Africa, Headlines

COTE D’IVOIRE-HUMAN RIGHTS: Polygamy Divides West African Nation

Melvis Dzisah

ABIDJAN, Oct 1 1996 (IPS) - Jane Akissi and her three offspring do not have the right to inherit anything from the children’s father if he dies. He is married to someone else, so they are not recognised under Ivoirian law.

Not only is their future uncertain, but their present situation is also precarious: “This man is supporting the children all right, but he does so secretly since if his wife gets to know of our relationship that could lead to a divorce between them,” Akissi, a 30-year-old trader, told IPS.

Her partner, whose need for secrecy prevented him from taking the risk of having his name published, claims that he is a victim of the clash between tradition and modernity in this West African nation.

“I recognise my African traditional values, but I married into modernity, which requires me to have one legal wife,” he told IPS. “Sometimes I feel guilty about it, but then, I am not the only one living this double life.”

Hundreds of thousands of Ivoirian men and women are in a similar dilemma. The country’s constitution bans polygamy, although local customs as well as Islam allow a man to have more than one wife and many married men have women and children outside the home.

“You would be suprised to hear that some men have more children with their concubines than with their legal partners,” Marie-Jean Kouassi, a social science teacher here, told IPS. “We need laws to protect these unfortunate children, most of whom are abandoned by their fathers for fear of their wives.”

This, she says contributes to the increasing number of street children in the country.

“In a country where there are more women than men, one man one wife is wrong,” says Kouassi. “Let the law be relaxed so that those men and women who could support it could have polygamous relations.”

It is a widespread belief here that women far outnumber men. However, according to the Women and Family Affairs Minister Albertine Gnanazan Hepie, 52 percent of the country’s 13 million people are women.

The government of President Henri Konan Bedie also believes that the constitution should cater for polygamous relationships. Proposed constitutional reforms contained in a bill it submitted to parliament in March seek to award inheritance rights to women who have unions with married men and children born out of wedlock.

“For the sake of social justice, we need to protect these unfortunate children, some of whose fathers are prepared to marry second wives,” said then Justice Minister Faustin Kouame. “Let us give legal recognition to them.”

But, parliamentarians are divided over the bill. So, too, is public opinion.

Those in favour include a group called Women for Polygamy, formed in February. “I am an African woman who believes in my African tradition,” says the organisation’s president, Susan Zingo. “I am prepared to share my man with another woman. Our society has survived on polygamy for centuries. Why are we destroying these great values of African societal cohesiveness?”

“You see,the problem with those married women who have been resisting polygamy is that they are not only running away from reality, they are trying not to be Africans because they think they are educated,” she claims. “Every woman would like to have a husband in her life, but the present arrangement makes it impossible.”

But women’s rights groups are totally against the legalising of polygamous unions.

Yai Constance, president of Ivoirian Women’s Rights Association (AIDF), argues that “a marriage is a sacred arragement between a man and a woman, in which there should not be any place for a third party.”

“Personally, I do not think the pro-polygamy group has a case,” she said during a TV debate. “They say illegal relationships are the cause of street children. That is not true. The real cause of street children is economic difficulties.”

Christians agree with her. “In the Bible, God created Adam and gave Eve to him as partner,” says Joachim Boli, a Catholic. “If God wanted polygamy, he should from the beginning have created more than one partner for Adam.”

However, a man who said he had a polygamous relationship, stressed that the issue was not polygamy or no polygamy, but rather how one organised one’s life. “I have been living with my two wives for 26 years,” he said. “We have our differences, but I prefer that to having one wife and going out with a dozen concubines. And they like it too.”

With polygamy now the social issue most discussed in workplaces, bars and in the media, a television commentator has suggested that the government organise a national referendum on the bill. “This is the only way we could reach a genuine national consensus.” he said.

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