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Laws discriminating against women persist globally

Local girls bringing back firewood near Jinka, Southern Ethiopia. (David Stanley/flickr)

All laws in the world discriminating against women were supposed to be wiped out by 2005. Ten years later, numerous countries still have laws that restrict equality between men and women. Many of the 189 government that agreed to ending gender inequality at the U.N. Fourth World Conference on Women 20 years ago are not living up to their promises, says the women’s group Equality Now.

“[I]nequality, even in its most overt form, has not been vanquished,” says the group in its report Words and Deeds: Holding Governments Accountable in the Beijing+20 Review Process. “Without good laws women and girls have no formal recourse to protect and promote their rights and cannot fully participate in society. ”

It is the fourth edition of the report, published every five years since the 1995 meeting in China. While there are countries where laws against women are unchanged or worse, there are many others that have made positive reforms. About half of the laws highlighted in the group’s previous reports have been repealed entirely or amended, says Equality Now. Countries such as Argentina, Iraq, Nepal, Morocco, Poland Korea and Ethiopia are listed places where such reforms took place.

Changes since 2000 range from the enshrinement of basic rights to protection against harm. Women can now vote in Kuwait and obtain a passport on their own in Iraq. Rapists can no longer use marriage to protect themselves after committing the crime in Costa Rica and Peru. And in Korea, men are no longer the designated head of family.

But more must be done.

“Governments must turn words into deeds and finally repeal or amend all laws that discriminate on the basis of sex so the next generation of women and girls can enjoy their rights and live as equal partners in society,” says the report.

While some countries are making steady improvements, others are going backwards. Kenya, for example, enshrined a polygamy law last year that allows a man to take on additional wives without consulting his first wife. Other laws that discriminate against women remain on the books across the world. After a divorce, the law in Japan says men can remarry as soon as they’d like, but women must wait at least six months.

Such discrimination against women not only violates individual rights, but it restricts opportunities for women and girls. Equality Now Director Jacqui Hunt argued in the Huffington Post this week that action must be undertaken now to meet the goals set for 2005.

“Since many forms of violence against women and girls are interlinked, it is vital that governments recognize these relationships and ensure that their country’s laws fully empower rather than impede a girl or woman on her journey through life,” she wrote.

Recent successes give reason for optimism. Malawi passed its Marriage, Divorce and Family Relations Bill last week. It raised minimum marriage age for girls from 15 years old to 18. The law is in direct response to the country’s 52 percent child marriage rate, reported the Malawi Voice. The links between child marriage and a lack of education for girls were leading concerns that led to the change.

There is still a long way to go before all laws that discriminate against women and girls are abolished from every country, but progress towards gender equality continues forward.


About Author

Tom Murphy

Tom Murphy is a New Hampshire-based reporter for Humanosphere. Before joining Humanosphere, Tom founded and edited the aid blog A View From the Cave. His work has appeared in Foreign Policy, the Huffington Post, the Guardian, GlobalPost and Christian Science Monitor. He tweets at @viewfromthecave. Contact him at tmurphy[at]