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Ending Discrimination Against Women in Family Law is Vital for Economic Progress

Equal Inheritance Rights March in Tunisia. Credit: Equality Now, Ben Ibrahim

COLOMBO, Sri Lanka, Apr 3 2023 (IPS) - Discriminatory family laws and policies that restrict women’s access to educational opportunities, employment, inheritance, property ownership and equal pay, are making women disproportionately vulnerable to the impacts of the global economic downturn.

Not only is it unjust to deny women equal economic rights, but it is also significantly hampering socio-economic progress of nation states. Governments urgently need to reform discriminatory family laws that privilege men over women because countries cannot afford to sideline half their population.

Women shoulder a greater burden of unpaid labor

Many countries are currently mired in financial crisis, soaring inflation, and debilitating debt. The backdrop to this is a global economic slowdown triggered by the COVID-19 pandemic, Russia’s war on Ukraine, and extreme weather fuelled by climate change. Research shows that gender inequality at home is exacerbated by such economic slumps, with women more likely than men to be saddled with increases in unpaid domestic work like cooking, cleaning, and caring for family members.

According to the International Labour Organisation, up to 76% of unpaid care work is done by women and girls. The unequal division of informal labor requires women to forgo paid employment, work more hours, and can curtail their financial and career prospects.

Unpaid care work can account for anywhere between 10% and 39% of the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) and a potential tenth of the world’s economic output. It contributes hugely to a society’s economic well-being, but is excluded from official GDP figures that measure the economic performance of countries. This is because many people, including some economists and policymakers, view unpaid domestic labor as women and girls “fulfilling their family duty.”

Discriminatory gender stereotypes of this kind are embedded within patriarchal family structures and are both encoded in and perpetuated by sex-discriminatory family laws that limit women’s ability to participate in the economic sphere.

Legally prohibiting women from equal education and economic involvement limits their earning potential, reduces their decision-making power, and widens the gender pay gap.

All this traps women in a cycle of poverty and forces many to remain financially dependent on male relatives, thus putting them at greater risk of a range of human rights violations, including sexual and gender-based violence and exploitation.

Around half of countries have economic status laws that treat women unequally

Equality Now’s policy brief, Words & Deeds: Holding Governments Accountable to the Beijing +30 Review Process – Sex Discrimination in Economic Status Laws, highlights how around half of countries still have economic status laws that treat women unequally, making them more vulnerable to exploitation in real life and online.

Recent data from the World Bank’s Women, Business and the Law 2023 report shockingly shows that only 14 out of 190 economies surveyed have achieved full legal equality, and a typical economy only grants women 75% of the same rights as men.

According to the same report, women face restrictions in marriage and divorce matters in 89 economies. Lamentably, 43 economies do not grant equal inheritance rights to male and female surviving spouses and 41 economies still favor sons in the division of property.

One factor highly corresponds with these statistics – family laws that discriminate against women and girls. In Gender-Discriminatory Laws and Women’s Economic Agency, Mala Htun, Francesca R. Jensenius, and Jami Nelson Nunez analyzed World Bank data. They found a strong correlation between restrictions on women’s economic agency and gender-discriminatory legislation relating to family laws and personal status laws that regulate relationships between individuals, such as in marriage, divorce, child custody, and inheritance.

Religious and legal discrimination entwines

Sri Lanka is one of many countries with sex-discriminatory family laws. It has also recently been experiencing a severe economic crisis and public demands for political change.

Lawyer and activist Ermiza Tegal highlights how this upheaval tallies with an uptick in domestic violence and sexual abuse.

Tegal is calling for legal reform, citing mounting evidence of the “direct relationship between discriminatory family laws and women’s physical and mental health, and vulnerability to exploitation and violence,” with unjust legal provisions and practices driving women and children to destitution and excluding them from education and development.

Examples of Sri Lanka’s discriminatory laws include the Muslim Intestate Succession Law, which stipulates that daughters can only inherit half of parental property compared to sons, and the Jaffna Matrimonial Rights and Inheritance Ordinance (or Thesawalamai) that applies specifically to Jaffna Tamils and prevents a married woman from disposing of real estate without her husband’s consent.

Another example is the Muslim Marriage and Divorce Act (MMDA), which allows child marriage, denies women the ability to sign their own marriage documents, and does not recognize the concepts of matrimonial property or alimony.

Currently, Sri Lanka is in the process of reforming the MMDA following widespread public demand for reform, led by Muslim women’s rights groups.

In Tunisia too, women do not have equal inheritance rights, despite a very progressive Personal Status Code enacted in 1956 that promoted equality between spouses and abolished polygamy.

Samia Fessi is President of Kadirat, an NGO working to repeal discriminatory laws, and she is part of a vibrant women’s rights movement that has campaigned for decades for equal inheritance.

According to Fessi, “Women rights activists argue rightfully that equality in the inheritance will benefit economically marginalized women as half is better than nothing. We believe that discriminatory laws should be abolished if we want women’s conditions to improve.”

In 2017, there were hopes that equal inheritance would be granted as part of progressive amendments to Tunisia’s Personal Status Code announced by former president Beji Caid Essebsi.

Despite opposition from conservatives arguing that equal inheritance is a violation of Islamic Shari’a law, he succeeded in getting the reform Bill approved by the Ministerial Council.

Unfortunately, Essebsi’s death in 2019 meant the loss of presidential support, and the Bill has not passed. The likelihood of imminent reform has faltered under the new president, Kais Saeid. He holds conservative views on inheritance and other social issues, and has overseen the passing of a new Constitution that declares Tunisia is an Islamic nation and the state must work to achieve “the goals of pure Islam in preserving life, honour, money, religion and freedom.”

Reforming family laws benefits everyone

Equality Now’s report summarizes that “women’s legal capacity – their ability to act and make choices independently of the men in their lives about money, travel, work, property, and children – by far is the strongest predictor of the share of women with bank accounts, the share of women who participate in firm ownership, and female labor force participation.”

Mala Htun et al.’s study concurs, concluding that egalitarian reform of family laws “may be the most crucial precondition to empower women economically,” and this should be everyone’s priority because it would “unleash massive economic potential.”

Global data demonstrates that accelerated progress toward gender equality can result in huge economic gains for a country, and compelling evidence shows that nations have more diverse, dynamic, and resilient economies when they foster environments that enable women to enter and thrive in labor markets.

Employment and property rights can grant women access to loans, insurance, and social protection schemes like pensions and provident funds, reducing the likelihood of old-age poverty, and making women and their families more resilient during economic crises.

Women with full legal capacity and agency are more likely to pursue education, fund skills and income-building, and contribute to the national economy. Women are also more likely to invest in their family’s welfare, such as by prioritizing their children’s education, nutrition, and healthcare.

To advocate for much needed legal change, the Global Campaign for Equality in Famly Law was launched by eight leading women’s rights and faith-inspired organizations, alongside UN Women.

The campaign calls on governments to prioritize equality in family law, policy, and practice, especially in light of severe economic crises that affect women and girls disproportionately. Sexist family and related laws need to be repealed or reformed and attempts to introduce new discriminatory laws should be blocked.

Ensuring that laws which govern the family and personal status protect and promote women’s economic and legal rights must be a prerequisite for every country striving to overcome economic challenges. This must also be a priority for multi-lateral and bilateral agencies supporting countries. Economic equality in the family culminates in economic equality in society. The time for family law reform is now!

Hyshyama Hamin is Campaign Manager, Global Campaign for Equality in Family Law, Equality Now

IPS UN Bureau


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