Tuesday, November 7, 2017
Coulibaly v. Stevance, decided Wednesday by the Indiana Court of Appeals, considers whether Indiana courts should honor a Malian child custody decree (involving Malian citizens). Indiana has adopted the Uniform Child Custody Jurisdiction and Enforcement Act (UCCJEA), under which state courts must enforce out-of-state and out-of-country custody decrees.
[T]the question was whether Malian child custody law violates human rights principles as Indiana courts understand them; the Indiana court of appeals said no, even though aspects of the law involved sex discrimination, and even though Malian law more generally doesn’t ban Female Genital Mutilation. (One of the couple’s children is a 15-year-old daughter.)
Mother notes that Mali’s divorce law is fault-based, and … argues that Mali’s marital laws evince a preference for men such that women will more often be found at fault for a divorce, resulting in a de facto paternal preference in child custody decisions. Specifically, Mother notes that statutory law in Mali expressly provides that “[t]he husband owes protection to his wife, the wife obedience to her husband.” The law provides further that the husband is the head of the household, that the household expenses “fall principally on him,” that he has the right to choose the family residence, and that the wife must live with him and he must receive her.. Additionally, a woman is prohibited from running a business without her husband’s permission.
In light of the prevailing fault-based divorce system, it is unsurprising that the Malian court made a number of findings with respect to the parties’ conduct during the marriage. The court expressly found Mother’s physical abuse allegation to be unsupported. The court also noted that under Malian law, a husband is entitled to choose the family residence and that Mother’s dispute regarding Father’s decision to live in Mali was therefore grounds for divorce. The Malian court further found that Mother admitted that she had “a habit of uttering insulting and offensive remarks toward” Father, which constituted “serious abuse”, and also that Mother’s persistence in her plan to emigrate with the children without Father’s knowledge or consent was a violation of her duty of loyalty, a mutual duty imposed by Malian marital law upon both spouses irrespective of gender. In light of these findings, the trial court granted Father’s petition for divorce and dismissed Mother’s counter petition.
Further, although Mali’s marriage laws impose different duties on husbands and wives based on gender, either spouse may be granted a divorce based on the other spouse’s failure to fulfill his or her respective duties. Whatever we might think about the wisdom of Mali’s marital and custody laws in this regard, we simply cannot say that they are so utterly shocking to the conscience or egregious as to rise to the level of a violation of fundamental principles of human rights.
Mother’s remaining arguments suffer the same infirmity — she essentially asks us to look beyond Mali’s custody law to conclude that Mali’s legal system and culture are, on the whole, so oppressive to women that no custody order issued in that country could be enforceable in the United States. [Footnote moved: Mother … notes that men in Mali are permitted to have multiple wives, while women may have only one husband. Mother notes further that the marital laws permit (but do not require) the payment of nominal dowry by the husband upon marriage “where required by custom.”] We are in no position to make such a judgment, and the language of the UCCJEA prohibits us from attempting to do so. Mother has not established that Mali’s child custody laws violate fundamental principles of human rights, and she is consequently unable to avoid enforcement of the Malian custody decree.