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Guinea: Parliament Approves Civil Code That Would Legalize Polygamy

(Aug. 12, 2019) On May 9, 2019, a large majority of representatives in the National Assembly of Guinea voted in favour of a new Civil Code that would make monogamy the presumed form of marriage but would legalize polygamy. The vote was held only a few months after the Assembly’s last attempt was scrapped by Guinean president Alpha Condé, who announced his refusal to ratify the first modified Code on January 4, 2019.

Background

Although polygamy remains widespread in Guinea, the first planned revision of the Code met with fierce criticism from civil society groups claiming it amounted to an assault on women’s rights in the country. These groups especially objected to article 282 of the rejected Code, which left the choice of a monogamous or a polygamous marriage to the husband alone and held that, should he fail to make such a choice, the marriage would be presumed polygamous.

Provisions of the New Code

The new Code appears to have been tailored to alleviate these concerns. As under the rejected Code, a man in a polygamous marriage may take up to four wives. However, under the new law marriage is presumed monogamous “for all citizens of Guinea.”  For a couple to legally enter into a polygamous marriage, the groom must declare that he is opting for polygamy during the marriage ceremony, and he must receive the “explicit consent” of the bride. Some have applauded these “corrections”: one female representative in the Assembly celebrated that polygamy would be “exceptional” rather than common under the new law. The new Code has also been welcomed by those marginalized by the strict monogamy of the old one, which prohibited polygamy and made its practice punishable by a prison term of between five and ten years.  This prohibition, first established in 1968, was widely resented for being out of step with cultural norms in Guinea, such that its penal provisions became “dead letter” (lettre morte)—that is, they were virtually never applied. In formally prohibiting polygamy, however, the law denied recognition to the many secondary wives entering into customary polygamous marriages illegally. With polygamy legalized, secondary wives stand to gain formal civil status and all the attendant civil rights of married women.

Reactions to the New Code

Mohamed Lamine Fofana, minister to the presidency in charge of relations between institutions, noted that the changes adopted by the Assembly met the expectations of President Alpha Condé. According to Fofana, in opposing the first version adopted by the Assembly, the President merely wished “to provide a framework for polygamy that grants women the possibility of choosing the matrimonial regime that they desire.”

The new legislation, however, is not without its detractors. Some conservatives oppose it on the grounds that the newly introduced changes fail to adequately reflect the culture and mores of Guinea or meet what they consider to be the prescriptions of Islam, the country’s dominant religion. One representative went as far as to dismiss the “corrected” legislation as a gesture meant to “appease Westerners.”  On the other end of the spectrum, many feminists remain wary. Some see the “explicit consent” of the wife required by the new Code as meaning very little in a society where polygamy is firmly entrenched and where the pressure placed on women to resign themselves to polygamous marriages is enormous. The director of the Guinea branch of the NGO Wafrica stated that she accepted the new legislation, but only “by default,” because, while improving upon the Code adopted by the Assembly in December 2018, the new legislation still represents a step backward from the old Civil Code.

Prepared by Henri Barbeau, Law Library intern, under the supervision of Nicolas Boring, Foreign Law Specialist.