South African women married in traditional, tribal marriage ceremonies that were not recognized by the government under apartheid now enjoy the legal rights and status bestowed on women in state-sanctioned marriages.
In many rural villages and black townships, tribal marriage laws make women the wards of their husbands. Wives are denied all property rights and lose all marital assets and custody of their children in cases of divorced. In addition, husbands are allowed to take second wives without their first wives’ permission.
Under a law passed by Parliament this fall, tribal marriages are now recognized under the government and women are now entitled to equal rights under the country’s new constitution. Women married in tribal ceremonies are now allowed to own property and are entitled to half of the marital assets if they should divorce their husbands, at least in theory. Many believe that the laws will take many years to make a significant impact on women’s rights. Husbands married in tribal ceremonies retain their right to take second wives, but only after their first wives’ rights to marital assets has been formally agreed upon.
Women’s rights advocates argue that outlawing polygamous marriages would have been more hurtful than harmful. Liesl Gerntholtz, legal director of the government’s Commission on Gender Equality, said, “For many women in the rural areas, these marriages [polygamous] are their only hope of access to resources — housing and water. Yes, it’s problematic. But in some of these areas women are not in the position to negotiation the kind of relationship they want to have.”