Words and Deeds Holding Governments Accountable in the Beijing + 5 Review Process

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1 Jul 1999

The fundamental right to equality has been affirmed and reaffirmed repeatedly in conferences, treaties, declarations, and other public fora in which governments participate. Nevertheless, discrimination against women in its most blatant forms continues in countries around the world. In September 1995, the United Nations Fourth World Conference on Women was held in Beijing, and 6,000 delegates from 189 countries participated. The conference adopted the Beijing Declaration, which reaffirmed a commitment to "the equal rights and inherent human dignity of women and men," as well as a commitment to implement the Platform for Action also adopted by the conference. One of the strategic objectives set forth in the Platform for Action is to "ensure equality and non-discrimination under the law and in practice" and more specifically in Paragraph 232 (d) to "revoke any remaining laws that discriminate on the basis of sex and remove gender bias in the administration of justice."

In June 2000, government representatives will meet for a Special Session of the United Nations General Assembly to review implementation of the Beijing Platform for Action. Equality Now considers that the minimum level of political commitment to the Beijing process would require governments participating in the Beijing + 5 review process to have eliminated laws that explicitly discriminate on the basis of sex. Yet in an overwhelming number of countries such laws remain in force, perpetuating de jure discrimination with regard to personal status, economic status, marital status and violence against women. These laws represent a small component of the discrimination women face on a daily basis in virtually every country in the world. Discrimination in the enforcement of law, denial of equal opportunity in education and employment, exclusion of women from political representation, deprivation of sexual and reproductive rights, and the use of social forces and physical violence to intimidate and subordinate women all constitute fundamental violations of the human right to equality. But laws which explicitly discriminate against women symbolize at the most formal level the open disrespect of governments for this fundamental right.

The report attached to this Women's Action highlights a representative sampling of laws in 45 countries around the world which explicitly discriminate against women and are currently in force. There are many others. These laws are fundamentally in contradiction with the spirit and text of the Platform for Action (as well as the United Nations Charter, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the International Covenants on Civil and Political, and Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, and the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women). Since the Beijing Conference there have been a number of significant legal reforms in many countries--repealing or amending discriminatory laws and passing new laws to better protect and promote the human rights of women. However, there have been a number of significant setbacks as well. Perhaps the most dramatic setback has taken place in Afghanistan, where women and girls are now systematically treated as less than human. They are denied access to education, to employment, to health care. They cannot leave their homes without a male guardian to accompany them, and they must be fully veiled from head to toe when they appear in public. Women have been whipped in Afghanistan for having uncovered ankles. Women are also prohibited from wearing high heels which would produce sound by walking and from laughing loudly. Although gender enslavement in Afghanistan represents the most extreme formal discrimination against women in the world, the country is not included in this report, which is addressed to governments, because Equality Now considers that the Taliban forces which rule Afghanistan should not under the circumstances be addressed as a government within the framework of international law.

Many laws which discriminate against women, particularly laws which govern family relations, derive from religious practice. Christianity, Islam, Judaism, and Hinduism, for example, all manifest discriminatory treatment of women in various ways. However, this report only addresses laws which have been adopted by state governments. Any religious laws incorporated in their governance&emdash;as any other laws&emdash;must be consistent with human rights, including the right to equality. Similarly, when traditional customs are supported by the force of law, the fact that they are traditional customs does not change the standard of international law against which they must be measured.

Women in different countries and different regions of the world have different priorities for social change in their ongoing efforts to realize the right to equality. Often the priorities are not related to legislative reform but to other forms of discrimination. In many countries abortion is a criminal offence which exclusively burdens women with the legal consequences of terminating an unwanted pregnancy, as well as the danger of unsafe, illegal abortions. In many countries prostitution is a criminal offence for women in prostitution, and not for the men who patronize them. In virtually all countries, there are laws, policies and practices which are not explicitly discriminatory and yet effectively deny women the fundamental right to equality without any recourse. Equality Now is highlighting discriminatory laws because law is the most formal expression of government policy. The fact that there are any laws, and in fact so many laws, that explicitly discriminate against women five years after the adoption of the Beijing Platform for Action, twenty years after the adoption of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, and fifty years after the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights which proclaims that "all human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights," is unacceptable and suggests that despite the commitments made in Beijing, the political will to implement them is woefully lacking.

What You Can Do: 

Please write to the government heads of state of the countries mentioned in this report. Call on them to ensure that the laws cited, and any other discriminatory laws in force, are repealed or amended before the Beijing + 5 Special Session of the UN General Assembly in June 2000 so that at the Special Session these reforms can be highlighted as a show of genuine commitment to (rather than disregard for) the words and spirit of the Platform for Action. Share this report and the concerns outlined above with the media and the general public, to enlist their support in this campaign to hold governments accountable to the promises of the Beijing Platform for Action. You may also wish to highlight and let us know about other discriminatory laws in your country and efforts underway to change them.