ALGIERS, Algeria (WOMENSENEWS)--When she left her husband 12 years ago, Assia did not fully understand that divorced women had no rights in her country.
With no money saved, Assia, who did not want to reveal her last name, said she was left with nothing after 20 years of marriage and three daughters depending on her.
"I suffered from the family law in all its horror," she recalls. "If I had been able to benefit from housing rights and if I had received a correct alimony, I wouldn't have gone through all these difficulties."
Even though she gave proof at court that her husband owned several houses, she says she wasn't allowed any housing benefit in the divorce settlement.
Forced to leave the house she shared with her husband, she would have ended up homeless if she hadn't been able to live with her parents.
But Assia, today a 55-year-old French professor, was relatively fortunate. Unlike her, many women in Algeria--despite a 2005 law intended to help them--end up homeless and living in the street, often after their husbands suddenly decided to exercise their right to divorce.
According to SOS Women in Distress, a women's rights organization in Algiers, at least 540 women throughout Algeria have been victims of the nation's family law and became homeless last year. But the number of women who have found themselves living in the street, very often with their children, is certainly higher. Women gathered at night in the streets of Algiers are a common sight.
"Women are in the streets left out to themselves," says Nasr-Ed-Din Gaouar, a lawyer in Algiers.
Severe Housing Crisis
The situation is exacerbated by a severe housing shortage in Algiers that leaves many households in the city of over 3 million overcrowded, sometimes with 15 to 20 people crammed into the same dwelling. Owning a house is considered such a luxury that wedding announcements in newspapers often emphasize a woman's ability to provide housing over other alluring qualities such as youth and beauty.
A law passed in 2005--announced by Algeria's president on March 8, International Women's Day--addressed the special vulnerabilities of women undergoing divorce. The reform law leaves mothers, in most circumstances, with custody rights over children and requires a man to give up the conjugal residence or provide housing when the ex-wife retains custody.
Gaouar says the 2005 law has the potential to help divorced women but is currently left largely unenforced.
"Our leaders have to be aware that this is a real social problem," he says. "We have to give priority to divorced women, even if we have to create a social fund for them."
But the housing crisis leaves many men, such as Karim, a 24-year-old private driver in Algiers who didn't want to reveal his surname, adamantly opposed. "I am against the amendment because of the housing issue," he said, "but it wouldn't bother me if they abolished polygamy."
The 2005 amendment is a modification of Algeria's family code of 1984. Based on Sharia, or Islamic law, the code automatically assumed that housing, in the event of divorce, went to the husband. The code confers minority status on women, requiring, for instance, that they have a male "tutor," usually a father or brother, to be able to marry. It allows polygamy and says the the wife must obey the husband as the head of the family, and allows repudiation, in which a man can initiate and achieve a divorce without his wife's permission.
Maintains Inferiority of Women
Many activists criticize the 2005 amendment as maintaining the inferior status of women. The law, they point out, now officially gives a woman latitude to choose her tutor, but many women will be able to select him only under family pressure.
"This amendment is throwing dust into people's eyes in order to say that President Bouteflika has done something," says Kheira Dekali, a member of the Algiers-based advocacy group Algerian Gathering of Democratic Women, whose acronymn, RAFD, means "refusal" in Arabic. "Women continue to be thrown in the streets."
That trend was also noted by Yakin Erturk, the special rapporteur on violence against women for the United Nations. She toured Algeria in January and raised concerns about the 2005 amendment's discriminatory impacts in a public statement, noting the "particular vulnerabilities" of women when marital assets are divided in divorce cases, leaving many women destitute.
In a country where housing is so scarce and expensive, unemployment so high and male chauvinism so widespread, a strict and fair application of the new law is almost impossible, activists say.
Meriem Belaala, president of SOS Women in Distress, says men rent houses in remote neighborhoods or even in slums where their children can't continue the lives they led in the past. "Men use all sorts of tricks," she says. "They say they don't have money or can't find a house."
Sometimes, Belaala says, the ex-husbands obey the law at first but then stop paying the rent after a while. Or ex-husbands live with their ex-wives because they can't find a separate house, sometimes making cohabitation between the former spouses or between the wives extremely tense.
Many children were born under these circumstances, where their parents were divorced but still lived in the same house, and ended up stigmatized because they were born out of marriage.
"And the judges do nothing. They tell women, 'Look what we've done for you. What else do you want!'" says Belaala. "This is a regression. We tell women that we give them rights and that they're not happy with that. It is hard psychologically for them."
'Do Not Demand More'
The judges' words echo the remarks of President Bouteflika made to Algerian women. "You have obtained vested rights today. Do not demand more," he said, addressing female politicians and women activists during his March 2005 speech.
Advocates say a preferable bill--which dropped the requirement for women to have a matrimonial tutor--was briefly endorsed by the government in 2004 but never became a law.
Instead, they say Bouteflika bargained away women's rights as part of the wheeling and dealing over the controversial Charter for Peace and National Reconciliation, approved by a national referendum in September 2005.
That agreeement gave a sweeping amnesty to terrorists and extremist militants as well as security forces involved in a decade of bloodshed, which started after the government cancelled the 1992 parliamentary elections.
Bouteflika, women's rights advocates say, dropped his promises to them in order to appease Islamists and gain their support for the amnesty.
"The president had made a promise and he didn't keep his word," Dekali says. "If the state had wanted, it would have passed a new law (for women) at the height of terrorism."
Dekali and Belaala agree that further changes of the family law look less likely than ever today, due to the lack of political will and the encouraged chauvinism of many Algerians.
"Men have regressed in their minds because the law permits them to," Belaala says. "It is on their side."
Ilhem Rachidi is a freelance writer who has written for Asia Times, the Christian Science Monitor, the Middle East Times and Reuters.
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