By: Amanda Nasinyama LLM’17
In 2017, I interned with UN Women’s East and Southern Africa Regional Office for six months where I served as the Africa focal point for the Penn Law Global Women’s Leadership Project. During that period, I worked with an amazing and diligent team under the Governance, Peace and Security and Humanitarian Action Unit to collate over 300 laws that regulate women’s status in the family. The process of collating and reviewing these laws, and further identifying specific sections addressing various indicators identified for the project was enlightening. Many laws that regulate women’s status within the family in Africa either directly or indirectly promote gender inequality or both. For example, under the Family Code of Algeria, a wife is required to obey her husband and respect him as the head of the family. In Djibouti, the Family Code provides that the legal age of marriage shall be 18, however the law further goes on to take away this protection by providing for the marriage of minors subject to the consent of their male relatives, thereby infringing on the human rights of women and girls.
Due to the existing legal system in a number of African countries, the law protects and promotes human rights, and also seeks to promote and protect customary law, which at times discriminates against women. In some countries like Botswana, Lesotho, Sierra Leone, Zambia and Zimbabwe, customary law is exempt from constitutional principles of non-discrimination. In Botswana, The Succession (Rights of the Surviving Spouse and Inheritance Family Provisions) Act does not apply in matters where customary law regulating inheritance exists. The statutory law therefore indirectly discriminates against women as they are put at a disadvantage, especially those who are subject to customs where they do not inherit property. The Gabon Labor Law is another example of a law that indirectly discriminates against women as it restricts women of any age from being employed to work at night in a public or private industrial establishment, or any branch of these establishments except where there is an unforeseeable break in operations in the company due to a force majeure.
There are however various laws that promote gender equality in African countries. The Ethiopian Constitution provides for the equal rights of men and women while entering into, during marriage and at the time of divorce. The Women’s Act of The Gambia caters to different groups of women, for example, widows, rural women, workers, married women and women with disabilities, as well as a cross section of issues that impact on the lives of women including the right to work, the right to health, sexual and reproductive rights, inheritance and culture. Many African countries have laws that prohibit female genital mutilation, trafficking, child marriage and the desertion of wives and children. African states have also gone further in signing and ratifying both international and regional instruments that promote and protect the rights of women.
The database of family law provides governments, policy makers, human rights advocates and other stakeholders with a central depository where they can access these laws and further advocate for the reform, amendment or repeal of those that promote gender inequality. Governments and policy makers can also use the database as an avenue to learn from the positive and progressive laws of other countries that seek to promote gender equality. The law is an important tool for change, and I am glad that this database will provide access to information that can be used to advocate for legal reform.
Many Penn Law students will lead lifelong careers as advocates for social justice. The first steps on this career path are challenging, and Penn Law is committed to helping our students succeed through funding postgraduate fellowships.
This piece originally appears in the 2018 Global Affairs Review.