Women′s rights languish in Mali | Environment| All topics from climate change to conservation | DW | 08.03.2010
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Women's rights languish in Mali

Popular opposition is holding back a new family law in Mali aimed at promoting equal rights for women. Critics accuse Mali's president of failing to communicate the benefits of the law, and opening a rift in society.

Two women in Mali cooking.

Most women in Mali are illiterate

Like every Sunday, Youma and Sana Traoré are preparing rice and fish sauce for the family's Sunday lunch: "Riz au gras", or fried rice. Traditionally in Mali, cooking is women's work, while men make the decisions.

The two cousins are discussing the topic that's been on everyone's minds in the tiny land-locked West African country since last August: Should a woman's role in society be strengthened?

"Women and men just can't be equal! Here, the man is clearly the boss in the family," says Sana.

On this particular Sunday, the Traorés are receiving a guest. Oulématou Dembélé Sow is head of FENACOF, the association of women's groups that supports the new legislation.

Oulématou Dembélé Sow heads Mali's women's association FENACOF

Oulématou Dembélé Sow heads Mali's women's association FENACOF

She is visiting the family to explain why family laws need to be reformed in Mali, where 90 percent of the population is Muslim.

"Women can no longer marry at 15 but rather at 18 years of age, as is the case with men. This way, a young woman can go to school for longer," Sow explains, adding that girls who marry too young, can't complete their education.

"It helps progress when you have the chance to control your own life," she says.

Resistance mounts

But the idea of progress is not supported by everyone in Mali. Officially, the state is secular, but the majority of the population is deeply religious and many aspects of life are determined by Islam and Sharia Law.

The minimum age to marry, inheritance laws and marriage rights are all traditionally subject to the control of the imams or the village elder.

And this isn't just supported by men, but also women like Youma and Sana Traoré. To question these fundamental values is for many 'the work of the devil' and clearly imported by the West.

A fundamental problem is the high level of illiteracy in Mali – about 80 percent. It mainly affects women, who are inadequately informed about planned reforms. Sana, a mother of three children, has only heard rumors about the new law.

"There was also reporting on it on television, but I didn't understand anything," she said.

The new law strengthens the rights of women in inheritance disputes. According to traditional Muslim law, a daughter only inherits half as much as a son. But with the new law, male and female children are considered equal.

There is also no distinction drawn between children born in and out of wedlock when it comes to inheritance issues. The only condition is that families have to decide between the old and new law before death. Mahmoud Dicko, president of the High Council of Islam in Mali, says it's all going too far.

Mahmoud Dicko, president of the High Council of Islam in Mali

Mahmoud Dicko, president of Mali's High Council of Islam

"This here is a country where a lot of people are illiterate. Are we supposed to go to a notary to regulate these things?" he said.

Religious fears

Dicko helped organize the mass protests against the new family law last August in Bamako. Over 50,000 demonstrators carried banners reading 'Mali is not for sale' or 'Western civilization is a sin'.

Many Muslim men and women consider the planned family law blasphemy. President Amadou Toumani Toure, who supported the legislation, was force to send it back to parliament last August in a bid to find a compromise that would salvage national unity. The bill has been languishing there ever since.

A shame, says attorney Mamadou Konaté. With more information and better dialogue, a compromise on inheritance law or marriage practices could have been reached, and a "tragedy" averted.

"I think the president removed himself too much from the population at the start. The debate only took place in the national assembly." Kontaté said, adding that the population was not involved early enough in the discussion.

"They had the impression that their traditional customs were being derided, that suddenly, only those things coming from abroad were desired."

No one knows at the moment when or whether the new family law will be debated again in parliament. But there is cause for hope that the two sides will find common ground, says the High Council's Dicko: "When everyone is looking for a compromise, then we'll find one. Insha'Allah, or God willing, as we say."

Author: Carine Debrabandère (ara)
Editor: Anke Rasper

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