Dealing with the Mozambican Parliament and its revision of the Penal Code of 1886 is like weeding your garden. You pull out a bunch of weeds today, only to find a dozen sprouting in a different place tomorrow. By MERCEDES SAYAGUES.
On Saturday 26 April, rushing before a month’s recess in May, Parliament sent a newly revised version of the Penal Code to women’s rights activists. The collective blood pressure rose as the recipients read chapter 9 on domestic violence.
More on chapter 9 later, though. First the good news and a bit of background.
At the end of March, the women’s movement scored a big victory when they persuaded lawmakers to pull out some really bad, backward articles. The worst was that the rapist of a girl under 12 years of age would go free if he married her and stayed married for five years.
But, of 27 contested articles, only five were changed.
On Wednesday 29 April, the speaker of Parliament, Veronica Macamo, called activists to a meeting, where once again they argued their objections.
On 30 April, Macamo announced more revisions:
So where are the new weeds?
Sprouting in chapter 9, domestic violence.
Lawmakers tried to align the Penal Code with the domestic violence law (DVL) passed in 2009 – a fairly good and progressive law, with a few flaws, but the fruit of long discussions with women’s rights advocates. In this chapter, lawmakers included some DVL provisions but dropped key elements, effectively watering down or neutralising many of the law’s achievements.
Art. 253 – Widow dispossession is widespread throughout Mozambique, especially in the patrilineal southern and central regions, where the wife moves in with the husband, and the land, the family home and the children belong to the male lineage. In the matrilineal north, the husband moves in with the wife, and she holds some rights to the land and the children.
Frequently, widows are chased from the property by the in-laws. A widow may be told to pack whatever she bought with her money and go, or accused of witchcraft and expelled, or mistreated until she leaves.
The DVL criminalised dispossession by any family member – in-laws comprised. In art.253, the only perpetrator of this crime is the surviving spouse, who might dispossess the children. The whole spirit of the law was to protect the widow from greedy in-laws. That is gone.
Because the DVL treats domestic violence as a public health and human rights issue, it provides special legal, police and medical treatment for victims, such as privacy and free medical examinations. To ensure the victims’ safety, a relative can report the crime to police, and reporting can be done by phone or email. These measures have disappeared in the new Penal Code.
The women’s movement is demanding the removal of chapter 9. All of it.
The DVL has its own internal coherence; changing it requires serious collective reflection and negotiations. Eroding it through the new Penal Code is not acceptable.
One wonders if such bungling is the product of incompetence or a planned erosion of hard-won women’s rights.
In this revision, lawmakers have repeatedly tried to strengthen the family as the locus of patriarchal power over women.
In Mozambique, where state institutions for human rights, equality and welfare are fragile, slow and corruptible, laws should try to reinforce legal equality and ease women’s access to institutions and to state protection, instead of preserving male powers over women and children, and protecting perpetrators instead of victims.
Mozambican women are not taking this quietly. May will see mass mobilisation, with press conferences, posters, radio and TV spots, and street banners against the discriminatory articles.
Forty percent of Mozambican MPs are women, earning the country high rankings on gender equality from the United Nations. But some laws being proposed in 2014 would be heartily endorsed by the Taliban.
Let us hope that, as happened with the marry-the-raped-child debacle, Parliamentarians will listen and amend. DM
Photo: Women and children take shelter inside a school near an area that was destroyed by the recent floods, on the outskirts of Maputo, Mozambique, 29 January 2013. EPA/ANTONIO SILVA
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