Sex discrimination is a pervasive pattern that harms women in their daily lives around the world. When governments enact and maintain laws that specifically discriminate against women, they promote a second-class status of women in direct violation of most national constitutions and international law. For instance, when by law, a woman cannot vote in Kuwait, cannot drive in Saudi Arabia, or loses her inheritance in Nepal when she marries, governments sanction discrimination. When a woman cannot claim her husband raped her in India, when a Jewish woman in Israel has no right to divorce under rabbinical law, or a marriage between a rapist and his victim extinguishes the crime in Uruguay, the state condones violence against women.
Equality Now has launched an intensive campaign calling on governments to eradicate laws that discriminate against women. In 1995, the United Nations Fourth World Conference on Women held in Beijing, otherwise known as the Beijing Conference, gathered 189 governments that pledged to “revoke any remaining laws that discriminate on the basis of sex.” The Beijing Conference was a prominent international forum where governments overtly committed to ensuring the advancement of a broad range of women’s rights. In 2000, these governments reaffirmed their commitment to end discriminatory laws, “…preferably by 2005.” Despite these pledges, at the eve of the 10th anniversary of the Beijing Conference, governments continue to show little or no political will to execute their commitments. This is the year of reckoning for governments to fulfill their oaths to end sex discriminatory laws.
The fact that there any laws – in fact so many laws – that discriminate against women 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.
In many countries, including The Sudan and Yemen, recent laws mandate wife obedience; in Algeria and elsewhere a husband is allowed to beat his wife. In fact, in 1984 when the notoriously discriminatory Family Code was enacted, parliamentarians debated for days on the length of the stick with which a man could “discipline” his spouse. In Nigeria the penal code also permits husbands to use physical violence to “chastise” their wives as long as it does not result in loss of sight, hearing, power of speech, facial disfigurement or other life threatening injuries.
The litany of sex discrimination continues when, in the United States, a father cannot automatically convey his citizenship to his children, and in Poland the law favors a child taking the father’s surname. A woman in Australia or in the United Kingdom is barred from applying to certain positions in the military. Men can kill their wives with legal impunity in the name of “honor” in Haiti and Syria and have more than one in Mali and Tanzania, to name a few countries. In Pakistan, for example, in case of rape, four Muslim adult male witnesses must attest to evidence that the woman was actually penetrated. Other examples of deliberately sexist laws include the one in Japan, where unlike a man, a woman must wait six months after her divorce to remarry and in South Korea, the law places men at the head of the family by preference.
In spite of decades of women’s rights activism around the globe, the extent of violence and discrimination against women condoned by governments around the world is staggering.
Without protection under law, women have no recourse when they face violence and discrimination. Even 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.
Equality Now’s campaign to end discriminatory laws is simple: Equality under the law means equality under the law. Governments must honor their commitment to the words and spirit of the texts they adopted in Beijing ten years ago by ensuring all women equality under the law – NOW.
To find out how you can join this campaign and get more information on discriminatory laws, including the ones mentioned above, please go to Equality Now’s report Words and Deeds: Holding Governments Accountable in the Beijing +10 Review Process:
Equality Now, February, 2005