Plural Systems Betray Women’s Rights
By Angela Turner, Perspective Correspondent, London
The rights we want:
We want to choose our husband
We want to own the land
We want to go to school
We don’t want to be cut anymore
We want also to make decisions
We want respect in politics, to be leaders
We want to be equal
- Rebecca Lolosoli
Too simple it seems to somebody like me, sitting in a western country where many of the above come easily, almost as a birth right stemming from being a citizen of a country where the fight for Women’s Rights started in the 19th Century and were largely won in the mid-1970’s.
It would be easy to draw a conclusion that African countries lag behind many western countries in the area of women’s rights and in doing so feel a level of superiority as a civilisation. However, you wouldn’t have to dig too far into the geographical and political history of the continent to understand how direct comparison is a futile and unhelpful exercise.
To take just a small example, most African countries didn’t achieve independence from colonialism until the 60s and 70s. In comparison the UK took a little over 700 years to progress from small mentions in the Magna Carta (1215) to achieving the right to vote (1918). Furthermore, it wasn’t until 1975 that the Sex Discrimination Act was passed and still to this day the fight continues to protect victims of rape, close the gender pay gap, improve employment rights for mothers, etc. We are arguably further along but still far from being an equal society.
On 15 June 1215, King John met with angry barons at Runnymede, England to negotiate terms and sign the Magna Carta. For the period of time it was written in, the Magna Carta was and is still seen as somewhat of a revolutionary document, establishing the principal that everyone, even the King, is subject to the law, guaranteeing the rights of the individual, the right to justice and a fair trial.
Two clauses address a woman’s right when widowed, meaning for the first time, a woman had the freedom to make a choice for herself. Clause 7 enables widows to gain inheritance after the death of her husband and to remain in the house of her husband for 40 days after his death. Clause 8 permits a widow the choice to not marry as long as she wishes to remain without a husband. This did, however, place her under the protection of the King or Lord, whoever owned the land, to whom she must gain consent should she wish to marry later on.
These may seem small steps now but these clauses caused respected mediaeval historian and expert on the Magna Carta, James Holt, to describe the document as “one of the first great stages in the emancipation of women offering widows a direct route to freedom from a forced marriage”.
After decades of campaigning, women over 30 in the UK were given the right to vote in 1918 with the Representation of the People Act which was later updated to reduce the age limit to 21 in 1928. The 1918 Act also allowed women to stand as candidates and be elected as MPs in Parliament, seeing the first female MP elected in that year. The suffragette movement also campaigned for other rights such as the right to initiate divorce, the right to education and the right to hold any job. However, their main focus was the right to vote believing that this achievement would give them a say in the laws affecting them.
The continent of Africa continues to make strides encouraged by the U.N.’s Millennium Development Goals which expired in 2015. Sub Saharan Africa fell somewhat short of these goals: being one of the areas of the world with the biggest gap to close, it was a difficult target to achieve. But as a result, we see more high profile influential women in the media and in communities. However, progress is still slow as the continent struggles to reconcile progressive laws with native cultural customs.
For this reason, the Nigerian Senate has received stern criticism having rejected the Gender and Equal Opportunity Bill on 16 March, 2016. The bill was intended to eliminate all forms of discrimination against women, as well as promoting women’s equality in marriage, inheritance, and education.
Those opposed to the bill argued that the rights of everyone are already recognised in the Constitution. Another reason given is that the bill is incompatible with Nigerian culture and religious beliefs. Various religious texts and practices were cited.
Despite ‘everyone’ being recognised in the Constitution, women’s rights in Nigeria are found severely wanting. At odds with the Constitution is its discriminatory customary and religious laws, particularly in relation to early and forced marriage, divorce, and ownership of property.
UNICEF reporting in 2015 on child marriage stated that 23 million girls were married, making the country home to the greatest number of child brides in Africa. Customary law allows girls to be married as young as 12, but child brides as young as 9 have been found in some regions of the country.
