New study exposes gender bias in African family laws


Sunlola Ogungbadero kneels to receive blessings from her parents during her traditional wedding in Surulere district in Lagos, Nigeria, July 31, 2014. [Reuters]

A new report finds that gaps in family laws in most African countries are fueling discrimination of women and girls. The report from the international NGO Equality Now says laws that favor men in matters of sex, marriage and inheritance, among other issues, leave many women in despair.

The study, released to coincide with the United Nations-declared International Day of the Family on Wednesday, highlights how legal frameworks and customary practices in 20 African countries have fueled discrimination in marriage, divorce, custody and property rights.

Esther Waweru is a senior legal adviser at Equality Now and co-author of the report.

She spoke with VOA from Kenya on how gaps in family laws have affected the lives of women in Africa.

“Take a case of Sudan for instance, where women cannot initiate divorce, unlike men. So, it therefore means that the woman will be trapped in a marriage that they don’t want to live [in], just because they can’t initiate a divorce,” she said.

Waweru said in some countries where women initiate a divorce, they are not allowed to take custody of the children from a previous marriage when they remarry.

In Malawi, the report notes that courts have ruled rape does not extend to marriage. It says customary law in Malawi presumes perpetual consent to sex within marriage and that a wife can deny her husband sex only when she is sick or legally separated.

While in Tanzania, the report says marital rape is only criminalized upon separation.

It also says customary and religious laws in countries like Algeria, Cameroon, Ivory Coast and Nigeria undermine women and girls in matters of inheritance, as they receive less than men and boys.

Hala Alkarib is the executive director for Strategic Initiative for Women in the Horn of Africa.

She told VOA from Ethiopia that the legal imbalance in many African countries leaves women feeling helpless.

“Imagine that you are not treated equally and discriminated against. It automatically goes without saying you are typically poor. You are exposed to violence systematically. You are dehumanized and undermined. You don’t have equal access to opportunities. You are subjected to different forms of sexual violence, and your dignity is compromised,” said Alkarib.

Francis Selasini is the executive director for Network Against Female Genital Mutilation in Tanzania. He said communities also play a role in undermining or sidestepping laws meant to protect women.

He cited issues of genital mutilation in northern parts of Tanzania, where he said communities have changed tactics to protect their traditional norms.

“For example, initially they were mutilating girls from 10 and above, for the reason of preparing her for marriage. But nowadays, they are mutilating even babies. They are doing so because they would like to defeat the legal process. Because they know if they mutilate babies, babies will not be able to take them to court. They will not be able to report,” he said.

Waweru of Equality Now says although many countries have ratified key international treaties that protect women’s rights, existing domestic laws make implementation and enforcement of these treaties difficult.

She calls upon African states to fully align their family laws and their practices with international human rights standards.