Co-founder and Chairwoman Janvi Patel of Legal Advisory Group, Halebury, sat down with Equality Now’s Yasmeen Hassan in celebration of International Women’s Day.
Editor’s note: This is an excerpt from a longer conversation.
Which law would you change/implement, which would have a fundamental impact on women?
It is hard to pin down one law to change. There are different priorities across the regions of the world, but every law that treats women and girls as less than men and boys has an adverse impact on women and girls realizing their potential and holds us back. We have seen legal discrimination against women in nearly every walk of life – Women are not given equal rights in marriage (rights to enter into or leave marriages, wife obedience laws, polygamy); to participate in the economic realm (laws that restrict women from working in certain jobs or at certain hours, laws that require permission of a husband or father to work, unequal inheritance laws, laws that restrict women’s rights to property); with respect to their personal status (nationality laws that don’t allow women to pass their nationality to their husbands or children, laws that restrict women from giving evidence, restrict their rights to travel); and (iv) with respect to violence committed against them (laws can actually help perpetuate violence against women such as laws that allow husbands to chastise wives and those that allow marital rape or give lower or no penalties for honor crimes). We have a lot of work to do as each of these laws has a fundamental impact on the status of women and the opportunities available to them.
Which laws have been implemented that you consider have made a positive impact on equality?
In the last twenty years or so we have seen a sea change in laws on violence against women. We have come a long way from domestic violence being seen as just “life” (in the words of Gloria Steinem), to over 119 countries having laws against such violence and many have criminalized marital rape. More than 125 countries have enacted laws against sexual harassment. We also have positive changes in governments recognizing their responsibility to end harmful traditional practices: 23 African countries that have the practice of female genital mutilation ban it by law and most recently, there is a great impetus in Pakistan to change the laws that allow perpetrators of honor crimes to go free. Enactment of such laws is the first step; implementation is critical and needs political will.
What one thing would you encourage other lawyers to do to contribute to change?
Always try to improve the legal system so that it works for those most vulnerable. No part of our legal system is set in stone and it requires legal activism to propel change.