When women vote against women’s rights: The strange case of the Mozambican Parliament

When women vote against women’s rights: The strange case of the Mozambican Parliament

What is the point of having women make up half of Parliament, if they vote for laws that put girls and women right back into the 19th century? This is happening today in Mozambique. In April, the country’s lawmakers will debate and approve the review of the new Penal Code, provisionally approved in December 2013. The revision is long overdue and welcome: finally, Mozambique is getting rid of the colonial Penal Code in use, which dates from 1886. That makes it 127 years old. By MERCEDES SAYAGUES.

The world has advanced in giant leaps in terms of human rights in the last 127 years. The laws of a young country should reflect these changes. Most stuff in the new, revised version is wise – but, surprisingly, unaccountably, some of the old laws are maintained, laws that severely infringe on the constitutional rights, the human rights and the dignity of Mozambican girls and women.

Consider the facts:

  • Of the 250 members of Parliament, 98 are women, or 40 percent. Both Frelimo and Renamo, the ruling party and the opposition, have lots of women MPs.

  • Mozambique ranks 14 among 145 countries in terms of women in Parliament. In Africa, only South Africa and the Seychelles rank higher.

  • In global indexes on women’s equality, Mozambique ranks high, in great measure for these 40 percent of women MPs.

Yet in December 2013, the Mozambican Parliament provisionally approved a law that lets the rapist of a girl under 18 go scot free if he marries his victim to protect the family’s honour (Article 223).

This bit of medieval legislation – where marriage is considered to be such a prize that it will obliterate the rape of a child – has earned the deserved rage of an Amnesty International online campaign to collect signatures against it, urging lawmakers to protect, not punish, rape victims, and to punish, instead of protecting, rapists.

But many other egregious violations of human rights appear in the new Penal Code. Among these:

Art. 218 – Child rape only covers rape of female children under age 12, yet under Mozambican law, male and female children are minors until age 18. Only vaginal rape is considered. Anal rape or rape with objects are not punishable.

Art. 233 – Rape involves “illicit relationships”. Hence, rape in marriage is not punishable. Again, rape is defined as vaginal rape. Anal rape or rape with objects are not punishable.

Art.24 – If a criminal’s relatives shelter or help the criminal escape, or tamper with or conceal evidence of a crime, from rape to murder, it will not be considered a criminal offence.

Art. 45 – The age of criminal liability is lowered from 16 to 10 years.

NGOs have met many times with MPs and written many briefs pointing out these discriminatory articles, suggesting changes that protect women and not rapists, abusers and criminals, but the Parliamentary Committee charged with drafting the new Penal Code remains unmoved.

And the women MPs are not complaining. They keep quiet.

Do they lack the courage to stand up to their male colleagues? Do they risk negative consequences for their political careers? Do they fear loss of privileges and business opportunities? Worse…do they agree with these laws?

The Parliamentary committee of women MPs was supposed to bridge party differences to advance gender issues. It is not happening.

Mozambican women MPs have been through countless trainings, funded by donors, on women’s rights, gender issues, women and the law, sexual and reproductive health, gender-based violence, assertiveness; you name it.

They know these points are indefensible. So why, instead of closing ranks and putting their 40 percent of the vote to good use blocking these laws, do they choose they remain silent?

About one thousand supporters of women’s rights marched in Maputo last week Thursday. Riot police in full force prevented them from reaching the National Assembly but a small group was allowed through to deliver their concerns to the Speaker of Parliament,Veronica Macamo.

On Wednesday, Macamo had called the directors of the two leading NGOs, defenders of women’s rights, to persuade them to call off the march. First, the two directors were not allowed into the parliament building because they wore sleeveless dresses. When the directors argued that they had been invited, would not accept silly dress codes and would leave, they were allowed in. Macamo blandly said efforts would be made to remove the offending articles. The feminists said it was the people’s right to march.

And so they did, with posters with slogans like “I was raped and on top I will be punished”. One couple made the point graphically: she wore a red-stained wedding dress and her partner wore a sign that read, “I am the rapist”.

On Thursday, Member of Parliament, Teodoro Waty, told the national press agency AIM that all offending articles had been removed in February but no one had been told about it – not even the Speaker of Parliament. No one has seen the revised version of the Penal Code that Waty mentioned. Women’s groups recalled that in the last two years the offending articles have been removed from the draft Penal Code by civil society several times only to pop up again in the draft versions.

Government seems alarmed with the negative international publicity and the street protests. In 2013, a march for peace and safety, against corruption, police brutality, rape and kidnappings attracted thousands of protesters and showed a deep well of anger against the government.

With presidential and parliamentary elections scheduled for November, and with the opposition having made a strong show in the municipal elections in November 2013, the ruling party cannot afford to antagonize people further. DM

Photo: Women collect water at the Chaquelane resettlement camp near the flood hit town of Chokwe, in southern Mozambique February 7, 2013. REUTERS/Agnieszka Flak


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