Eugenie Kramoh says she’s angry at Ivory Coast’s government for passing a law last year that improved her legal and financial status and made the country eligible for more donor funds.
“I doubt they were thinking about the well-being of women when they voted the law,” the 52-year-old married house cleaner and Abidjan resident said as she was hailing a taxi to buy groceries at a supermarket. “It’s difficult enough to get married and this will make it only more difficult.”
The removal of a rule that places men at the head of the household sparked the anger of many women in Ivory Coast. They say they’ll no longer have the lifelong financial security of marriage, even as the new policy allows them to keep more of their own salaries, set up businesses without their husbands’ approval and make more choices on how money is spent.
President Alassane Ouattara dissolved his government in November after he faced opposition from his ruling coalition on the law change. The bill was approved as soon as Ouattara appointed a new prime minister, making the country eligible for as much as $1 billion in development funds from the U.S. Millennium Challenge Corp. a Washington-based government aid program.
Funds from the organization will boost Ouattara’s plans to accelerate growth in the $24 billion economy to 9 percent this year. Output has recovered from a 4.7 percent contraction in 2011 after a violent political crisis triggered by disputed presidential elections that halted cocoa exports from the world’s biggest producer and shut businesses and banks.
The change that altered a law allowing a man to bar his wife from traveling, opening a bank account and having a job triggered outrage from religious leaders, newspaper columnists and Ivorians of both sexes, and generated hundreds of comments on Facebook and the popular news website Abidjan.net.
Opponents argue that African culture differs fundamentally from western society and should not try to “imitate” western ideas. “A law that establishes perfect equality in our homes between men and women is an un-African law,” Abidjan-based Notre Voie newspaper wrote in an editorial.
“Our entire civilization is structured around the concept of leadership: head of the household, head of the community, village chief, head of state,” Yasmina Ouegnin, a 33-year-old parliament member, said in a letter published on Abidjan.net. Changing the law “won’t necessarily promote women’s rights,” she wrote. The letter was reprinted on her Facebook page and got 5,535 likes. She declined an interview request.
The old law “was completely out of step with real life in Ivory Coast. Today, women study, travel and work,” Ranie-Didice Bah, an economist at the University of Bouake and adviser to the Commerce Ministry, said in a phone interview. “But there is no question that Ivory Coast is eager to qualify for MCC funds, and that surely accelerated the process.”
The MCC, which uses criteria such as good governance and the economic position of women to decide whether to fund projects in a country, invested more than $200 million in a highway in Ivory Coast’s neighbor, Ghana, and $180 million to modernize Benin’s seaport, according to its website.
Under the old system, married women in Ivory Coast paid as much as five times more income tax than married men, and only men received child support from the state, said Bah, whose own salary increased by 10,000 CFA francs ($20) a month as a result of the changes.
“The idea was that the head of the household would take care of his wife, so she didn’t need child support,” Bah said. “Symbolically and socially, the new family code is definitely a step forward.”
Yet, the passage of the law is in fact little more than a formality, according to Affousy Bamba, who was chairwoman of the parliamentary group that debated the bill and is now communications minister in Ouattara’s new government.
“I find the controversy a bit of a storm in a teacup, really,” she said. “People just don’t understand it. There is the spirit and the letter of the law, and in spirit Ivorian men remain the head of the household.”
Still, she said she was “shocked” that legislators, especially some women, had voted against the bill in parliament. “I mean, Ivory Coast is a modern country.”
Head-of-household laws are a colonial heritage limiting a woman’s legal capacity in 18 out of 29 civil-law countries across sub-Saharan Africa, according to Jeni Klugman, director of the Gender and Development department of the World Bank. They “can seriously hinder a woman’s ability to access finance and do business,” Klugman said in an interview from Washington.
Passing the law brings Ivory Coast in line with France, from which it copied most of its policies at independence in 1960. France scrapped its head-of-household rule in 1970. The changes also bring Ivory Coast into compliance with an international convention signed in 1995 to abolish discriminatory clauses.
With 51 percent of Ivorian women working, below the average of 61 percent for sub-Saharan Africa, and 11 percent of parliamentarians female, less than the regional average of 21 percent, Bamba said the law won’t do much to move the country toward gender equality.
“It won’t change much in reality,” she said. “Maybe in 20, 30 years from now, but culturally speaking, at the moment we’re not there yet.”
Marriage remains a crucial “safety net” for Ivorian women because the husband is expected to provide the family with food and clothes, according to Namizata Sangare, a women’s rights activist. “No matter how much money she makes by trading or selling tomatoes on the market, generally, married women believe their husband should pay for everything. Women prefer marriage over equality.”
Ivory Coast ranked 136th on the 2011 annual gender inequality index compiled by the United Nations Development Programme, just below Saudi Arabia, which was placed number 135. The index for 2012 hasn’t been published yet.
About 55 percent of adult women in Ivory Coast can’t read or write, compared with 35 percent of men, according to the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization.
Women who oppose the change don’t understand that it improves their legal status and lifts restrictions on female entrepreneurship, Lassana Kone, a legal adviser for Francophone Africa at the Cape Town-based research institute Natural Justice, said in a phone interview.
“It’s time that women understand they have a contribution to make, it’s time they become aware that they have something to say,” Kone said. “The government needs to explain what the changes mean, especially to the impoverished, illiterate population in the countryside.”
If educating women about the law is needed, Ivorian men may prove to be as much of an obstacle to change.
“This law is not welcome in Africa, we have traditions here,” said Mamadou Guindo, a 36-year-old chauffeur as he sat smoking a cigarette in a roadside cafe. “I will never accept that a woman who lives under my roof is equal to me.”