Marriage Bill May Change Stigma for Illegitimate Children in Uganda


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KAMPALA, UGANDA – Samalie Namuyomba, 15, is in her third year at Mengo Senior Secondary School in Kampala, Uganda’s capital.

Despite the fact that she is an educated young woman, she says that people identify her most with another label: an illegitimate child.

“One day, my stepdad had a quarrel with my mother, and I overheard him refer to me as a bastard,” she says, adding that her mother gave birth to her outside of wedlock.

“When my Mammy got married, she already had me,” she says. “So when she gave birth to other children with my Dad, I was not accepted.”

She says she suffered rejection both at home and at school because of the stigma attached to being “illegitimate” in Ugandan society.

“This rejection was both at home and at school, such that teachers together with other kids hated me,” she says.

She says she felt pressure to try to impress others so that her peers would accept her as legitimate.

“As a child, I often did many things to please my so-called friends, but it was in vain,” she says.

Samalie says she developed an inferiority complex from the constant criticism of herself and her mother by their relatives and stepfamily. She says this also affected her performance in school.

“I was ever the last in class, and this led to criticisms and derisions,” she says. “Some relatives said I was stupid like my mother. My stepbrother and sisters would throw all sorts of words at me trying to predict my future.” 

Samalie is one of many children who have been stigmatized as illegitimate because they were born to unmarried parents.

Illegitimacy is a delicate subject in Uganda, where many believe children are illegitimate if they are born to unmarried parents. Noting the detrimental effects of the stigma attached to illegitimacy here on children, guardians and psychologists say that love and stability is more important to a child’s well-being than parents’ marital status. Attitudes toward illegitimacy have been slowly changing with time as local nongovernmental organizations seek to provide additional support to vulnerable children.

In Uganda, marriage laws within the country govern the legitimacy or illegitimacy of a child in the eyes of some. The Uganda Marriage and Divorce Bill 2009, which aims to reform and consolidate laws on marriage, separation and divorce, is on Parliament’s agenda this month. The controversial bill may alter the contours of illegitimacy, as it would legally recognize cohabitation in relation to property rights after a five-year period, regardless of formal religious ceremonies.  

Chris Onyango, 69, a church elder at Christ Centre Church in Kampala, says that no human being should be described as illegitimate.

“There is no child who is illegitimate,” he says. “Why should a child be illegitimate?”

Even when children are born under circumstances like rape, they are legitimate and deserve care, he says.

“How are those children that they should be described as illegitimate?” he asks. “Even when a man or a woman is raped, that child born out of rape has to be raised and has a right to be raised.”  

On the contrary, Cossy Obonyo, 43, a lawyer, says that children may be described as illegitimate depending on the circumstances under which they are born.

“Children are illegitimate in the sense that they are products of an illicit sexual relationship,” she says.

She says that apart from the children’s parents, members of society don’t treat them well because their existence is a cause of conflict. Some may not even know their parents or their parents may not want to know them. As such, they are usually underprivileged.

“They suffer rejection from the beginning, and they may not have the same rights as the official children to inherit wealth from the parents,” she says. “Some parents deny their existence.”

But Obonyo says that these children can live a normal life and find success despite their difficult social circumstances.

“With God’s help, they can lead a normal life because it is not their fault,” she says. “These are circumstances they found themselves in.”

Rose Mutungi, 43, a guardian of an illegitimate child, also defines illegitimate children as those born outside the socially accepted confines of marriage.

“Children are illegitimate in the sense that they born out of wedlock, like a girl giving birth to a child when staying at her parents’ home,” says Mutungi, a computer teacher living in Ibanda, a district in western Uganda.

But she is quick to add that to a parent or guardian of such children, they are not illegitimate, even though they may be treated as such by society.

“To a parent, your child is your child, and you treat them well,” she says. “But others may not treat them right.”

She says she is the guardian one such child, Nickson Tumutegyereize, 15, her nephew. She says he used to be disoriented and uninterested in school. He often ran away from her home to stay with relatives because he could not stand the loneliness of not having other children in the house.

“My nephew, Nickson, used run away from home, and he said he wanted to stay in a family,” she says. “He was lonely and wanted to play with other children. He had even stopped schooling.”

She says that as long as the child is loved, they can grow up and be successful – irrespective of the circumstances that surrounded their birth. She says she has tried to make her nephew feel loved.

“I counseled him, and he settled down,” she says of her nephew. “Now we are together.”

She says that the key is love, not marital status, as even children born within the accepted marriage settings would feel rejected if they were not loved.

“As long as a child is loved, they can grow up and be successful,” she says. “On the other hand, if you have parents and they don’t care about you, [you] still feel rejected.”

This has been the case for Priscilla Karungi, 34, a communications specialist working in the local reproductive health sector.

“For example, we never see any coin of my father’s earnings, she says of her own family. He takes all the money to a woman with who he bore a girl child.” 

She says her father always refers to that child in every conversation, which hurts her and her younger sibling.

“Every time you start up a conversation with my father – even if it’s about politics, academics or any topic on planet Earth – he will find a way to chip in his daughter born out of wedlock,” she says.

Christina Angella Ntulo, 38, a psychologist, says that the home environment is a key factor in the development of psychosocial problems in children. Ntulo also serves as the executive director of Basic Needs Foundation Uganda, which promotes the rights of people with mental health issues.

She says that illegitimate children will grow up feeling stigmatized, especially if they are constantly reminded that they are illegitimate. Poverty may aggravate this stigmatization if their guardians are unable to provide for their basic needs.

Still, Ntulo says that there have been some positive signs. She says that the stigma attached to illegitimacy in Ugandan society has lessened throughout the years – and should continue to do so.

“In the early days, coming from a single parent’s home was almost a crime,” she says. “There was a lot of stigma associated with it. Teachers would pick on you as one coming from the home of an unmarried person. Such children would not even be invited for some parties.”

Because illegitimacy remains a sensitive subject in Ugandan society, organizations working specifically with illegitimate children are still rare. But various organizations support orphans and other vulnerable children.

The Uganda Association of Women Lawyers, part of an international federation that strives for gender justice through law, provides legal services to women who have been abandoned by their children’s fathers in order to obtain child support.   

For Samalie, the solution has been her faith. Samalie says she used to feel alienated and suffered a lot until she surrendered her life to Christ when she was in fourth grade.

“I always asked myself why I was treated that way and for how long I would be under this situation,” she says. “Was I unlucky in every aspect of life? I would fall sick every time and had the most frightening nightmares.”

She says that knowing God has helped her regain her sense of self-worth. 

“I left home and went to stay with my grandmother,” she says. “I surrendered everything to God and trusted in him with all my heart and strength, and I was never disappointed. He washed me clean with his blood and wiped away my tears.”

She says she has since found harmony with her family and success in school.

“I acquired very many friends, found a place in my heart to forgive my stepsisters and brothers and father who used to insult me, and above all, I forgave my father who had rejected me,” she says. “I also begun performing well at school, and I have turned out to be a blessing to my relatives and parents – especially my stepfather.”