Abidjan — After 17 years of women struggling for parity with men in the household, Côte d'Ivoire's legislature has finally adopted a law which establishes equal responsibility for legally married spouses. But not everyone is happy.
The law has sparked angry debate in this West African country, with some women expressing worries about taking on joint responsibility for family affairs.
According to the new law, passed on Nov. 21, families are now to be managed jointly by both spouses, who are together responsible for the moral and material care of the household. Under the previous law, the husband was designated as the sole head of the family.
The new law also specifies that both spouses should contribute to the costs of running a household in proportion to their ability. A partner who fails to comply can be forced to do so by the courts.
"This law's got nothing to do with me. It is contrary to how we do it in my tradition (in the east of the country)," said Sandrine Ebin, an executive secretary who now lives with her husband in Abidjan, the Ivorian economic capital.
"For us, the custom is that it is a man who marries a woman and brings her into his house; and she submits to her husband. To now ask that we should be equal in the household threatens our morals. At my house, my husband will remain the boss," she told IPS.
Mariam Tiené, an Abidjan trader originally from the north of the country, shares this opinion. "I'm already just one of three wives in a customary marriage, each of us struggling to get a civil marriage certificate. If I were to claim new status under this new law, for sure my husband would divorce me. I don't want that," she told IPS.
Constance Yaï, a former minister and a standard bearer for women's emancipation during the 1990s, has no patience with views like these.
"I don't want to deal with women who are against the new law," she said. "For many of them, it is convenient to get married and be taken care of. There's a class of women who are content with this situation. Frankly, I'm not fighting for them."
The draft law was the source of sharp conflict between the ruling Rally of the Republicans (RDR) party and its ally, the Democratic Party of Côte d'Ivoire (PDCI). An amendment put forward by the PDCI which sought to retain a man's status as head of household led to the dissolution of the government on Nov. 14. The amendment was eventually withdrawn and the government was re-formed after the marriage law was passed.
"To strip the Family Code of the idea that there is a head of the household is not necessarily going to lead to greater rights for women," warned legislator Yasmina Ouégnin, who voted against the law. "It is good to remember that our entire civilisation is built around a chief who must be respected."
Hervé Yaoua, a public works engineer in Abidjan, is sympathetic. "What this law demands is co-management of the family. When they say that a man and a woman must become one, it's to say that the woman too has the capacity to support the couple. That is what has been formalised," he said.
His wife, Edwige, added that women have always taken on joint responsibility for a family's morals, but she's worried about the financial implications of the new law. "Women don't want to contribute to expenses. That's all!" she told IPS.
El Hadj Ibrahim Diarra, imam of a mosque in Agboville, in the south of the country, said "Islam does not allow the woman to jointly run the home with the man. It's the man who is the sole head and that must remain so. It's God's law that says this and it is not for human beings to change it."
Maxime Zoh, a pastor of a protestant church in Adjamé, in the centre of Abidjan, is also categorical: "In the absence of a man, a woman can be responsible for - but not the head of - the family. God has entrusted the home to the man, but not to the two."
Abidjan lawyer Simone Assa is worried by responses like these and calls for work to raise awareness about the new legislation. "The law will need to be carefully explained and understood, because it could destabilise families. There is nothing binding at the root of this law; there are simply measures taken in the interest of the family," she told IPS.
Minister for Solidarity, the Family, Women and Children Anne Désiré Ouloto explained her view. "With the new law, the woman is no longer simply a helpmeet for her husband in the running of a household. She doesn't have to wait until her husband is absent or indisposed to step in. Shared responsibility is a source of balance for a couple."