Family Law - Equality Now

Family Law

“Egalitarian reform of family law may be the most crucial precondition for empowering women economically.”

Family law reform today remains a highly intractable area, not least because most family laws are based on religion, custom, and tradition. Religious, cultural, and ethnic identities are vested in family laws. These laws include, for example, marriage, divorce, custody and guardianship, property rights, as well as inheritance. They may be codified by the State or uncodified and unwritten. Attempts to reform family laws are often portrayed as threats to group identity and rights and used as justifications to resist demands for reform towards further equality.

But What About Cultural Practices Tied to the Family? 

The right to culture and to freedom of religion are also human rights, but they cannot quash a person’s fundamental human right to equality and non-discrimination. It is a derogation of a State’s duty when a State explicitly allows exceptions for customary family law, which may not always be written down. This can be seen around the world - from Zambia where the minimum age of marriage is 21 but under customary law a pubescent girl can be married off, to the United States, where unwritten sex discriminatory religious laws and practices, such as polygamy, child marriage, and inequality in divorce rights in certain communities have gone unchecked. 

What is the Impact on Women and Girls?

The impact on women, girls, and society (World Bank data, 14) show that many countries ranked at the bottom of the index for legal equality are those whose family laws, including male guardianship systems, explicitly discriminate against women and girls. This is not surprising. These practices and systems can further violate women’s and girls’ rights to education as well as economic and political opportunity and participation. A recent cross-country study drew the conclusion that “egalitarian reform of family law may be the most crucial precondition for empowering women economically.”

What Needs to Change?

Governments can no longer make excuses for sanctioning and perpetuating discrimination within the family, no matter what form it takes or the origin of the law or practice. Beijing +25 presents the international community with a tremendous opportunity to mobilize and grow global action towards achieving universal legal equality and human rights for all women and girls by Beijing +35 and at the conclusion of the 2030 Agenda of the Sustainable Development Goals in 2030.

Equality Now’s Recommendations for the Beijing Platform for Action:

In addition to identifying those laws that should be amended or repealed, the UN Women’s report, Progress of the World’s Women 2019: Families in a Changing World, explores how laws, policies and public action can actually support families, in all their diverse forms, and promote women’s rights. 

The principle of universality of human rights with regard to equality in the family should apply to all groups of women and girls, no matter their religion, custom or tradition. We must come together to push back against harmful laws, customs, and traditions at the heart of patriarchy, to benefit all women and girls and their families, including the most vulnerable and excluded. Governments must amend constitutions that allow for exceptions for sex discriminatory codified, customary, and religious laws as well as reform specific discriminatory family laws and put constitutional guarantees of equality in place. 

Read more of our recommendations, and specific good practice examples in our report.