ABIDJAN, IVORY COAST — Polygamy has been outlawed in the Ivory Coast for more than three decades. The West African country was one of the few on the continent to outlaw the practice.
So when the justice minister earlier this year proposed a new law on adultery, women's rights activists like Constance Yai worried it would reopen the door to the forbidden practice.
The new law said a wife could face adultery charges for having sexual relations with another man - period. But a husband would have to be found with another woman "in the conjugal home ... on a regular basis."
"It's mockery," Ms. Yai says. "It means we must pay serious attention. And there's the risk, in fact, of returning to polygamy."
Yai mounted public protests, and embarrassed government officials backtracked, insisting they had not finished writing the law. It was a victory for her organization, the Ivorian Association for the Defense of Women's Rights. Yet that the proposal was made at all shows the failure of the legal system here to change centuries of family custom.
"The law that was created [in 1964] was not followed up with public education," says Sery Dedi, a sociologist at the University of Ivory Coast in Abidjan. "No one explained why polygamy had to be abolished and in what way. Instead, there was a feeling of a sort of invasion [by the government], with no reasoning behind it."
Polygamy worked well in rural Africa because it gave a man more hands to tend his fields. As more Africans moved to cities, it made less sense.
Today polygamy is blamed in part for spiraling rates of AIDS among African women.
Yet men have held tenaciously to this "right," despite the law. Yai estimates that 80 percent of couples at some time live together and bear children without officially getting married. Men maintain a mistress - or two or three - in separate apartments, called "bureaus." All this leaves a man with no obligations, as under traditional custom.
Still, the practice of having several wives or mistresses in Ivory Coast is on the wane, from 80 percent of the population in the 1970s to 45 percent now, according to sociologist Dedi. He says most men in cities simply can't afford a mistress. Dedi also sees revulsion for the practice among the children of polygamous homes, who, he says "felt essentially abandoned by their fathers."
In the meantime, though, activist Yai senses a bittersweet triumph for the nascent women's movement. Compared with the rest of Africa, she says, "Women in Ivory Coast are more modern; they're freer. But they pay a high price.
"Men and women here tend to have conflicted relationships, because men think the more rights the woman has, the less power he has to control her.
"I haven't yet done a study, but I would be willing to bet there's more divorce in Ivory Coast than in surrounding countries. "