Marta Vallejo Mestres, UNDP Rule of Law, Justice and Human Rights Specialist for Arab States

Photo:UNDP Egypt

The clock is ticking … for achieving Gender Equality before the Law

Across the Arab region, women can be doctors, saving hundreds of lives, managers of companies worth billions of dollars, inventers of life changing products, renowned lawyers, activist, teachers, or artists. The sky is the limit. Yet, regardless of their social class, income or religion, they are not equal before the law. They do not have the same rights or exercise the same freedoms. They are not recognized as equals to men, and in many instances, the law may not guarantee their protection from abuse and violence.

Some laws treat them as subordinate to their brothers and husbands. In many countries, the law considers them unqualified to make the simplest of decisions: unqualified to travel without authorization from their male guardians, unqualified to open a bank account for their children, or even authorize a medical procedure to save their children’s lives.

At UNDP, the rule of law is fundamental to sustaining peace, security and human rights, and to ensuring that societies can advance in their wellbeing, where people are protected from injustice and have their rights upheld. Investing in having efficient justice and security delivery systems is critical. It is something we must continue to strive for. But sometimes, we need to dig deeper.

We will not be able to protect women from violence and deliver justice to 50% of the population unless we address the huge loop holes that exist in the law. Many examples clearly show that the laws themselves require reform. Consider the case when the law allows a male rapist to be exonerated of the crime if he marries his victim; or when nationality laws do not grant women the same right as men to pass nationality to their children or spouse; or when family laws will not give guardianship of the children to mothers denying their contribution to important decisions in their children’s lives, such as travel, health or education.

Strategies and programmes to change societal attitudes and practices that discriminate against women or harm them remain critical and have proven effective, such as in the case of female genital mutilation, or so-called honor killing. Similarly, training and working with judges, lawyers, prosecutors, legal aid service providers and the police, is vital for ensuring equal access to justice for women.

Such efforts to change mindsets are necessary and critical for achieving gender equality; but they are not sufficient. We must, at the same time, engage in changing laws to guarantee equality and justice for all – women and men alike. Laws play a pivotal role in changing societal norms.

UNDP partnered with UN Women, UNFPA and ESCWA to conduct an in-depth analysis of the penal code, personal status, nationality and labour laws in 18 Arab countries to identify underlying causes that impede women’s access to justice, particularly, laws that either do not provide equality between men and women or do not protect women from violence.

The study provides an evidence base for inspiring ongoing and future rule of law and access to justice programmes to improve women’s rights and protection. The findings of the study reveal that while substantial progress has been made in reversing unequal or unprotective laws, much more needs to be done.

Some examples: today only 2 countries give the same right to women and men to pass nationality to both their spouses and children; and in 5 more countries women have the same right as men to pass nationality to their children but not to their spouse. In personal status, there have been efforts to reform family law to provide women with more rights in marriage and divorce. Yet, today, equality in family laws is not realized in any country of the region.

On the other hand, good progress has been achieved in laws promoting women’s participation in the labour force and prohibiting sex-based discrimination in employment. This presents an opportunity to build from. Furthermore, on the penal code, in 2017 four countries abolished their ‘marry your rapist laws.’ While several other penal code components may need to be repealed, the abolishment has renewed a sense of activism and purpose that it is important to capitalize on.

All countries, including Arab countries, are committed to the shared vision for humanity delineated in the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, which promises, peace, prosperity and equality for all, leaving no one behind. By highlighting the inequalities in the law against international standards that Arab countries themselves have embraced, this joint study aims to create a practical understanding on how to achieve gender equality and guarantee access to justice for all. The evidence that this study generates provides sound bases for advocacy and inter-country experience exchange.

No country has perfect laws in all domains, in the Arab region or elsewhere. Yet, there are good laws in many domains in several countries in the region that can be used as examples to build from. Considering socio-cultural norms, values, and priorities, it is up to each country to identify whether their current legal frameworks are providing equality for their women and men, including future generations, and if they are not whether they would like to make reforms.

It is our hope that the evidence presented in this study will allow for a constructive dialogue, both at regional and country levels, determine where do we go from here, what needs to be changed and how to go about it.

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