A recent ruling that emphasizes proof of adultery in order for courts to grant a divorce has stirred a hot debate among Christians and lawyers across the country.
In the Aug. 18 High Court ruling regarding a divorce case filed by a Ugandan man named Zedekia Karokora against his wife, Kellen Karokora, Justice John Eudes Keitirima noted that without proof of adultery, the court would not grant a divorce — even if the petitioner had provided proof against the respondent on the other grounds for divorce in the country’s Divorce Act.
In addition to adultery, the Divorce Act in Uganda provides five grounds for separation that include cruelty, desertion, bigamy, change of religion, and conviction on rape, sodomy, and bestiality. In the past, couples in Uganda have sought — and were granted — divorce on any of the six grounds.
Keitirima’s ruling making adultery the main ground has sparked a hot national debate. An estimated 370,000 couples divorce or separate each year in Uganda, according to the 2020 data compiled by the Swedish International Development Cooperation in Uganda.
Karokora and Kellen were wed on May 7, 1975, at Kihanga Anglican Church of Uganda. Karokora had used cruelty and desertion to seek divorce. Karokora told the court that since 1999, his wife had denied him conjugal rights and that she had not talked to him in two decades.
Karokora also said that Kellen regularly abused and humiliated him before their children and guests and that she had turned their children against him. He asked the court to grant him a divorce since he could no longer stay married to Kellen.
However, Kellen was against the divorce and denied ever mistreating her husband. She told the court that she loved him and that she would work hard to ensure that their marriage would work. As a result, Kellen asked the court to dismiss Karokora’s petition.
In the ruling, Keitirima noted that cruelty and desertion, which Karokora had presented as his grounds to seek divorce, must be coupled with adultery for the divorce to be granted.
“Even if in his evidence, the petitioner could have proved cruelty and desertion on the part of the respondent, those grounds are not sufficient to dissolve a marriage,” said the judge, adding, “The petitioner has failed to prove the grounds for divorce, and the petition will be dismissed.”
Karokora had also listed the family’s property and asked the judge to distribute it equally between him and Kellen after granting the divorce. The properties included 91 acres of farmland in western Uganda and other assets. But the judge declined to resolve the issue — arguing that this action hinged on granting the couple a divorce, which he had not done.
In addition, the judge did not award costs of the suit on grounds that he wanted the couple to find a way to reconcile. It’s that specific ruling that has stirred a debate among Christians and lawyers across the country.
Busingye Kabumba, a senior lecturer of constitutional law and legal philosophy at Makerere University School of Law in Uganda, said that demanding proof of adultery in a divorce case violates the critical rights to privacy of the petitioner as enshrined under Article 27 of the Ugandan Constitution.
“In the Zedekia case, for instance, can anyone really suggest that there is any strong public interest served by the entire Ugandan public knowing that he and Kellen have not had sex since 1999,” said Kabumba, “or that he has to cook separate meals for himself?”
He added: “Clearly, the requirement for the petitioner to have had to expose such intimate details of their domestic life impacts not only on his privacy and that of his wife Kellen but that of their children, wider family, relatives, friends, and in-laws.”
“Matters are even more complicated where adultery is one of the grounds at play since under the law as it stands, the co-adultery has to be specifically named (alongside various other lurid details required to affirmatively prove the ground), thereby affecting a whole range of otherwise blameless persons, such as that other person’s spouses, children, relatives and other associates.”
Keitirima’s ruling sends a reminder to Parliament, which has for years unsuccessfully struggled to change the marriage legislation in the country. Previous attempts to pass the marriage bill have stalled, with lawmakers divided on the definition of marriage as well as property ownership in the event of divorce.
But Busingye also noted that the ruling had diverted from the evolution of the law that had liberalized the requirements for divorce in Uganda, where a string of prior cases had allowed a party to rely on a single ground (other than adultery) as a basis for divorce. Some judges had even started evoking the holistic ground of irretrievable breakdown of marriage to allow parties to move on from clearly dead unions.
“In the case, the court found Section 4 of the Divorce Act to offend Article 21 of the constitution (on nondiscrimination) in so far as it permitted a husband to petition for divorce on the single ground of adultery, while a wife had to couple adultery with another ground, such as incest, bigamy, rape or bestiality,” he said, adding that the decision would later favor a single ground for both women and men seeking divorce.
The Rev. Grace Lubale, a senior lecturer of education and development at Kyambogo University in Uganda and also a human rights advocate, told Religion Unplugged that he does not encourage divorce.
“Yes, Jesus said adultery should be the only cause of divorce, but what if your partner wants to kill you? Can’t you seek divorce?,” he asked, adding, “I think this judgment needs further interpretation to see if there are no other grounds that may lead to granting divorce.”
Produced in association with Religion Unplugged
Edited by Priscilla Jepchumba and Newsdesk Manager