Women in Africa face widespread discrimination in family laws 

Discrimination against women and girls remains widespread in family laws across Africa according to the latest report released by Equality

Discrimination against women and girls remains widespread in family laws across Africa according to the latest report released by Equality Now.

“Analysis of twenty African countries reveals gender inequality in marriage, divorce, custody, and property rights is being perpetuated by sex discrimination institutionalized within legal systems and customary laws.,” the report from Equality Now revealed.

According to the report some significant legal reforms have been achieved, progress has been slow, inconsistent, and hampered by setbacks, lack of political will, and weak implementation. 

“The impacts of discriminatory family laws can be profound, putting women and girls at greater risk of sexual and gender-based violence, and leaving them more dependent and vulnerable, including by curtailing their economic opportunities and reducing their decision-making power,” part of the report reads.

Full equality in family laws has not been achieved in any of the countries reviewed, which include Algeria, Angola, Botswana, Burundi, Cameroon, Côte d’Ivoire, Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), Egypt, Ethiopia, Kenya, Malawi, Mozambique, Nigeria, Senegal, South Africa, South Sudan, Sudan, Tanzania, The Gambia, and Tunisia.

Africa is home to diverse ethnic, linguistic, and religious groups with varied family law structures. Historically, communities developed intricate and deep-rooted systems of customary laws governing family relations.

“Culture and religion frequently act as major impediments in the struggle for family law equality, stalling reforms. Claw-back clauses and retrogressive practices water down the positive impact of progressive laws, and there is backlash from anti-rights movements seeking to reverse hard-won gains in areas such as eliminating child marriage and female genital mutilation,” said Esther Waweru, report co-author and a Senior Legal Advisor at Equality Now.

“Stagnation is also a problem, with governments pledging to reform discriminatory laws but failing to take meaningful action. In some instances, progressive family codes remain in limbo awaiting enactment,” she added.

According to the Equality Now, child marriage is one area of notable progress. Absolute bans on marriage under 18 exist in Côte d’Ivoire, DRC, Egypt, The Gambia, Kenya, Malawi, and Mozambique. However, the persistence of child marriage in certain communities underscores the need for a multi-sectoral approach incorporating awareness raising about the harmful and legal consequences of child marriage.

The report indicated that laws in Cameroon, Nigeria, Senegal, South Sudan, Sudan, and Tanzania still allow child marriage. While in Algeria, Angola, Botswana, Burundi, Ethiopia, South Africa, and Tunisia, the legal age of marriage is 18, but exceptions are permitted.

Marital rape

The report from Equality Now shows that countries need greater protections against gender-based violence, especially intimate partner violence.

“Marital rape is not prohibited in Algeria, Kenya, Sudan, and The Gambia, while Northern Nigeria’s Penal Code allows marital rape and “corrective” assault within marriage.”

Marital rape is only criminalized upon separation in Tanzania, and in Burundi, the penalty is under 30 days imprisonment or a fine.


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