The new family law code aims to redefine children’s rights within families and bring more equality between men and women in relation to marital status, parental rights and property ownership. A new family law code waiting to be adopted by Parliament is facing opposition from some Islamic groups who claim it goes against Islamic principles, particularly when it comes to proposed changes to the country’s marriage laws.
The new code aims to bring more equality between men and women in relation to marital status, parental rights, ownership of land and inheritance, wages and pensions, employment laws and education.
“The code is a significant step towards gender equality while reflecting the reality of Malian culture today,” the minister of women, children and the family, Maiga Sina Damba told IRIN.
The current code has seen little change since it was first passed in 1962, three years after Mali gained independence, and according to Oumor Cissé, communications adviser at the ministry for women, children and the family, it is heavily influenced by “outmoded” French laws, and a strict reading of Koranic texts.
When the draft code went out to civil society groups for the latest round of consultations in early 2008, some Islamic groups started campaigning hard against the proposed changes to marriage laws, inheritance laws and property rights.
In early April the Islamic Salvation Association (AISLAM) called for the bill to be withdrawn from Parliament.
“All the proposals we made in the consultation phase of the new code were rejected,” said Mohamed Kimbiri, president of AISLAM.
The most controversial sticking points relate to shifts in marriage laws. Today in Mali traditional or ‘religious marriages’ as opposed to civil marriages, are legally accepted but the new code will cease to legally recognise religious marriages.
“Despite much opposition to this change, legalising religious marriages has been dropped from the bill altogether,” Kimbiri complained to IRIN.
But Parliamentarian Mountaga Tall elected in Segou a town north of Bamako, said religious or ‘traditional’ marriages deny some women their basic rights.
“Widows who have only had a traditional marriage are legally excluded from any inheritance rights and their children must go through expensive, lengthy and often humiliating procedures to inherit the basic family allowances due to them.”
In defiance of the soon-to-be-adopted law, Islamic groups are continuing to issue marriage certificates.
“For the moment, the issue is unresolved. But if [these marriages] go ahead it will be in violation of the law, and the marriage certificate will not be legal. No one can appropriate a power that is not legally bestowed,” said Cissé.
In another vein, under the current law when two people marry if they commit to monogamy they must stick to it in theory, but in reality a husband can re-marry without the consent of his wife.
“Men can circumvent the law by making a new marriage without any legal consequences,” said Daouda Cissé, a legal adviser to the women’s ministry.
The code also gives more inheritance rights to illegitimate children, and enables them to choose either their mother’s or their father’s name, but according to Kimbiri, “Islam can not accept that. [Illegtimate children] can only inherit their mother’s name, they do not have a right to their father’s.”
And finally, some clerics are concerned about changes the new code makes to giving couples joint rights to land and property – currently separate rights are maintained for property. But one Imam told IRIN, “under Islamic law spouses must accept separation of ownership of possessions.”
The code has already faced many delays and some fear it will stagnate altogether. Redrafting began in 1996 but it was slow to gain momentum in Parliament.
“Many Parliamentarians didn’t want to see change… or else they didn’t bother to read the draft,” Oumor Cissé told IRIN.
But in 2007 a group of women Parliamentarians – there are about a dozen, said Cissé – formed a group with lawyers and human rights activists to defend the code’s changes and to push it through Parliament.
“If Mali wants to be a fully-functioning democracy it is important to pass this code,” Omar Touri, head of a women’s rights network, Association of Women’s NGOs (CAFO), told IRIN. “People have to change their behaviour and they have to accept change.”
The code brings Mali in line with a number of international protocols it has signed up to, including the African Charter on Human and People’s Rights, and the UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women.
Given this, she said, “We have no choice but to pass it”
But Abdoulaye Dembélé, deputy of the National Assembly, thinks it much more likely that a compromise deal will have to be struck, ensuring yet more delays.
“In this atmosphere of misunderstanding it is difficult for deputies to vote for this code at the risk of provoking a mass-uprising. We have to take into account the concerns and aspirations of all groups before passing it through Parliament.”