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Chad Struggles to Pass New Family Law

Chad's government is pushing for a new family law that, among other things, aims to reduce gender disparities by outlawing wife beating and raising the minimum age for marriage. The proposed civil code is facing continued resistance from traditionalists in the largely conservative Muslim society.

Chad's president, Idriss Deby, used a recent rally marking the celebration of International Women's Day to express his commitment to pushing the law through, saying the injustices done to women must be repaired.

If adopted, the proposed family code would replace one that has been in place since before the country gained independence from France four-and-a-half decades ago. Proponents hope its passage will help reduce the differences in treatment under the law between Chad's more than nine million men and women.

But the law's future is far from ensured. A human rights activist, Dobian Assingar, says multiple delays in the process highlight divisions in Chad's majority Muslim society over whether women should be treated as equals.

He says the law has now been held up for more than three years in cabinet discussions. It has yet to go before parliament. Mr. Assingar blames the weakness of the state's authority faced with pressure from, what he says is a small number of conservative Muslim leaders.

Religious conservatives say the law contradicts the teachings of Islam.

Chadian journalist, Alphonse Mbaindoroum, says that many conservative Muslim men see the new code as a threat.

He says conservatives view the family code, whose drafting was partially funded by the United Nations Population Fund, as based on a French model that draws upon the teachings of the Bible.

There have also been objections from some Christians, who reject the code's legalization of polygamy, a practice with a long history in Chad.

The public debate over the law, however, is not a topic of discussion just for extremists.

Dalou Mohamet, a self-proclaimed modern Muslim, is getting married in June. And he says, though men and women have different roles to play in society, he believes in equality.

"My fiancé, she's Muslim also. And she knows exactly, for example, her rights. And I know my rights and my duties. We [have] agreed, she and I, that at home, for example, I am the chief. But it doesn't mean that I control all totally. Something concerning family and concerning children, in particular, she has a responsibility also. It's very important," he said.

Debate over the law has raised the possibility of the creation of two codes, one for majority Muslims, the other for Christians, mainly concentrated in Chad's south.

But one Chadian woman says rights for women should be universal and independent of religion. "As a Chadian woman, I would say that the code must be applied to all women. And there can only be one code in a country that is applied to all women, who should have the same rights. There is no such thing as Muslim women's rights, or southern women's rights. We are all the same. We are all mothers. This code is our right," she said.

Until the cabinet agrees on the new code or codes, the reforms won't even be considered by parliament to be passed into law. So far, some government officials are even going as far as boycotting cabinet meetings when family law is on the agenda.