The Role of Women

The Role of Women

Houphouët-Boigny's political style and longevity shaped Ivoirian elites into a wealthy, male, educated social stratum. By the late 1980s, women were beginning to emerge within this group, as education and acculturation enabled them to challenge the established order. Official attitudes toward the status of women were pragmatic, like most official attitudes in Côte d'Ivoire. Beliefs about the role of women in society were partly the result of ethnic conditioning, however, and the cultural bias against equality between the sexes was embodied in customary law, where ethnic diversity and cultural conservatism slowed the pace of modernization of regulations regarding women.

Role expectations for women changed, however, altered by colonial legislation, which liberated captives throughout francophone Africa in 1903, and then by the Mandel Decree of 1939, which fixed the minimum age of marriage at fourteen and made mutual consent a formal necessity for marriage. The Jacquinot Decree of 1951 invoked the power of the state to protect women from claims to their services--by their own or their husband's family--after marriage. Moreover, it enabled women to obtain a divorce more easily and invalidated in-laws' claims to any bride-price that had been paid to a woman's family to legitimize the marriage. This decree also recognized monogamy as the only legal form of marriage and allowed couples to marry without parental consent. These changes altered popular perceptions of marriage and established the colonial government as the authority on most aspects of the status of women.

At independence, the government of Houphouët-Boigny acknowledged existing decrees affecting the status of women and went on to establish the primacy of the nuclear family, raise the minimum age for marriage to eighteen, and condemn in general terms the notion of female inferiority. At the same time, however, legislation during the 1960s established a husband's right to control much of his wife's property, and it required a woman to obtain her husband's permission to establish a bank account or obtain a job. The government also placed restrictions on a woman's right to divorce, denied legal recognition of matrilineal rights of inheritance (inheritance by a man's nephews before his sons), and finally, condemned the practice of bride-price.

In 1963 women reacted to the extent and direction of government control by forming the Association of Ivoirian Women (Association des Femmes Ivoiriennes--AFI). They also persuaded the president to establish the Ministry of Women's Affairs (Ministère de la Condition Féminine) in 1976 and to appoint AFI leader Jeanne Gervais as minister. Gervais's goals were to obtain better educational and employment opportunities for women and to establish judicial equality for women. Legislation was enacted in 1983 to allow a woman to control some of her property after marriage and to appeal to the courts for redress of a husband's actions.

The status of women, in practice and in the law, was still well below that of men through most of the 1980s, but educational opportunities for women were improving at all levels. In 1987 about one-sixth of the students at the National University of Côted d'Ivoire were women, and the number of women in the salaried work force had also increased. Women made up almost one-fourth of the civil service and held positions previously closed to them, in medicine, law, business, and university teaching.

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