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The Paradox of Multicultural Vulnerability: Gender Justice and COVID-19 in Ethiopia

*By Temelso Gashaw Getahun


“The world's most popular man reaches 80 and ponders buying a wife in exchange for 60 cows.” This was how Nelson Mandela's marriage had headlined by the Western media in 1998. Mandela’s prioritization of constitutionally recognized local customary legal system of marriage had led to the questioning of his struggle for freedom which is an aspirational experience to the world. Such imprudent characterization of indigenous law and institutions stems from the conception that all customary and religious laws are an affront to the rights of women.

Under normal circumstances, it can be argued that parallel operationalization of local customary and religious laws with the formal legal system does not necessarily disadvantage Ethiopian women so long as these normative orderings are harmonious with international human right standards. However, due to the COVID-19 global pandemic, courts around the country are either closed or operating under new hours with limited types of cases being heard. The unfolding unprecedented global situation is widening the justice gap in general and affecting women's access to justice in particular. Under the condition of keeping an adequate physical distance between disputant and arbitrators, non-state adjudicatory mechanisms can play a significant role in filling such gaps, if measures are taken to adequately provide the needed distancing and healthcare measures in such customary adjudicatory hearings as well.

From the cumulative reading of Article 9(1) and Article 91(1) of the Ethiopian Constitution, we can understand that legal pluralist ethos had extensively been considered during the process of Constitutional formation. Besides binding international treaties ratified by Ethiopia, these provisions impose an obligation on the government to “support, the growth and enrichment of cultures and traditions that are compatible with fundamental rights, human dignity, democratic norms and ideals” The Constitution has also recognized the possibility of adjudicating personal and family matters through customary and religious laws.