Women are hardly recognised in divorce, either. For example, in places where Sharia Law recognises four main types of divorce, none allows women the freedom to initiate divorce without heavy investigation into the reasons for wanting a divorce, in some instances having to pay a marriage termination fine. This process is made even more difficult because of other customary laws allowing only men the right to own land and preventing a widow from inheriting marital property.
Tanya Charles at Sonke Gender Justice points out that, “In many instances, religious and cultural texts support women’s rights, but these texts are hardly ever referenced. Instead, people rely on a narrow reading so that they can use this to justify the negation of women’s human rights.”
Nigeria, like all other sub-Saharan states, uses a plural legal system. This system incorporates native African Customs with Western-style legal courts. Although designed to be culturally inclusive they often trap women’s rights between formal laws and traditional culture with the latter seeming to have a greater influence on the outcome.
At this point it’s difficult to imagine progress until patriarchal attitudes stop influencing policies and plural legal systems take a bold step to define what is unacceptable in one definitive law.
However, there is an undeniable appetite for progression in this area. In a recent Afrobarometer Survey taking in 34 African countries between 2011 and 2013, Africans of both sexes support women’s equality with 72% agreeing that women should have equal rights. Of those surveyed, 68% of men and 76% of women share this view.
North African countries fall far short when the data is broken down to individual countries, with more than 50% of people in North Africa believing that traditional laws should trump equal rights compared to the rest of the continent where less than 15% agree in each country.
Slowly but surely more African countries are heeding the voices of the people and making moves to modernize the traditions and laws. In Cameroon, a 500-year-old tradition that, at its most extreme, sees widows stripped of their inheritance and trapped in bonded labor, is slowly being reversed after years of campaigning from a Muslim student group, Musab. And Morocco abolished a law that allowed rapists to avoid prosecution if they married their underage victims.
Women are becoming more visible in politics too; the Inter-Parliamentary Union reports that two African countries sit on the top ten of a table which ranks countries around the world on the percentage of women in lower or single house political systems. Rwanda sits at the very top at number one with 63% of the house being female representatives, while Senegal follows in sixth place with 42%. This is even more impressive when compared to key countries known for their liberal societies like the UK at position 48, Australia at 54, Canada at 60 and the USA at 95 with a mere 19% of the lower house being women.
When Africa finds a way to achieve equality in law despite cultural customs, the continent will truly rise.
10 facts about Women’s Rights in Africa –
1. A woman in South Africa has a greater chance of being raped than she does of learning how to read (BBC)
2. Seventy percent of women in Niger report being beaten or raped by their husband, father or brother (UNOCHA 2007)
3. In Sub Saharan Africa about half of the population live below the poverty line; over 80 percent of the poor are women (UNFPA 2008).
4. Africa currently ‘boasts” just one elected female president – Liberia’s Ellen Johnson Sirleaf – in an entire continent of 54 countries, more than 50 years after political independence.
5. At the current pace of change it will take approximately 80 years to achieve gender parity in workplaces (World Economic forum)
6. Only 2 women are listed on South Africa’s top 100 CEOs… This when held up against the narrative of Africa Rising, suggesting a lack of clear incentives for ensuring inclusive advancement of women to leadership positions in corporate Africa. (Africa Advisory Group).
7. In Mali, Nigeria, Malawi and Burkina Faso over 70% of women report that they have no say in their own health needs as they have to seek permission
from their husband. (World Vision)
8. The five North African countries surveyed by Afrobarometer – Algeria, Egypt, Morocco, Sudan and Tunisia – collectively report the lowest levels of support for women’s equality, and the highest frequency of discrimination
9. 68% of Africans believe women are as capable as men of being political leaders, including 74% of East Africans, but just 50% of North Africans. (Afrobarometer)
10. Women's literacy rates remain 24 percentage points lower than those of men in Africa, compared with a global difference of just 10 points (Afrobarometer)