[A] BIDJAN, Ivory Coast -- Tomam Constance Yai is on a crusade against polygamy.
Although she scarcely tolerates it, her problem is not so much the traditional rural practice, which is widespread throughout this region, where the economics of hardscrabble farming have long encouraged men to take more than one wife.
Instead, the crusade of this leader of the Ivoirian Association for the Defense of Women's Rights is aimed at an equally well established urban phenomenon of multiple wives, mistresses and concubines that she says perpetuates the sexual privileges of men while stunting the lives of African women.
In past battles against sexual harassment, Ms. Yai, a 40-year-old speech therapist whose unflinching gaze and firm voice convey the sense of a woman who relishes big challenges, has had mixed results at best. But in this instance, she saw an opportunity to use a proposed change in the law to draw attention to problems like these.
Ms. Yai's newest campaign was begun after the publication of a proposed bill that would change the rules governing divorce on grounds of adultery.
The proposed law would grant a man the right to divorce his wife for adultery with little more provocation than finding her engaged in seemingly intimate conversation with another man. For women to obtain divorce for adultery, their husbands would have to be caught in a sexual act at the married couple's home with the same woman more than once.
Seizing upon the outrage the bill fanned in some quarters, Ms. Yai and others in this country's emerging women's rights movement have used the proposed law to focus attention on the broader question of inequalities frozen in place both by the legal system and by the weight of ancestral traditions.
"Having a husband who sleeps at home every night is considered by many women to be a rare privilege," Ms. Yai said. "It should not be a privilege; it should be normal. What we are seeing in our countries is the deterioration even of polygamy, where at least there are some responsibilities, into libertinism."
Some women's groups have quietly begun petitioning the government to withdraw the bill. But Ms. Yai and other members of her movement adopted a high-profile campaign, urging women to take direct action like marching on the homes of Government ministers to get their wives to pronounce themselves on polygamy and adultery.
"Since independence, not a single man has been prosecuted for polygamy in this country," Ms. Yai said. "If the government is proposing this, it is because men are afraid. It would seem that they have begun to say to each other, if we don't limit the power of women now, they will soon be demanding full equality."
According to embarrassed Justice Ministry officials, the controversial passages in published versions of the bill reflected nothing more than secretarial errors. The sole intent, they say, was to be a first step toward eventual "depenalization" of adultery, which is theoretically punishable by imprisonment.
But for Ms. Yai and her allies, the biggest challenge may be in mobilizing a largely indifferent public opinion.
Last year, a government proposal for the execution of violent criminals aroused widespread protests, and the idea was quietly dropped. Where the adultery bill is concerned, however, women's groups have been virtually alone in denouncing the measure. What is worse, Ms. Yai says, many women seem either resigned or indifferent.
To jar women out of complacency, Ms. Yai has sought out women who she says have already been wronged by the justice system and by husbands who take advantage of it.
One such woman is Martine Kuyo, 46, who says she discovered her husband one day locked in the embrace of another woman in a parked car. When Ms. Kuyo complained, her husband filed for divorce, claiming that his wife, to whom he was married for more than 25 years, had failed to entertain his family properly.
Since discovering that her husband, who is a doctor, had authorized a colleague to sterilize her without her knowledge during a Caesarean section in her last pregnancy, Ms. Kuyo has spent three years bitterly resisting a divorce.
"When the judge in the case sees me, you would think I was a threat to him," Ms. Kuyo said. "I walk in front of him and he frowns. My husband appears in the courtroom, and the judge smiles.
"Why? Because men realize that they are in this together."
Ms. Yai tells other women that such disparate treatment is commonplace -- by the police when women make complaints about brutality, by courts when women seek to bring charges against their husbands, and by employers.
"A couple of years ago, when I went to a bank seminar to speak about sexual harassment, many of the women told me that if the boss wants to make passes or take them out, that was nobody else's business," Ms. Yai said. "The message we want to get across to women is that there is someone here to help when it is your turn for a hazing."
Copyright 1996 The New York Times Company ----------------------------------------------------------