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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.

Read more about the 2020 report by the UN Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief, Dr. Ahmed Shaheed on religious belief & the rights of women and the LGBTQ+ community

What is the Impact on Women and Girls?

Many countries ranked at the bottom in terms of legal equality are those whose family laws, including male guardianship systems, explicitly discriminate against women and girls. This is not surprising. 

These laws, 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. 

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 also 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. 

What is Equality Now doing to drive reform in family laws globally? 

Equality Now is a founding member of the Global Campaign for Equality in Family Law, which has an overarching goal of achieving equality for all women and men under the law in all matters relating to the family*, regardless of religion and culture. The Global Campaign for Equality in Family Law seeks to:

  • Mobilise international action to achieve progressive family law reform around the world and to draw global attention and build global support for the urgent necessity for equality in family law.
  • Bring together civil society actors spearheading campaigns for family law reform at the national level, academics, UN agencies and government allies to create and implement a global campaign to end discrimination against women in family laws.
  • Strengthen advocacy for reform at the national level through developing knowledge resources and providing technical assistance to share good practices and lessons learnt.

*The Global Campaign for Equality in Family Law supports gender equality and families in all their diverse forms.