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Family Laws in MENA Fail to Protect Women and Girls

A woman holding up a sign in a crowd

As the world celebrates the International Day of Families on May 15th, millions of women and girls across the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) do not have the security and safety a family can bring. Discriminatory family laws across the region are failing to protect women and girls.

It is time for a change. Equality Now is building a feminist movement of young women, women’s rights organizations, activists, legal experts, and decision-makers to tackle gaps in Family Laws and support women and girls to realize their rights. 

Religious Family Codes Strip Women of Custody Rights

The absence of a unified secular family code in most MENA countries deepens the discrimination against women, and among women of different religions and sects.  In countries where various religions are recognized by the law, multiple family laws exist. For example, in Lebanon, there are 15 family codes that regulate marriage, custody, and guardianship. This reflects the power of religious and social norms in depriving women of their rights in marriage, divorce, and custody of their children.

While the existing family laws generally grant mothers custody of their children, the child’s gender and mother’s marital status constrain full custody and guardianship. In Algeria, for example, the family code of 1984 grants mothers the custody of their sons until the age of 16 and daughters until the age of 18 or when they are married. However, Algerian mothers lose their custody when remarried under article 66 of the family code. To end the suffering of women affected by this custody law, our partner Centre d’Information et de Documentation sur les Droits de l’Enfant et de la Femme (CEDDIF) continues to lobby the state to adopt the concept of the “best interest of the child.”

Under the Reducing Vulnerability and Building Resilience Among Women’s Groups Across MENA project led by Equality Now, CEDDIF built positive relations with the Ministry of Justice. They obtained the official number of women who lost their custody after remarrying. These numbers strengthened the partners’ ability to lobby for the reform of the custody laws. Their efforts resulted in the Ministry of Religious Affairs’ acceptance of keeping the custody of children with the mother’s family, instead of losing full custody, should she decide to remarry.

Laws are Failing to Protect Women and Girls in their Houses

Domestic violence in the MENA region is the second-highest worldwide. Across the MENA, 34.5% of married women have experienced a form of violence by an intimate partner throughout their lifetime. These numbers record the highest in Egypt, where it is estimated that 86% of married women face spousal abuse and almost half of the young women have faced physical violence from their brothers and fathers. In Palestine, 29% of married or previously married women have experienced a form of violence, according to Palestine’s Central Bureau of statistics 2019. Due to stigmatization, an increase in family honor-related crimes, and the lack of proper judicial services to prosecute SGBV cases by intimate partners, 61% of those who were victims of violence by their spouses preferred to remain silent.

Under the Young Women for Awareness, Agency, Accountability, and Advocacy (YW4A) partnership, Equality Now is supporting national partners in Egypt, Palestine, Kenya, and South Sudan to lobby for reform and proper implementation of domestic violence bills. 

The Ibrahimia Media Center is leading an evidence-based advocacy campaign to improve the existing draft law on domestic violence in Egypt and will lobby the parliament to adopt it. In Palestine, the Young Women’s Christian Association (YWCA), as a member of the Palestinian Non-Governmental Organizations Against Domestic Violence Against Women Network (Al Muntada), continues to lobby the government to improve the existing domestic violence draft bill. Equality Now continues to support both partners with advocacy training and close follow-up on their planning and implementation. 

Laws are Failing to Protect Child Brides

Loopholes in-laws and patchy implementation result in 700,000 child brides in the MENA every year. One in five girls is married before the age of 18 and one in every 25 is married before the age of 15. The prevalence of child marriage varies among the region’s countries due to social norms and economic situations. The highest percentage is in Yemen (32%), followed by Iraq (24%) and Egypt (17%). It is also noticeable that refugee families have sought to marry their child daughters as a negative coping mechanism – poverty and lack of access to services: girls are married to reduce the economic burdens of their families and they are believed to be more protected from sexual violence. Child marriage has increased significantly among Syrian refugees reaching almost 50% in Turkey, 40% in Lebanon, and 32% in Jordan.

The lack of laws and proper implementation put millions of child brides at risk of pregnancy and childbirth complications, which is considered the number one killer of girls between 15 and 19 years old. When married as children, girls are more subject to physical and sexual violence. They are deprived of their right to education, health, safety, and participation in decision-making. 

To save the lives and future of young girls, YWCA Palestine started their advocacy work to raise awareness about the risk of child marriage and to lobby the government to cancel the exception clause in the 2019 Personal Status Law. This exception contradicts the Palestinian Child Law NO.7 of 2004 which indicates the legal age of marriage is 18 years old.

Challenges and Moving Forward

Women’s rights organizations and activists in the MENA are faced with multiple challenges, especially when tackling SGBV and family law issues. In addition to underfunded gender programs, they face restrictions by their states and attacks from male-dominated religious communities. In most countries, these authorities, backed by political power, refuse to revise the patriarchal legal norms to protect their influence over their communities.

Working with national experts, Equality Now is providing partners with specialized support such as progressive revisions of Sharia laws that present evidence of the potential gender-just reforms in family laws. Advocacy campaigns are contextualized through work with national partners to ensure the consideration of the social, religious, and political specificity of each country. 

Through our inclusive and diverse partnerships, we put young women at the core of transformational change. Under YW4A, young women are provided with the needed capacity and knowledge to effectively influence decision-making toward gender-just laws and policies. Just like YW4A,  it is time to strengthen existing movements and establish new gender-focused multi-sectoral ones in countries where none exist. This way, strong women-led movements in the Middle East would push for a unified secular family code that challenges discrimination against women, and among women of different religions and sects.