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Sexist Laws Still Thrive Worldwide

Zambian women at a rally demanding equal political representation. The United Nations says that sexist laws worldwide violate international conventions and treaties. Credit: Richard Mulonga/IPS

UNITED NATIONS, Feb 18 2015 (IPS) - A rash of sex discriminatory laws – including the legalisation of polygamy, marital rape, abduction and the justification of violence against women – remains in statute books around the world.

In a new report released here, the New York-based Equality Now has identified dozens of countries, including Kenya, Mali, Iran, Saudi Arabia, India, Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), the Bahamas, Malta, Nigeria and Yemen, which have continued with discriminatory laws in violation of international conventions and U.N. declarations.

The same [...] governments who decry equal rights for women as Western or immoral “have no qualms using Western medicine, weaponry, technology, education, media and probably Viagra and pornography.” -- Sanam Anderlini, executive director and co-founder of the International Civil Society Action Network (ICAN)
Antonia Kirkland, legal advisor for Equality Now, told IPS, “Our report highlights a cross-sample of different sex discriminatory laws from a range of countries, which harm and impede a woman or girl throughout her life in many different ways.

“We urge not only these countries – but all governments around the world – to immediately revoke any remaining laws that discriminate on the basis of sex, as called for in the 1995 Beijing Platform for Action.”

In 2000, she said, the U.N. General Assembly reaffirmed the urgency of doing this by setting a target date of 2005.

“Although this was not achieved, we are encouraged by the U.N.’s continued reflection of this priority in the development of a post-2015 framework,” she noted.

This year the United Nations, spearheaded by U.N. Women, will be commemorating the 20th anniversary of the historic Beijing Women’s Conference, taking stock of successes and failures.

The new study identifies dozens of discriminatory laws, either in existence, or just enacted.

In Malta, if a kidnapper “after abducting a person, shall marry such person, he shall not be liable to prosecution”; in Nigeria, violence “by a husband for the purpose of correcting his wife” is considered lawful; in the Democratic Republic of Congo, “the wife is obliged to live with her husband and follow him wherever he sees fit to reside”; and in Guinea, “a wife can have a separate profession from that of her husband unless he objects.”

Sanam Anderlini, executive director and co-founder of the International Civil Society Action Network (ICAN) told IPS hypocrisy and double standards are pervasive – not just about the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) or the Beijing Plan of Action but also about the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), which all countries have signed.

She said the problem is exacerbated by a lack of equality in basic terms – for example there is no equal pay in the United States. Also, the fact that so many countries refuse to live up to their own commitments means the bar is lowered constantly or remains forever low.

“We have to call it what it is – universally sanctioned sexism,” said Anderlini, who was the first senior gender and inclusion adviser on the U.N.’s standby team of expert mediation advisers (2011-2012).

She said cultural excuses are given to block changes in the laws in each context, but given how pervasive it is, “we have to be frank – it’s sexist and it’s about power.”

Meanwhile, the report also points out that, as recently as last year, Kenya adopted a new Marriage Act that permits polygamy, including without consent of the first wife.

Mali revised its family code in 2011, rejecting the opportunity to remove the discriminatory “wife obedience” and other provisions that were found in the 1962 Marriage and Guardianship Code, while Iran’s new Penal Code of 2013 maintains the provision stipulating a woman’s testimony to be worth less than a man’s.

Equality Now’s Kirkland told IPS sex discriminatory laws are in direct violation of the equality, non-discrimination and equal protection of the law provisions of the major international treaties and conventions.

There is no good reason why those countries highlighted in the report – as well as many others – are yet to reform their laws, she added.

Women and girls must have their rights protected and promoted and an equal start in life so they can reach their full potential, she said.

“Without equality in the law, there can never be equality in society,” Kirkland declared.

Currently, the U.N. Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women is meeting in Geneva, as it does periodically, to review reports from several of the 188 States Parties to the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women.

At the current session, the Committee of 23 independent experts is reviewing the implementation of CEDAW by several countries, including Azerbaijan, Gabon, Ecuador, Tuvalu, Denmark, Kyrgyzstan, Eritrea, and Maldives.

The discriminatory sex laws cited in the study also include Kenya’s 2014 Marriage Act, which says, “A marriage celebrated under customary law or Islamic law is presumed to be polygamous or potentially polygamous.”

An Indian act from 2013 states, “Sexual intercourse or sexual acts by a man with his own wife, the wife not being under fifteen years of age, is not rape.”

A Bahamian act from 1991 defines rape as the act of those over 14 years “having sexual intercourse with another person who is not his spouse”, thereby permitting marital rape.

In Yemen’s 1992 act, Article 40 suggests that a wife “must permit [her husband] to have legitimate intercourse with her when she is fit to do so.”

In the United States, a child born outside of marriage can only be granted citizenship in certain cases relating to the father, such as, if “a blood relationship between the person and the father is established by clear and convincing evidence” or “the father (unless deceased) has agreed in writing to provide financial support for the person until the person reaches the age of 18 years.”

And in Saudi Arabia, a 1990 Fatwa suggests: “women’s driving of automobiles” is prohibited as it “is a source of undeniable vices.”

Asked whether countries practicing discriminatory sex laws should be named and shamed, ICAN’s Anderlini told IPS it is time for an annual report card of countries – to show clearly where they are on the hypocrisy scale vis-à-vis gender equality in actions and changes evident in the lives of women and girls.

She said public statements, rhetoric, pledges and even ratifications are meaningless if there is no action and more importantly more positive outcomes.

“Why not have an ascendency process – like joining the European Union – where countries get recognised based on demonstrable actions [or] outcomes, not just what they say or sign?” she suggested.

Anderlini also pointed out that, sadly, progressive voices just don’t care enough or understand the political repercussions enough to act; or they have such an Orientalist view of women in developing countries that they minimise and marginalise their role.

But the extremists get it, she said – they understand women’s power and influence. That’s why they are killing the ones who speak out and are actively recruiting young and older women into their fold.

“And too often those who oppose equal rights will claim it counters their culture or traditions – but it’s hypocritical and inaccurate.”

She pointed out that a close look at the history, religion or traditions of many countries provides ample evidence of women’s rights and equality. But that just gets erased away by those – typically men – who interpret and recount the past.

Islam for example, said Anderlini, not only states that women and men were created equal but specifically calls for equal rights to education and pay, among other things.

“Or when we think of land ownership, it was Victorian colonialists who imposed their version of inheritance laws – property goes to the eldest son – on many countries where collective ownership and matrilineal systems were in place.”

Never in the history of humankind has culture been static, she said.

Furthermore, she claimed, the same people and governments who decry equal rights for women as foreign or Western or colonial or immoral or ask for ‘patience’ or cultural sensitivity “have no qualms using Western medicine, weaponry, technology, education, media and probably Viagra and pornography.”

These have a far more damaging impact on their culture or going against religion and tradition than giving women the rights to inherit land, get equal pay for equal work, pass citizenship to their children, “or, dare I say, drive,” she concluded.

Edited by Kanya D’Almeida

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  • Vestias

    a little more justice rights to all women in Zambian

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