LONDON - Family law has not kept up with social shifts, with marital rape, child marriage and lack of property and custody rights persistent problems, research finds.

Discriminatory family laws across parts of Africa are stalling progress on women’s rights in some countries, according to new research quoted by the London-based Guardian.

The human rights organisation Equality Now studied family law and practices in 20 African countries and found progress in recent decades, but said inequalities persisted in marriage, divorce, child custody and inheritance and property laws.

The report pointed to issues with pluralistic legal systems, where statutory legislation sits alongside customary and religious laws and can make interpretation and application difficult.

The majority of countries have ratified two protocols that guarantee strong rights and protections for women, including the Protocol to the African Charter on the Rights of Women in Africa (the Maputo protocol) and the UN’s Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women.

However, in some countries, as in other parts of the world, rape is not outlawed in marriage; in others, women are unable to petition for divorce and have no guarantee of inheriting property on the death of a partner. In nations including Algeria, Cameroon and Nigeria, women receive less inheritance than men.

Those advocating for change say that family laws have not kept up with the social shifts of the times, including changes in family responsibilities and increased divorce rates.

There has been some success across the continent, including raising the legal age for marriage to 18, said the report. Countries including the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Kenya and Mozambique have banned child marriage. However, Cameroon, Senegal and Tanzania still allow it. Countries such as Nigeria outlawed child marriage in 2003, but the practice continues in the north of the country, where approximately 50% of girls are married before the age of 18.

Esther Waweru, report co-author and a senior legal adviser at Equality Now, said: “Culture and religion frequently act as major impediments in the struggle for family law equality, stalling reforms. Claw-back clauses water down the full impact of some progressive laws, and we are now witnessing backlash from anti-rights movements seeking to reverse hard-won gains made in ending harmful practices such as child marriage and female genital mutilation.

“Stagnation is also a problem, with governments pledging to reform discriminatory laws but failing to take meaningful action. In some instances, progressive family codes have remained in limbo for decades, awaiting enactment.”

Hadiza Dauda, 37, from the northeastern Nigerian city of Bauchi, has had first-hand experience of discriminatory customary laws.

Married as a child of 12, which exposed her to early motherhood, her husband later died in 2020. Her in-laws then put pressure on her to marry her brother-in-law, threatening to take custody of her children and evict her from her matrimonial home if she refused.

Dauda got her land back with the help of Women for Women, which trains the marginalised on their rights, and she now works as a community activist, advocating against forced marriage and widow evictions in her home town.

“[These practices] really affect women negatively,” she said. “Those that don’t know what to do fall into poverty, doing all sorts of menial jobs to feed their families. Others go into depression, not knowing where to start from. I didn’t have a choice on when to get married, or when and how to give birth, but we are saying women must have a say, and [this needs to change].”