Since the 1990s, women's organizations have been pushing for and often succeeding in getting constitutional reforms and legislative changes. As a result of such efforts, today twenty-one out of forty-six African constitutions have provisions with customary law being overridden by statutory law and the constitution. Only three constitutions make specific mention of women or gender in this regard. Moreover, thirty-two countries have antidiscrimination clauses with particular reference to women. Gender equality is specifically mentioned in all but eight sub-Saharan Africa constitutions out of forty-six constitutions, further highlighting the importance of gender equality (see Table 5.1).
These are extremely profound challenges because they are more than attempts simply to improve legislation or add a few sentences in a constitution. They are, in effect, efforts to legitimize new legal-based sources of authority for rights governing relations between men and women and family relations. Prior to the 1990s, even when laws existed to regulate marriage, inheritance, custody, and other such practices, customary law coexisted and generally took precedence when it came to family and clan concerns. Today, women are challenging these norms through constitutional and legislative changes. This is no small matter, but one that will take time to realize even with legislative and constitutional reforms, because customary norms are so deeply entrenched and customary law is so widely practiced.
The constitutional changes have occurred in the context of reforms that were part of democratizing trends sweeping Africa.