MUKONO, UGANDA – Rebecca’s wedding day is one like many woman dream of: beautiful flowers, a packed church and a stunning white dress. This bride is nearly 70, but sits regally in her finery like a woman half her age.
In fact, just two seats down, there is a woman half her age in another white dress. And two more next to her. There are four veils, four bouquets and four grooms smiling by their sides. The four couples stand ready to formalize their marriages all at the same time.
Their ceremony is surely unconventional, and it is more than just a declaration of love for these participants. In Uganda, informal marriages are common and recognized by the community – but without formal documentation, the marriage may not be recognized by the law.
If the marriage is not legally recognized, opportunistic relatives and others can throw a widow from her home after the death of her husband, claiming she has no legal right to stay. And when she tries to appeal to local authorities for help, they will likely turn her away with the same excuse: without a marriage certificate, there is no legal proof of the marriage, and the therefore, no legal proof of the widow’s right to her own home and livelihood.
To counteract this risk, IJM Kampala Church and Community Relations team works with churches throughout Mukono district to encourage legal, formalized marriages as a first defense against property grabbing. Churches that partner with IJM are tasked with organizing mass weddings like this one to give their congregants an opportunity to legalize their marriage without the full burden of funding their own ceremony.
Take Rebecca and her husband Kintu, sitting in the front row of this packed little church. They have lived together for 50 years and have raised nine children. Neighbors would call them husband and wife, but the courts, unfortunately, would not.
Uganda identifies three types of legal marriages (religious, civil and customary), but requires certain criteria for these ceremonies to be officially recognized by the state. Unlike other countries, no common law marriage system exists to ratify other unofficial unions. Many of the rural poor – and even many religious leaders – are unaware of the criteria for formal unions and therefore do not realize that they are unprotected.
The consequences are dire: “When one of them passes away,” explains Joshua Niyo, IJM Kampala Church and Community Relations Coordinator, “the surviving partner would not benefit from any part of the property they had a great hand in accumulating.”
Losing one’s own home after a spouse’s death would be traumatic for anyone, but for the very poor the risks are even higher. Without their land, there is nowhere to grow food; without a reserve of savings, there is no way to afford shelter or even the most basic of necessities.
“Previously the Church would sit back and wait for people, hoping they would come forth and put things right,” explains Provost John Ssebudde, the reverend who conducted the ceremony. He continues, “Now, the Church is going out to prompt them to come and sort out this aspect of their lives.”
IJM’s Niyo adds, “It’s good to see that even the church leaders are aware of the need to switch to an active and intentional participation in the justice cause.”
Rebecca’s wedding ceremony was the first to arise from the partnership between IJM and her pastor. Taking this step at her age will likely inspire many other couples at her church; the reverend has already encouraged other couples to take these same steps and will conduct more mass weddings in the future.
Within the day’s ceremony, the four couples exchange vows, pray and process down the center aisle. Four sets of bridesmaids. Four couples taking turns smiling for the photographer on the front steps. Four knives to cut the cake at the reception.
And four official marriage certificates, witnessed by a joyful crowd, that will protect the families and their homes for years to come.