dissolution of a partnership.
Furthermore, Uganda has been a State Party to the United Nations Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women since 1985. In 2015, the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women declared that states should adopt measures to protect the economic rights of women in unmarried cohabitating relationships upon the dissolution of the relationship or the death of a partner.
This research indicates possible arguments that could be made to support legislation in Uganda providing unmarried women in cohabitating relationships rights to shared property. The United Nations has suggested that these rights are important to eliminating discrimination against women. A possible way forward in Uganda could be the passage of legislation that presumes couples who have been in a domestic partnership for a period of time, such as five or ten years, to be married. This would allow the constitutional and statutory property rights that apply to married couples to similarly protect unmarried cohabitating couples. Another option could be the passage of legislation that provides explicit economic and property rights for women in unmarried cohabitating partnerships that recognize both parties’ contributions made to the household during the partnership. These could include contributions that are not financial, such as maintenance of the household, domestic chores, and caring for the children resulting from a partnership.
My first assignment during my internship with ISLA provided me with the opportunity to perform international legal research that could help ISLA further property rights for unmarried women in Uganda. This experience provided me with the interest and confidence to pursue other international research opportunities during my second year of law school.