15 Years After The Beijing Conference Discriminatory Laws Related To Women’s Marital And Personal Status And Other Areas Still Lag

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5 March 2010
Contact: Lakshmi Anantnarayan, 212-586-0906, lanant@equalitynow.org

New York, March 5, 2010 – In recognition of International Women’s Day, international human rights organization Equality Now will launch its Beijing + 15 campaign urging governments to revoke sex discriminatory laws with the release of its report, Words and Deeds: Holding Governments Accountable in the Beijing +15 Review Process. Equality Now has been examining discriminatory laws around the world over a decade and has issued the latest of its three reports highlighting such laws with regard to marital, economic and personal status and violence against women. The sampling of discriminatory laws covers 36 countries from all geographic regions.

This campaign marks the fifteenth anniversary of the Platform for Action adopted at the United Nations Fourth World Conference at Beijing in 1995 where governments pledged to rescind all sex discriminatory laws. In 2000, during the fifth year review of the Conference, governments set 2005 as the deadline for revoking all sex discriminatory laws. However, 5 years after the deadline, laws continue to explicitly discriminate against women all over the world.

“While we acknowledge a steady increase in the number of countries that are repealing discriminatory laws, we note with great disappointment that many governments still allow their laws to categorize women as second-class citizens. It is disturbing to see some governments, such as Afghanistan, enact new discriminatory laws.” says Executive Director, Taina Bien-Aimé. “The Afghan Shia Personal Status law of 2009 establishes men as heads of households and curtails women’s freedom of movement.”

While a number of countries are making progress in enacting laws to better address violence against women, there is little progress in amending or revoking discriminatory laws related to marital and personal status. On the one hand, it is commendable that several countries, including India, Malaysia, Papua New Guinea, Serbia and Montenegro and Tonga, have recognized a woman’s right not to be raped by her husband. On the other hand, it is alarming that many countries, including Algeria, Israel, Japan, Mali, Sudan, Tanzania, and Yemen, have been unwilling to repeal laws that grant women secondary status within marriage -- such as laws providing for unequal rights within marriage and to divorce, prescribing male guardianship over women, permitting polygamy, and requiring wife obedience.

Equality Now notes with concern that in many countries amendments to a discriminatory law may be partial, incomplete or merely cosmetic, resulting in little change to legally advance women. For example, in amending its “honor killing” law in 2009, Syria failed to put this killing at par with other murders, by requiring a mere two year minimum sentence for the perpetrator. Rather than revoking its exemption of punishment for “honor killing” entirely, Jordan attempted to make the law gender-neutral. However, not only did it fail in this respect by imposing limitations to a woman’s use of the law, it failed to recognize that such acts are committed primarily by men and as such the law remains de facto discriminatory. While in 2006 Pakistan partially amended the Zina Ordinance (that prescribed corporal punishment for pre-marital sex and adultery) by taking rape out of it, the discriminatory evidentiary standards of that law continue to apply to fornication and adultery. Although India’s domestic violence law of 2006 gives women the option to bring a civil case for marital rape, India continues to exempt marital rape from its criminal law.

Over the last few years, there has been increased attention to the issue of violence against women because finally the calls of women’s groups from around the world were backed by the United Nations, which instituted a Special Rapporteur on violence against women, commissioned a global study on the subject and launched the Secretary-General’s global campaign UNite to End Violence against Women. All of this has raised international awareness of the issue and helped garner support for legal change.

We now need a similar level of commitment from the United Nations and its member states to prioritize and invest in ending legal discrimination against women, which is recognized as a root cause of violence against women. One way to elevate this issue is by creating a Special Mechanism within the Human Rights Council to monitor equality before the law. Equality Now urges Member States of the UN to consider the establishment of such a Special Mechanism to demonstrate their commitment to explore ways and means to end sex discrimination and live up to their international obligations.

March 5, 2010 - 12:30