Civil Marriage in Africa: Rights of Women, or Rights over Women?

Tuesday, July 15, 2014: 10:30 AM
Room: 302
Oral Presentation
Véronique HERTRICH , INED, Paris, France
Although matrimonial procedures in sub-Saharan Africa are highly complex, civil marriage is often a minority practice in this region. It is being increasingly promoted, however, notably in policies to advance women's rights, since legal marriage enables each partner to assert his or her rights, if necessary through the courts. But why are women opposed to this practice in different populations? Is civil marriage always a factor of progress for women? To what extent does it challenge the traditional leeway of women to manage their conjugal life, for instance to dissolve their union? Are the rights associated with civil marriage always more profitable to women then the flexibility of the “de facto” marriage"? Are these rights consistent with local reality or do they correspond more to principles with no real practical application? We will examine these questions on an empirical basis, using a small-scale and longitudinal research in rural Mali, implemented in 1987-9 and updated every 5 years (the last in 2009-10). Quantitative data come from an exhaustive life event history survey that was carried out in two villages (1,750 inhabitants in 2009). Qualitative data include a corpus of individual interviews (65) on the family interactions experienced at different periods of life, and 7 interviews on marriage legalization (6 with focus groups + 1 with the judge in charge of divorce and family affairs). In line with women’s perceptions that civil marriage is a brake to marital rupture, quantitative results confirm that divorce is rare in case of legal marriage, while it is common (about 25% of rupture among women’s first marriage) otherwise. The paper will show that legal marriage can increase gender inequalities by making it more difficult for women to dissolve a union, while failing to provide them with rights that are suited to local realities.