The fundamental right to equality has been affirmed and reaffirmed repeatedly by governments in international treaties, declarations, and conferences, as well as in domestic constitutions. Nevertheless, discrimination against women in its most blatant forms continues in countries around the world. In September 1995, 6,000 delegates from 189 countries at the United Nations Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing adopted a Declaration reaffirming their fundamental commitment to “the equal rights and inherent dignity of women and men.” They also adopted the Beijing Platform for Action in which they pledged 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, a Special Session of the General Assembly reviewed implementation of the Platform for Action, and governments pledged in the Outcome Document they adopted to review domestic legislation “with a view to striving to remove discriminatory provisions as soon as possible, preferably by 2005…” The 2005 deadline is fast approaching, yet laws that explicitly discriminate against women remain in force in many countries.
In 1999, Equality Now published Words and Deeds: Holding Governments Accountable in the Beijing +5 Review Process, a report highlighting a representative sampling of discriminatory laws in forty-five countries around the world and calling on their governments to rescind these laws in accordance with the commitment made in the Beijing Platform for Action. There have been a number of significant legal reforms in some countries. Equality Now welcomes the reforms that have been made by the Governments of The Bahamas, Costa Rica, France, Jordan, Mexico, Papua New Guinea, Peru, Switzerland, Turkey, Venezuela and the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia – Republic of Serbia, to eliminate the discriminatory laws highlighted by Equality Now in its initial report. These reforms demonstrate a commitment to equality and respect for the undertakings made in Beijing and other international legal obligations. They set an example that should be followed by all governments. The Government of Nepal amended several property laws to remove discriminatory provisions, including a law that gave daughters the right to a share of family property only if they were 35 years old and unmarried. It failed, however, to repeal a provision that requires women to return any such property upon marriage.
A large majority of the discriminatory laws cited by Equality Now in its report five years ago are still in force. The updated report attached to this Women's Action Update includes these laws and other laws that explicitly perpetuate de jure discrimination with regard to personal status, economic status, marital status and violence against women. These are a few of the many existing laws that fundamentally contradict the words and spirit of the Platform for Action (as well as 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). In anticipation of the tenth anniversary of the adoption of the Beijing Platform for Action and the target date of 2005 for elimination of discriminatory laws, Equality Now calls on all governments to rescind these laws within the next year, to demonstrate their commitment to implement the Beijing Platform for Action.
Explicitly discriminatory laws that mention women by name are only a small part of the discrimination women face daily in every country in the world. In many and varied ways, women's right to equality is pervasively and invisibly denied and precluded, their social inequality officially ratified. Some constitutions specifically exempt from equality guarantees certain laws that particularly and profoundly affect women's lives, such as family law and property inheritance, in deference to discriminatory religious or customary laws. Laws adopted to promote equality in employment rarely guarantee equal pay for work of comparable value, and domestic work is almost never covered by labor laws, with the result that women in the most sex-segregated jobs continue to be underpaid and unprotected. Authorities in most countries are typically reluctant to respond vigorously to domestic violence with the result that women, the primary victims of intimate assault, have less personal security. Some countries make selling sex a crime while buying sex is not, thereby criminalizing those who are exploited, mainly women, while at the same time not holding those who exploit them, almost always men, accountable for this abuse. In countries where abortion is a crime, women are forced to carry pregnancy to term or are exclusively burdened with the danger of illegal abortions, which can be fatal. Whenever laws promote or perpetuate women's inequality, even when their language appears gender-neutral, they constitute discrimination in violation of international norms. To implement the Beijing Platform for Action, which calls for “non-discrimination under the law and in practice,” governments must review all laws that have a discriminatory impact and remedy this discrimination.
Law is the most formal expression of government policy. A government that allows discriminatory laws to remain in force endorses and promotes inequality. Without equality under law, women have no recourse when they face discrimination that affects all aspects of their lives including security, bodily integrity, family life, community status, and political, economic and social prospects. The fact that there are any laws - in fact so many laws - that explicitly discriminate against women nearly 10 years after the adoption of the Beijing Platform for Action, 25 years after the adoption of CEDAW and 55 years after the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights affirming that “all human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights,” is unacceptable.
Please write to the heads of state of the countries mentioned in this report and call on them to ensure that the laws mentioned, and any other discriminatory laws in force, are repealed or amended before the agreed target date of 2005. Urge them to undertake and complete these reforms as a demonstration of their genuine commitment to the words and spirit of the 1995 Beijing Platform for Action and the Outcome Document adopted in 2000. To address the harmful and disproportionate impact on women of laws that are gender neutral in language, call on your own government to undertake a comprehensive review, in conjunction with women's groups in the country, of existing laws to identify and address any sex discriminatory impact these laws might have, through legal reform or other measures needed to ensure non-discriminatory implementation of the law. This appeal should be addressed to your Minister of Justice, as well as your President or Prime Minister. Share this report and your concerns with the media and the general public, to enlist their support in this campaign to hold governments accountable to the promises they made in the Beijing Platform for Action. Please keep us updated on your campaign efforts and let us know about discriminatory laws in your country and efforts underway to change them.