Departure of Ethiopian Family Laws: The Need to Redefine the Place of Societal Norms in family Matters

  • Mulugeta Getu Sisay
Keywords: adoption, arbitration, betrothal, custody, family, mirror, society, spouses


Most legal theorists agree that law is the ‘mirror of society’ and its purpose is ‘maintenance of social order’. This so called mirror-theory underlines that the basic source of law is social values and interaction, and the state should not blatantly ignore societal values and impose aspirational laws. Unfortunately, Ethiopia has taken measures to modernize the country through legislative reforms including by abolishing selected aspects of customary family institutions in 1960 and 2000. As a result, important values of the society have been overlooked in the official family laws and that separate the law from the community. Betrothal, one of the long established practices of Ethiopians, is totally ignored by the federal family law and has become an extra-judicial act. Similarly, though customary way of family dispute settlement is recognized under the FDRE Constitution, the family law barely empowers it thereby eliminating its functions and importance. Equally, the law that obliges adoption agreement to be in written form, parties to appear before court of law and secure approval of the relation, is believed to be mechanical and contrary to societal practices. As a result, the family laws have been considered by many as a poor adoption of foreign practices that ignore societal values and long-proved customary institutions. The author, however, argues for “a multilayered approach to family regulation [that] builds on the notion that many families have a complex identity and experience, shaped and defined by many different cultural, legal, and political ties.” Indeed, the manuscript presents that there are sufficient reasons to argue for greater accommodation of indigenous legal tradition (cultural and religious diversities) in Ethiopian family laws.