Laws abundant, enforcement less so

While a recently adopted family code awaits presidential approval in Mali, a decades-old law that calls for much of what is in the new code remains unenforced, according to the Ministry of Justice.

“Certain laws are problematic [to enforce] on the ground, especially when a [human] right clashes with customs,” said the Justice Ministry’s communications advisor, Lamine Keïta. “The right is paramount but in reality there is a lack of awareness.”

The existing family code, adopted in 1962, has rarely been enforced, University of Bamako anthropology professor Naffet Keïta told IRIN. “Social relations are above many other considerations in Mali. We are all bound, in part, by family, which makes it difficult to apply laws [governing social problems].” He said the new code will share the earlier code’s enforcement challenge.

“Most social problems…are managed outside the law.”

Escaping marriage

On 9 August police in a neighbourhood on the outskirts of the capital Bamako arrested an ethnic Peulh herder in his 40s, Amadou Diallo, for attempting to marry off his 12-year-old daughter to her cousin – a man in his 50s. A policeman who wished to remain anonymous told IRIN: “It was in trying to right an [inter-family problem] that he decided to give his 12-year-old daughter in marriage.” He added that the girl was offered in place of her 18-year-old sister who had fled the night before her planned wedding to the same man.

An anonymous informant alerted the police when a crowd gathered around the crying would-be child bride, according to local police. “Thankfully, the girl escaped the forced marriage and we have handed her over to her aunt,” said the police officer.

“I have always been opposed to these forced marriages, but my brother never listens to me,” the aunt, Aminata Barry, told IRIN. “He says it is God’s will that daughters marry as soon as they reach puberty. Thankfully, the little girl escaped. I will take care of her education myself and see to it that she marries a man of her choice.” 

The arrested herder has been released after the required 72-hour detention and his case referred to the courts, the policeman told IRIN. 

''He says it is God's will that daughters marry as soon as they reach puberty''

Traditional marriages are seen as legal in Mali, said lawyer Bouaré Bintou Founé Samaké, who works in a Bamako free legal clinic funded by the Canadian government. The legal reality is often ignored, she said.

“Early or forced marriage is an infraction defined as abduction with the intent to marry off the girl without her consent,” said the lawyer. Depending on the child’s age, the punishment can be up to 10 years of community work and for foreigners, a ban on entering Mali for up to 20 years, Samaké told IRIN.

Even though early and forced marriages are already criminalized by law, the challenge is enforcement, said lawyer and legislator, Hamidou Diabaté. “We have done our work in the National Assembly. It is now up to those responsible to ensure the law is correctly applied.

“In Mali, we are not short on good laws, but rather on their enforcement in the field.”

Bamako-based historian and social science researcher, Alou Badra Macalou, told IRIN laws alone cannot change behaviour. “These laws are imposed from the top down to the masses, where it is difficult to make a group of people who do not have common sense to understand and accept the laws. When we no longer know how to behave, it is hard to believe a law can force us to do so.”