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Feature - New law offers some protection to women

Salome Moine, an MP for the ruling FRELIMO party, held her fist high and shouted enthusiastically, "Viva FRELIMO! Baixa com poligamia!" (Long live FRELIMO, down with polygamy).

The crowd of over one hundred women in Mozambique's most northern province of Pemba, dutifully repeated the slogans.

Some 20 years later, Moine, still an MP, told IRIN that she would not make the same mistake again. "I was young then, and I went into an area without making any sociological study of the group of people I was addressing."

Although Moine is still at the forefront of uplifting the status of women in the country, she knows such deep-rooted practices as polygamy cannot be eliminated by the thrust of her fist and slogans, or even by legislation alone.

After she finished her speech, the Pemba women, most of whom were older and headed households because their husbands had died in the civil war, asked what they should do when there were so few men? They felt polygamy was a culturally acceptable solution for them.

The strong and divergent views Mozambicans have about a range of practices like polygamy, early marriage for girls and the male's position as the automatic head of the household, surfaced to public attention when a draft Family Law was introduced into parliament at the end of last month.

The discussions in parliament over the draft followed countrywide debates, seminars and meetings held from as far back as 1982 with people from all walks of life, including women's and religious groups.

One major breakthrough is that the law recognises all forms of monogamous marriage - civil, religious and traditional; including "de facto unions" (couples who have been living together for at least a year, but who are not formally married). Before, only women who had been formally married had rights. This was especially discriminatory against women not formally married who were widowed or abandoned, and women who had children out of wedlock.

Gender activists hail the draft law as a huge step in the right direction to eradicate all discrimination against women in the domestic sphere, and to protect the welfare of children.

Nina Berg, programme coordinator for the Danish development agency DANIDA, which is financing the technical unit for legal reform working on the Family Law legislation, has so far welcomed the outcome.

"It attempts to reflect the reality of Mozambican society in relation to how families are constituted," she said, but admitted it could have been "more imaginative about polygamy". She conceded that it would be "politically impossible to prohibit it".

As it stands now, the draft law does not recognise polygamous unions, nor does it make them illegal. A polygamous man cannot register more than one wife.

Leopoldo Alfredo Ernesto, an opposition RENAMO MP, argued that the draft is too radical for most Mozambicans. He claimed the draft Family Law was only discussed by a group of intellectuals who live in the city, but Mozambique is multicultural and in some zones polygamy is normal.

In the southern region, paying lobola (a type of bride price) for your wife is widely practiced. If a man is rich and has cattle and money to pay lobola, he is expected to have lots of wives. It is a sign of prestige. Whereas in the predominantly Muslim north, men are allowed by their religion to have up to four wives and can marry them after they reach puberty.

The MPs defending polygamy in parliament used the "cultural" argument. They also said it helped the fight against prostitution, that having a second wife gives the first one a break from the demands of her husband, that there are not enough men for the women in Mozambique and that polygamy provides enough children to care for the man in his old age.

But Elvira Luis Mabunda, a FRELIMO MP, said "polygamy treats women like tractors. The man sends the women out to work on the machambas (farms), but she does not necessarily benefit from what she farms."

The age of matrimony has also proved to be a sticking point. In one of the debates on the age of marriage with an Islamic group only men turned up, and argued strongly that the legal age of marriage for boys should be 18 years, but 14 years for girls.

As that would have gone against the Convention on the Rights of the Child, ratified by Mozambique, the draft Family Law stipulates the age for marriage at 18 for both sexes, though under "exceptional circumstances" girls of 16 would be allowed to marry with their parents' consent.

Who is the head of the family was the other main contentious issue. In rural areas and even among urban dwellers, the man is automatically considered the head of the household, even if he is unemployed and the woman is bringing in the income and running the home.

Sociologist Conceicao Osorio pointed out the contradiction where women, especially in the southern provinces of Mozambique, have husbands who spend months at a time working in the mines in neighbouring South Africa: "These women are running the households, but are not given any rights and are not allowed to make any major decisions."

The new law says the man is no longer automatically head of the family, leaving it to the couples themselves to decide.

The law has now been remitted to parliament's Social Affairs and Legal Affairs Commissions for redrafting and is only expected to come back to the assembly plenary at the next sitting, probably in October.

Once it is passed, the work is not over.

The Family Law will still not fully protect women. Widows continue to be vulnerable, for example. DANIDA is supporting one of the legal sub-commissions to draft a new inheritance law to protect the rights of widows. As it stands now, the widow can lose their family possessions through "property grabbing" by in-laws, a widespread practice, which needs to be addressed even more urgently in the era of the HIV/AIDS epidemic, said Berg.

Moine concluded that legislation is an important start, but most harmful or exploitative practices can only be "eliminated with civic education".

This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions

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