A proposed bill at the Ivorian parliament that would legalise polygamy – but only for men – has prompted strong reactions from women’s rights advocates, which have dubbed it a step back in the fight for equality. Polygamy is prohibited in many parts of the world but remains widespread in West African countries.
“We can’t legalise polygamy to satisfy a man’s libido,” legal expert Désirée Okobé says bluntly. Okobé is based in Abidjan and is one of the women who have spoken out against MP Yacouba Sangaré’s bill to legalise polygamy in the West African country.
“A man chooses to have more than one wife for personal, egotistical reasons. Opening this door would end up creating an imbalance in our society,” Okobé says in a telephone interview.
According to her and several women’s rights activists in the country, legalising polygamy would be a setback for Ivorian women who still face systemic inequalities and discrimination.
The UN Commission on Human Rights considers the practice discriminatory against women and has called for its eradication.
Polygamy is common in Subsaharan Africa
Although polygamy has declined globally in the last decade it remains common in West Africa.
It is most widely practiced in sub-Saharan Africa – by 11% of the population on average, according to a 2019 survey conducted by the Pew Research Center. The rate of polygamous unions in Ivory Coast is slightly higher at 12%.
Sangaré has based his project on these stats, arguing for polygamy to become a legal option since the 1964 law that only recognises monogamy has proven ineffective, he says.
“Across regions and regardless of religious background, polygamy is common in Ivory Coast. Men have multiple wives and communities accept that. So exclusive monogamy doesn’t fit with our realities, our customs. We can’t just copy-paste legislation that was put in place in Western countries. We have to give people the option,” he argues.
Research has shown that prior to the arrival of colonists and Christianity in parts of Africa, polygyny – which allowed men to take more than one spouse – existed under family law. It helped avoid divorces due to infertility and was a response to an imbalance in the ratio of women and men.
Sangaré claims that the intention behind the bill is designed to protect women who have no legal rights under “traditional” marriages. A June 2019 law stipulates that “no one may enter into a new marriage before the first one is dissolved” and that only state officials have the authority to legalise a union. The law thus invalidated traditional marriages, for which a contract is often concluded by way of a dowry. If the relationship ends, women have no right to claim compensation from their partner.
“Legislation is needed to protect women. If their partner dies, they are left in this legal vacuum,” Sangaré says. He went on to argue that monogamy “incentivizes” divorce, since men who want multiple partners are more likely to leave their wives and families if polygamy is not allowed.
Okobée agrees that more legislation is needed to protect women but she rejects the idea that this bill was drafted with women’s interests in mind.
“It’s an excuse to justify the unjustifiable. This is not for women. This is all about men getting their way,” she says.
Women’s rights organisations in Ivory Coast say they will fight the bill and do everything they can to prevent it from becoming part of the law. Former solidarity and women’s rights minister Constance Yai has been one of the most vocal critics of Sangare’s plan.
“There is no such thing as polygamy in Ivory Coast. There are men who have several mistresses,” she said in a press conference organised by the Ivorian League of Women’s Rights.
She stressed that the document is in contradiction with the 2016 constitution, which states that “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”.
The UN Commission on Human Rights and the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women consider that polygamous marriages discriminate against women and have recommended their prohibition.
In practice, women in polygamous unions have limited rights and tend to act more submissively than women in monogamous unions, Okobé says.
“Our society makes women feel that they have to be in a home with a husband to have status. But we need to be telling women that they can develop on their own: They need to be empowered at all levels. How does sharing a husband with other women and the threat of a new one coming along empower women? It doesn’t. It’s degrading.”
Women’s rights activists have pointed out a double standard, as the bill proposes to legalise polygyny only and not polyandry.
”Male polygamy is not the only form of union possible. But would we be capable of assuming female polygamy as well, to abide by the principle of equal rights for women and men?” asked Constance Yai during a July 11 press conference, prompting applause from the event’s organisers.
Feminism ‘imported from the West’
But her stance has received mixed reactions online from Ivorians, who don’t all subscribe to the idea of perfect equality between men and women.
“Feminism is imported from the West. We have our own set of [cultural] values. If a man can have two or three wives, it doesn’t necessarily mean that a woman should have the same right. It wouldn’t work. It would create chaos,” says Issa during a heated debate with his friends at a bar in Abidjan.
In Okobé’s opinion, systemic patriarchy is at the root of the rejection of feminism. “People’s mindset needs to change. This ‘boys will be boys’ trope is what has enabled men to keep the old order in place and to keep suppressing women. Instead of saying that it’s in a man’s nature to hunt and have multiple partners, let’s educate boys – but also girls and women, so they understand why gender equality is so important.”
The controversial polygamy bill still has to go through several stages before it can be presented and put to a parliamentary vote.
“The constitutional court also has to give its opinion, so we’re far from the finish line. It could take anywhere between five months to five years,” says Sangaré.
“But this won’t deter us. I believe in this bill. The whole controversy around it will eventually blow over.”