Words and Deeds: Holding Governments Accountable in the Beijing +15 Review Process

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1 Feb 2010

Over sixty years ago, countries adopting the Universal Declaration of Human Rights proclaimed that “all human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights.” That fundamental right has echoed for decades in conferences, treaties, and declarations. In 1995, in the Platform for Action adopted in Beijing, 189 governments agreed that laws that discriminate against women undermine equality, and pledged to “revoke any remaining laws that discriminate on the basis of sex.” Yet inequality, even in its most overt form, has not been vanquished. While discrimination against women persists around the world in many forms, laws that explicitly discriminate against women demonstrate State backing of discrimination, and symbolize governments’ clear disrespect for the fundamental right to equality for women and official endorsement of women as people of lesser worth.

In 1999, Equality Now published a representative sampling of explicitly discriminatory laws from 45 countries in our report, Words and Deeds -- Holding Governments Accountable in the Beijing +5 Review Process (Beijing +5 report). The laws highlighted included those that discriminated against women with respect to personal status (suffrage, citizenship, evidence, travel, prostitution), economic status (inheritance, property, employment) and marital status (marriage, divorce, polygamy, wife obedience), and in addressing violence against women (rape, domestic violence, honor killings, state sanctions). In 2000, the General Assembly established a target date of 2005 for the revocation of gender discriminatory laws. This target was far from met. In 2004, Equality Now updated its report (Beijing +10 report), highlighting additional laws that discriminated on the basis of sex.

There has been some progress in removing legal discrimination against women. Equality Now is pleased to report that more than half of a total of 52 countries highlighted in both previous reports have fully or partially repealed or amended the discriminatory laws indicated. Among these countries are: 

Countries Legal provision repealed or amended since 2000
Algeria Wife obedience required
Bahamas No inheritance rights for women unless there were no male heirs
Bangladesh Women could not pass citizenship to their children
Colombia, Mexico, Romania, Turkey Different minimum ages of marriage for boys and girls
Costa Rica, Ethiopia, Guatemala, Peru,
Rapist exempted from punishment if he married his victim
France Women prohibited from working at night
Haiti, Jordan, Morocco Exemption from penalty for men who murdered their wives and/or female relatives in certain circumstances
India, Malaysia, Papua New Guinea, Serbia and Montenegro, Tonga Allowed marital rape
Kuwait Women did not have the right to vote
Latvia Women prohibited from working overtime and travelling for work during pregnancy and one year after childbirth
Lesotho Property could not be registered in the name of women married in community property
Mexico Women prohibited from remarrying for a specified time after divorce or widowhood
Nepal Restrictions on women’s property rights
Pakistan Discriminatory evidentiary standards applied to proving rape under the Zina Ordinance
Poland Women restricted from passing their surname to their children
Republic of Korea, Turkey Man designated as head of the family
Switzerland Women not allowed to carry out certain functions in the army
Venezuela Women prohibited from passing nationality to their husbands

Action taken by members of our Women’s Action Network played a critical role in moving governments to honor their commitments and undertake these reforms. However, many laws highlighted in the Beijing +5 and Beijing +10 reports (and many others) remain in force. In addition, as most recently demonstrated by the 2009 Shia Personal Status law in Afghanistan which, among other things, makes the husband the head of the household and restricts the wife’s movements, new discriminatory laws continue to be adopted. In 2010, Equality Now has updated its report (Beijing +15 report).

Since 2006, two studies and a report published by the United Nations recommended that urgent steps be taken to abolish all gender discriminatory laws. They concluded that a dedicated mechanism within the UN system on the issue of legal discrimination could well provide the impetus needed to effect real change in this area. Further discussions will be held at the UN Human Rights Council in September 2010. Equality Now agrees that such a mechanism would spearhead movement to review and amend discriminatory laws.

Without good laws women have no formal recourse when it comes to protecting and promoting their rights and cannot fully participate in society. While not a panacea for achieving equality in all spheres of life, at a minimum having legal equality gives women a level playing field from which to build their capabilities and realize their hopes and dreams, positively affecting development of society in general. Fifteen years after explicit commitments to end legal discrimination, the time has finally come to turn words into action and repeal all laws that discriminate on the basis of sex.

What You Can Do: 

Please sign our petition, addressed to the heads of state indicated in our Beijing +15 report, calling on them to ensure that the laws mentioned, and any other discriminatory laws in force, are repealed or amended as a matter of urgency. Please call on your own government to undertake a comprehensive review, in conjunction with women’s groups, of existing laws to identify and amend any that continue to discriminate against women, as well as those which have a discriminatory impact on women. Ask them to finalize all review and implementation of all necessary legal and policy amendments as soon as possible. Appeals should be addressed to your Minister of Justice or Attorney-General, as well as your President or Prime Minister. Please also call on your government’s foreign ministry to support the creation by the Human Rights Council of a special mechanism on women’s equality before the law to accelerate the pace of legal reform around the world. Share this update and your concerns with the media and the general public to enlist their support in the campaign to hold governments accountable to the promises they made in Beijing. Please let Equality Now know about any discriminatory laws in your country and steps to change them.