African Women Caught Between New Laws and Social Traditions

EVEN as more and more African countries adopt Western-style constitutions that espouse equality of the sexes, women in Africa are still being governed by customary, or traditional, law.

These social rules, passed down orally over generations, leave most African women subjected to men -- fathers, husbands, and male relatives -- all their lives.

Customary practices such as dowries, polygamy, arranged marriages, female genital mutilation, and the dispossession of widows are widespread.

''Patriarchy is the ideology that dare not speak its name,'' notes Sarah Longwe, a Zambian gender consultant. Ms. Longwe was one of 5,000 delegates at fifth Regional Conference on African Women held last month in Dakar, Senegal.

''Almost all African governments pay lip service to the principle of equal rights for women, but then behave very differently in practice,'' Longwe says.

The fourth United Nations-sponsored World Conference on Women was held in Nairobi a decade ago. What has changed for women since then?

The short answer is that while African women are more vocal and better organized, they are poorer and no better represented in government.

An ''African platform for action'' which was adopted in Dakar and will be presented to the fifth UN World Conference on Women in Beijing next year, remains ambivalent on how best to deal with the contradictions between customary and written law.

Among younger delegates, like Longwe, the cry is to abolish the dual legal system that continues to exist in many countries, often under the guise of preserving cultural heritage.

Older delegates want more evolutionary change based on education.

Gertrude Mongella, head of the Beijing conference next year and a long-time Tanzanian politician, says while changing laws may be easy, changing behavior is not.

''You can legislate against traditional practices, but unless the reasons are understood, these laws will be ignored,'' says Ms. Mongella, the UN's top official on women's issues.

Most African constitutions are based on the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights. But only 33 out of 53 African nations have signed the 1979 Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW).

One particular article in the convention affirms the right of women to freely enter into marriage; to equality during marriage and its dissolution; to equal rights to guardianship of children; and to equal rights to property.

Zambia, a CEDAW signatory, has a constitution that purports to protect women against sex discrimination. Yet, notes Longwe, the Constitution includes an ''escape clause'' that exempts marriage, personal, and customary law.

At the Dakar meeting, many speakers decried the many armed conflicts that ravage the continent and help account for the yearly $8 billion trade in armaments.

''It is inexcusable that while African women are carrying water on their heads, the men are negotiating for arms,'' Mongella says.

How women chip at tradition

Chief Bisi Ogunleye of Nigeria -- one of the few female chiefs in Africa -- is an example that the continent's culture is not static. In her distinguished head-dress, Chief Bisi has been chipping away at tradition in a quiet but effective way. She had her title handed down to her by her father in his will, despite their patrilineal society. Her husband has come to accept her chiefly duties and she speaks of him with great fondness.

She brought three royal mothers, or wives of traditional rulers, in her delegation to the Dakar conference because she felt that exposing them to the wider community of African women would influence their outlook.

Asked if the husbands of the women on her team felt threatened by them going off to Dakar, Bisi cited the case of one husband who paid his wife's sister to take care of their baby so his wife could travel to the event.

When it was suggested that for the Beijing conference, the man might volunteer to take care of the child at home, Bisi had a better idea: ''He should come to Beijing too, so that he can help his wife, and listen to what is being said.''

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