Ivory Coast’s controversial polygamy bill: All you need to know

The bill to make polygyny legal in the West African state has sparked a debate online and offline over women’s rights.

A couple pose for a photo on February 8, 2014 in Abidjan, Ivory Coast after their wedding. [Sia Kambou/AFP Photo]

On June 30, a member of the Ivorian parliament introduced a bill to legalise polygamy, claiming that the practice remains widespread across regions in the country and ought to be legally permitted.

Yacouba Sangaré, the MP who proposed the change, described the current matrimonial legislation in Ivory Coast as “a generalised hypocrisy”.

The elected member of the ruling The Rally of Houphouëtists for Democracy and Peace (RHDP) party filed a bill to amend a June 2019 law that stipulates that “no one may contract a new marriage before the first one is dissolved” and that sole state officials have the authority to legalise a union.

But the proposal has since sparked outrage among women’s rights organisations and feminist groups who have dubbed it a step back in the fight against gender inequality.

Marriage in Ivory Coast

  • Since 1964, a strict monogamous system has been the proscribed form of marriage in the country, even though polygamous marriages contracted before that date are still deemed legal. So traditional ceremonies that often involve a dowry for wives other than the first one, are not recognised by law.
  • But even though polygamy has declined in recent years it is still widely practised in sub-Saharan Africa, with a 10th of the population living in polygamous households, according to a 2019 study conducted by the Pew Research Center.
  • In Ivory Coast, the figure is slightly higher – 12 percent of all households are polygamous, according to the same study.
  • Sangaré has been advocating for polygyny – the practice of having more than one wife – to become legal since 2014. He has repeatedly stated that the status quo is not adapted to local reality. Polygamy is a phenomenon that predates colonialism and has been part of the fabric of sub-Saharan societies for centuries, he argues.
  • The MP says the 1964 law that strictly recognises monogamy has proven ineffective. “There are women who are in de facto polygamous relationships but can’t claim anything [when] the relationship is dissolved,” he said. “They have no security, they find themselves alone, sometimes with children to raise by themselves. This is why we want to put an end to this hypocrisy. Polygamous couples can be found everywhere in the country, across regions, ethnic groups, religions, and social strata. So why not take them into account and protect them?”

What are the reactions to the bill?

The bill has triggered strong reactions from human and women’s rights activists, who say polygamy creates inherent discrimination against women.

  • During a news conference organised by the Ivorian League for Women’s Rights on July 11th, former Women Affairs Minister Constance Yaï described the bill as a provocation. According to Yaï, who is also head of the Association for the Defense of Women’s Rights (AIDF) advocacy group, the MP’s move is a new effort to alienate women.
  • She added that giving men the option to marry more than one woman would contradict Ivorian law, citing article 4 of the Constitution which states “all Ivorians are born and remain free and equal in law; no one can be privileged or discriminated against because of their race, ethnicity, clan, tribe or gender.”
  • “Polygamy is not an appropriate response to male infidelity or an absence of communication in couples,” she said at a recent news conference with fellow feminists and activists. “But if they want to legalise it, let’s make sure that women can also have multiple partners. Let’s see if the house will pass a bill that creates equality between the sexes on the marriage front.”

Following the bill’s introduction, the conversation around discrimination against women in polygamous marriages has resurfaced especially online where many are seemingly against it.

  • “You want to legalize polygyny because of male infidelity,” one Twitter user wrote. “Legalize polyandry also because of women’s infidelity.”
  • “All those who practise polygyny here are illegal since it is disguised adultery under the law and adultery tolerated by legitimate wives,” popular blogger Edith Brou said.

What is the status quo for women’s rights in Ivory Coast?

In Ivory Coast, women’s rights and legal protection for women and girls have strengthened in recent years.

    • But in reality, inequalities still prevail, namely in parliament where only 12 percent of elected members are women.
    • This is despite the House having passed a law on parity in 2019, which mandates political parties to include at least 30 percent of women on their candidate list. Ivory Coast is therefore behind neighbours Togo and Senegal and far behind Rwanda, which remains a global leader with almost two-thirds of its MPs being women.
    • The West African country has also struggled with significantly addressing gender-based violence, namely in the media. In August 2021, a television presenter was convicted of glorifying rape and given a one-year suspended prison sentence for asking a convicted rapist he invited onto his prime-time show to simulate a sexual assault using a mannequin.

What next?

    • The polygamy bill still has to undergo a series of steps before it can be submitted to a vote in House. The highly bureaucratic process, which also needs the assent of the constitutional court to become law, could take “anywhere between five months to five years”, said Sangare. “We are in no rush. These things always take time” added the MP.
    • Despite the controversy his bill has sparked, Sangare is adamant that feminist voices are not representative of public opinion.
    • So far, no national opinion survey has been done to better grasp what Ivorians think of polygamy and its place in society. But Desiree Okobée, a legal expert on family law, believes that a majority of Ivorians oppose the legalisation of polygamy. “I don’t believe that a majority of Ivorians or women support this bill,” she told Al Jazeera. “I think it’s the opposite [but] there are unfortunately no opinion polls or surveys that’s been done to know that for certain. Our society has changed and evolved. Optional polygamy is not the way to go. The focus should be made on educating boys and girls from a young age to avoid these practices.”
    • But women’s rights activists have pledged to fight this bill with all the instruments at their disposal. “We will push back every step of the way,” said Yai.
Source: Al Jazeera