The power of civil society: A concrete Mozambican example

The power of civil society: A concrete Mozambican example

Women’s groups in Mozambique have won a huge battle to prevent some serious anti-women laws from being included in the country’s new penal code – their tenacity is a lesson to us all that ordinary citizens can make change happen. It’s only a start, though as the new legislation is still far from perfect. Civil society still has plenty of work to do. By SIMON ALLISON.

Covering politics can be a depressing business. All the wars, the infighting, the sheer inability of so many governments to govern in the interests of their people – it’s not exactly uplifting stuff. Compounding this is the glacial, often non-existent, pace of change. It’s hard not to feel impotent sometimes. We can shout, we can scream, we can march in the streets, but is any of it really making any difference?

Every now and then, however, a story comes along that warms the heart and reminds us all that change is possible; that the big, lumbering ship of government can be forced in a different direction – or at least prevented from wandering too far off course – with a little bit of well-placed pressure. The story of the Mozambican parliament and their ill-conceived penal code is a perfect example.

Two weeks ago, the Daily Maverick published an article by Mercedes Sayagues, a veteran Mozambique-watcher, about Mozambique’s plan to re-vamp its penal code, much of which is unchanged from the one introduced by Portuguese colonisers in 1886, an outrageous 127 years ago. Now the Portuguese, at the time, were not the most progressive folk around, and left behind some laws that look distinctly old-fashioned – not to mention unjust – in the modern world.

Recognising this, finally, Mozambique’s parliament appointed a commission to redraft the penal code, bringing it in line with 21st century norms. That was the plan, at least: in practice, some of the old Portuguese legislation was reproduced word for word in the new bill, preserving several outdated practices that fall well short of Mozambique’s human rights obligations.

Take, for example, the clause that said a rape is not a rape if the rapist then marries his victim. Or the one that said you can’t be raped by your spouse. Or the one that said statutory rape only applies to girls under the age of 12 (basically a licence to engage in under-age relationships). Or that the new penal code continues to refer to mentally ill people as “crazies”.

Funnily enough, many of the problem clauses seemed to unduly impact on women – an irony given that Mozambique’s parliament has one of the best gender distributions on the continent, with 40% female MPs. These MPs must have been sleeping on the job.

Fortunately, other Mozambican women took up the cause, organising protest marches and a publicity campaign to persuade Parliament to reconsider. Even Amnesty International got involved in petitioning the government and raising awareness.

Here’s where the good news comes in. Fast forward a few weeks, and the parliamentary commission in question has publicly recanted the most offensive of the problem laws. No longer can a rapist escape justice by marrying his victim. No longer can men rape their wives. And a few extra sections have been added to address a few glaring gaps in the law. Particularly welcome is one on domestic violence, which punishes both physical and psychological abuse.

“It is true that the march, and the international attention, really made the committee act…they realised it was bad publicity so they removed some of the offending articles,” said Sayagues. She pointed out that it’s probably no coincidence that this is an election year, and the sitting government needs all the good press it can get to try and maintain their current levels of support.

So there it is: civil society can make a difference. Articles, campaigns, and protest marches all contributed to pressurising Mozambique to drop outdated, discriminatory legislation. Without the very public response, those laws would have gone back onto the books, and stayed there for many years to come.

But the job of civil society, and particularly women’s groups, in Mozambique is not yet over. There are caveats to this good news story, big ones – and these will require even more vigilance and engagement.

The first hurdle is that parliament has promised before to drop controversial bits of legislation, only for them to turn up later in a similar form. Only the plenary session of parliament has the final authority to add or remove legislation, and until they vote (expected later this year) there is no guarantee that the dodgy laws won’t make a reappearance. “Seeing is believing,” commented Sayagues.

Then there are the other strange laws which are still in the revised penal code. In fact, of 27 objections raised by women’s groups, only five were taken into account in the recent changes.

That one about statutory rape only applying to girls under 12? Still there. Anal rape is not considered rape. The age at which a child can be considered criminally liable drops from 16 to just ten years of age. And perhaps the strangest of all: any relative of a criminal, who helps that criminal escape, or helps cover up or conceal evidence of a crime scene, will not be committing a criminal offence (in other words, if you’re planning to rob a bank, make sure you bring a few cousins with you to cover your tracks with impunity).

It has taken a long time to bring Mozambique’s penal code into the 21st century. A full 127 years, to be precise. That it took so long is a poor reflection on Mozambique’s parliament, which is hamstrung by incompetence, disinterest and the simple fact that many lawmakers are ill-equipped to deal with complex legal issues. Now that the penal code is finally being revised, these same factors ensure that the process and its outcomes are far from perfect.

Nonetheless, Mozambique’s vocal and well-organised women’s groups have shown that a concerted effort to influence the process for the better can have a positive effect. For a penal code the country can really be proud of, it will have to rely on civil society becoming even more engaged. DM

Read more:

  • When women vote against women’s rights: The strange case of the Mozambican Parliament on Daily Maverick
  • Mozambique: Offensive Articles Removed From New Draft of Penal Code on AIM

Photo: A mozambique woman shows a poster reading; ‘We need a law to protect us and not to condemn us’, during a protest against the approval of some articles of the new Penal Code, during a protest organized by non governmental organizations (NGOs), in Maputo, Mozambique, 20 March 2014. EPA/ANTONIO SILVA


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