Africa, Headlines, Human Rights

RIGHTS-BENIN: Polygamy Somewhat Out of Bounds – If Not Out of Fashion

Ali Idrissou-Toure

COTONOU, Jun 21 2004 (IPS) - The merits of monogamy and polygamy have come under vigorous discussion in Benin recently, with the passage of a law that encourages the first – but tolerates the second.

The ‘Personal and Family Code of Law’ was voted on by parliament last Monday, Jun. 14, in the Beninese capital, Porto-Novo. Although the bill was initially adopted by parliament two years ago, judges later declared certain aspects of it unconstitutional – choosing to view monogamy as the only legal form of marriage in the West African country.

Several legislators opposed the Constitutional Court on this matter, saying it had overstepped its bounds.

Theophile Nata of the Movement for Development and Progress (l’Impulsion pour le développement et le progress, IPD) argues that “the code, such as it is, is not in accordance with our customs.” (Interestingly, no legislators voted against the law – and only eight chose to abstain from last week’s vote. The code was ultimately passed by 57 votes.)

The parliamentarians have also taken aim at women’s rights groups, accusing them of using the law to impose western matrimonial practices on Benin. According to Epiphane Quenum of the Renaissance of Benin party (Renaissance du Bénin, RB), “The women’s intelligentsia is trying to take the disadvantaged classes hostage.”

Although the court recognised that polygamy is permitted by certain traditions and religions observed in Benin (about a fifth of the population is Muslim, according to one source), it noted that the country was primarily a secular state.

While polygamous marriages are still allowed, they will not enjoy the same legal protections and benefits as monogamous unions – notably the right to inheritance.

“You can marry 40 women if you want, but just be aware that if you die, it’ll only be the one you married at the registry office who will enjoy the right of inheritance. The others will get nothing,” said RB representative Rosine Vieyra-Soglo, adding “I feel offended when I hear deputies say that they don’t accept monogamy.”

The court’s decision was also based on arguments that the initial draft of the law violated the principle of equality between men and women, by allowing men to be polygamous – but not women.

Some have welcomed the clarity which the new law brings to the matter of inheritance.

In a commentary published in the privately-owned daily ‘Fraternite’ on Tuesday, Jun. 15, observer Andre Dossa expressed the hope that there would be “fewer problems for widows who, right after their spouses die, used to have to do battle with their in-laws for the couple’s possessions û which the parents frequently believe is their inheritance.”

Before the passage of last week’s law men were able to marry two or three women – with all of these unions being recognised under the law. Frequent disputes between co-wives over the matter of inheritance were reported, some of them violent. However, the law now recognizes the right to inheritance of all children born in the context of polygamous marriages.

Assouman Aboudou of the Union for Democracy and Solidarity (l’Union pour la démocratie et la solidarité, UDS) has also noted that the law “is not only about monogamy…It also accords other very important rights to women, especially by abolishing forced marriage and the levirate: two traditional practices that they have long been victimized by.” (The levirate is a biblical institution that obliges a man to marry the widow of his childless brother, to ensure that the brother’s blood line is continued.)

In addition, the law authorizes women to add their maiden names to those of their husbands – something that was not permitted previously.

Human rights groups that have long worked for the adoption of the new family code were visibly satisfied by the outcome of last week’s vote.

“The code was created for the youth, for the future – contrary to what some people may think,” Marie Elise Gbedo, President of the Association of Women Jurists of Benin, told IPS.

Genevieve Boko-Nadjo, President of WILDAF-Benin – a non-governmental organisation that promotes legal reforms which benefit women – congratulated legislators “who were keen to demonstrate that the polygamy issue was not the most important thing in the law, and their need to resolutely look toward the future they must build for their children.”

But, much work remains to acquaint citizens with the voluminous, 1,033-article law. Boko-Nadjo says her organisation is aware that a campaign needs to be conducted to “clarify the various provisions of the text, (to help) avoid any misinterpretations.”

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