THE BLOG

Why Are Countries Taking So Long to Change Their #Unsexylaws?

16/02/2015 17:32 GMT | Updated 18/04/2015 10:59 BST

Sex discriminatory laws range from those which permit marital rape or enable a kidnapper to avoid prosecution if he marries his victim, to those which do not allow a woman to pass on her nationality to her children or demand that she obeys her husband.  Such laws demonstrate the clear disrespect of governments for the fundamental right of women to equality and officially endorse women as people of lesser worth.

As long as a girl or woman is not equal in the text of a country's law and its legal system, she cannot fully participate in, or be valued equally in society.  Legally, she is of lesser importance.  Yet, twenty years after 189 governments pledged to "revoke any remaining laws that discriminate on the basis of sex" as part of the Beijing Platform for Action, only just over half of the laws highlighted in our reports on the subject have been revised, appealed or amended - a great achievement, but one which falls very short of what was envisaged. 

Such laws, whether they were adopted 100 years ago or just last year, contradict international legislation as well constitutional provisions guaranteeing gender equality and other national laws.  Since the Beijing declaration in 1995, Equality Now has highlighted a substantive sample of these discriminatory laws in various reports approximately every five years. 

Justice is the foundation stone for equality and without it, women and girls are enormously disadvantaged politically, economically and socially.  At a minimum, legal equality gives women and girls a level playing field from which to build their capabilities and make meaningfully contributions to society. 

Not allowing half of the human race to do this is a serious human rights violation, but governments should also be fully aware that without ensuring equality under the law and equality of opportunity, countries will not be able to make significant progress on any level. 

A specific area which Equality Now and others have zoned in on over the past few years for a more targeted global advocacy campaign is Sex Discrimination in Nationality and Citizenship Laws.  In too many countries, women cannot pass their nationality to their children or spouses on the same basis as men.  This has hugely harmful effects. 

Senegal amended its law on this issue in 2013 and Suriname did the same in 2014.  The Bahamas is discussing constitutional changes, and other countries, such as Jordan, have proposed changes in regulation, we hope as an interim step, to alleviate the hardship of families discriminated against under the law. 

A new global initiative also launched in 2014, the Global Campaign for Equal Nationality Rights which is building momentum to encourage governments to pledge to amend such laws in line with the Beijing Platform for Action and other international obligations. 

In 2014, Equality Now also published Protecting the Girl Child - Using the law to end child, early and forced marriage and related human rights violations, which calls on governments to take a comprehensive approach to ending child marriage - including by amending discriminatory laws which allow for lower marriage ages for females than for males.  The report notes too the relationship between child marriage and others abuses such as female genital mutilation, sex trafficking and domestic violence.  Most recently,Yemen and Saudi Arabia have indicated that they will enact minimum age of marriage laws, but there have since been further delays.

Since many forms of violence against women and girls are interlinked, it is vital that governments recognize these relationships and ensure that their country's laws fully empower rather than impede a girl or woman on her journey through life.  Unfortunately though, legislative change has not always been positive.  While several countries have fulfilled their obligations since 1995, others have backtracked over the past twenty years. 

As recently as last year, Kenya adopted a new Marriage Act which permits polygamy, including without consent of the first wife.  Mali, in revising its family code in 2011, rejected the opportunity to remove the discriminatory wife obedience and other provisions that were found in the 1962 Marriage and Guardianship Code, while Iran's new Penal Code of 2013 maintains the provision stipulating a woman's testimony to be worth less than a man's.

With the twentieth anniversary of the Beijing Platform for Action on our doorstep, there is, once again, a new opportunity for governments to fulfill their obligations to end sex discrimination in law.  Progress will happen if all countries fulfill their commitments to ensuring equality for its women and girls.  We do not want to be campaigning for the same thing in twenty years time.  There is absolutely no reason for any government not to take action.