With reports of a sharp increase in the number of men in Uganda seeking paternity tests, fears are growing it could break up families and leave children psychologically scarred.
The issue has been a hot topic of debate in the country since a tabloid newspaper published a story claiming that a well-known business tycoon – who had several wives and mistresses – had a row with one of his spouses, prompting him to request paternity tests that reportedly said he was the biological father of only 15 of his 25 children.
The tycoon and his family have never commented publicly, and the report has not been independently verified.
But the story spread like wildfire and has caused huge controversy over the last few months, prompting some lawmakers to make an emotional appeal to men to stop putting their families and children through the trauma of tests.
“Let’s live like our forefathers lived. The child born in the house is your child,” Minister of Mineral Development Sarah Opendi said in parliament. Although she qualified her statement by adding that if a man wanted a paternity test it should be done when a child is born – not when they are grown up.
Most worryingly, the privately owned Monitor newspaper reported that testing has caused domestic violence, with police arresting an Israeli national living in Uganda for allegedly killing his wife after DNA results showed that he was not the father of their six-month-old child. The man has not yet been charged.
Speaking in mid-July, Ministry of Internal Affairs spokesman Simon Mundeyi said there had been a 10-fold increase in requests for tests, which require taking the DNA of the father and child.
“We used to have on average 10 applicants daily at our government analytical lab. We are now averaging 100 daily and the numbers are still increasing,” he added.
Private clinics also cashed in on the trend, putting up advertisements on the back of taxis and on billboards offering tests.
This raised concern that results may turn out to be wrong, especially after reports surfaced that suspected fake testing kits had been smuggled into Uganda.
The Ministry of Health stepped in to restrict testing to just three state-run laboratories – though the director of public health, Daniel Kyabayinze, said there was more social media hype than a surge in testing.
Nevertheless, steps were being taken to ensure that families received counselling and psychological support when tests were done.
“We have seen social media messages where people think paternity tests are disruptive to families and can cause gender-based violence. We want to make sure that doesn’t happen because of the result which is given,” Dr Kyabayinze told the BBC.
Public opinion has been split in the debate that has raged across Uganda – from bars to Parliament; taxis to Twitter, now known as X.
Expressing his support for tests, Kampala resident Bwette Brian told the BBC: “I think the man has the right to know whether the children are his or not. Children are responsibilities and every child must know the family they are attached to.”
Disagreeing, another resident, Tracy Nakubulwa, said: “I have seen happy marriages and families separate all due to the issue of paternity testing – and children are becoming victims.”
Human rights activist Lindsey Kukunda said the fact that wives sometimes secretly have a relationship with another man, to give her husband a child, “is not new”.
“Our ancestors did it, our grandparents did it, our mothers did it,” she said.
She points out that when couples have difficulty having children, it is often the man who has fertility problems, whereas “in African culture, if a woman can’t provide a man with children, she will be divorced or thrown out of the house”.
“So what these men don’t realise is that the woman that has provided them with children has slept with another man – to give you the child you desire.”
Ms Kukunda accused husbands who seek paternity tests of double-standards.
“It is common for men to have affairs and bring home children – but the wives raise these children as their own,” she said.
Microbiologist Freddie Bwanga said the state laboratory where he works has not seen a major increase in requests for testing, but greater awareness now exists around the issue.
His experience over the years shows that 60-70% of tests prove a biological link between the father and child.
As for the 30% to 40% who found they were not, the outcome was often beneficial in “helping children to be settled where they are born”.
And, some would argue, testing is better than relying on age-old cultural practices – like smearing cow fat on the umbilical cord, and putting it in a woven basket filled with water.
If it then floats – a cultural researcher pointed out to Uganda’s Monitor newspaper – it means the child belonged to the family.
But Uganda’s state minister for primary health care said there was no need for men to seek paternity tests.
“Anything that you don’t know can’t kill you. If you don’t know that this is not your child, it won’t break your heart. But when you find out your heart will be broken,” Margaret Muhanga said.