With a little over two months left in the year, 2010 is shaping up to be a year of some challenging hiccups in the cause for advancing women’s rights issues in Africa, both in the legislative initiatives as well as court rulings. It is true that some remarkable attempts to push the issue of women’s rights forward occurred in some African jurisdictions this year. Among them are a proposal in Liberia to raise the level of participation of women in politics; a proposal in Rwanda to improve the working conditions for pregnant and breastfeeding working women; and a court ruling in Swaziland allowing married women to own property in their own name.
However, there have also been some major challenges to the cause. The best example in this regard is the defeat of a major family law bill in Mali, proposed in 2009, which sought to substantially improve the rights of women by raising the minimum marriage age, enhancing the rights of women to inherit, and abolishing customary marriages (which, among other things, allow polygamy). Had it been enacted, I think this bill would have set a precedent for reforming customary and religious laws that govern matters of personal status in most African jurisdictions and that are by and large unfavorable towards women.
Another setback to the issue of women’s rights this year came from Uganda in the form of a court decision. In March, the Constitutional Court, in response to a challenge mounted by a women’s rights group, found the traditional practice of bride price (dowry) to be constitutional. This practice contributes to the forced marriages of women – it incentivizes members of their extended family, who stand to gain materially, to force women into marriages without their consent, and also means that women remain in bad marriages because the tradition dictates that the dowry is refundable if a marriage is dissolved.
Yet another setback to the cause came this month with a decision of a Nigerian Federal High Court to reject a forced marriage case. The claim was brought by a 26-year-old woman from Sokoto State, one of the several Northern Nigerian States governed by Shari’a law, who sought to have her marriage nullified after she was forced into marrying a member of the Nigerian Senate by her father. In rejecting the petition, the court found that the question before it was not a human rights issue but a matrimonial matter, which is exclusively under the jurisdiction of a Shari’a Court.
In comparison, 2009 appears to have been a year of more profound achievements in the area of women’s rights. Some of the achievements last year included the approval of legislation by the Ugandan parliament banning FGM; approval of domestic violence legislation both in Uganda and Mozambique; passage of a law that increased the minimum marriage age from 15 to 16 in Malawi; the proposal of a bylaw in the Pallisa District of Uganda to allow women, regardless of their status, to own land; and a ruling by the South African Constitutional Court that found discrimination against some Muslim widows in matters of inheritance under Shari’a law to be improper.
Update: This was originally published as a guest post by Hanibal Goitom. The author information has been updated to reflect that Hanibal is now an In Custodia Legis blogger.