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It’s Time for Governments to Change Sex Discriminatory Laws

Every five years since 1999, Equality Now has highlighted explicitly sex-discriminatory laws that need to be reformed in our Words & Deeds reports. As we approach 30 years since the adoption of the Beijing Platform for Action at the 4th World Conference on Women in 1995, we have produced a series of focused briefs that update on progress – on May 3rd, 2023 we published the the fourth and last in that series, exploring the impact of sex discrimination in laws related to personal status and what still needs to change. 

According to the Women, Business and the Law 2023 report by the World Bank, women globally still have only three quarters of the legal rights of men, and nearly 2.4 billion women of working age still do not have the same legal rights as men. Furthermore, the progress toward gender equality in the law has decelerated to its slowest pace in 20 years. Indeed, since Equality Now’s Words & Deeds report in 2020, women’s status in law and in practice in some countries has significantly worsened or stagnated.

Why is there still sex discrimination in the law in 2023? 

There is a range of explanations as to why this backsliding is happening in different places, but it’s clear that it is happening, with a detrimental and sometimes deadly impact: 

  • In Iran, Mahsa (Jina) Amini, a 22-year old young woman, died on September 16, 2022 whilst in custody of the morality police after she was arrested for not wearing the hijab properly. Her death sparked protests across Iran demanding “Woman, Life, Freedom” (See this video in English and Farsi) and calling for accountability. Despite calls from the United Nations and others to protect human rights in Iran, there is potential for a dangerous further rollback on rights contained in pending discriminatory bills, including an increased punishment for hijab violations. 
  • In Afghanistan, women’s right to movement, expression, education, culture, and a life with dignity is being systematically and institutionally eroded since the Taliban took control of the country in 2021. 
  • Saudi Arabia in 2022 codified discrimination in personal status laws, including provisions that prohibit women from traveling with their children outside of the country for more than 90 days without the consent of a male guardian. 
  • The United States still does not protect sex and gender equality in its Constitution, leaving women and other marginalized genders vulnerable to having their reproductive and other rights restricted and violated. 

What proponents of such sex-discriminatory laws don’t seem to realize is that by limiting women’s full participation in civil, political, and economic life, they are limiting the potential of the whole population. Equality Now has long pushed for equality in nationality rights, as well as laws pertaining to economic status, marital status, and violence, and it is clear that countries that reform and repeal discriminatory laws see the benefits of legal equality.

Where do we go from here? 

We and our partners keep pushing! Yes, there has been backsliding, but advocates for equality are standing strong. And we’ve made so much progress since 1995: from the Dominican Republic banning child marriage to women gaining the right to vote in Kuwait, and an end to “marry your rapist” laws and improvements in nationality rights in several countries – governments around the world have shown that is is possible to amend and repeal sex and gender discriminatory laws, and in doing so, improve everyone’s lives. 

There are some big opportunities coming up in 2023 for governments to support each other in making positive changes and to learn more from civil society and other stakeholders about what still needs to happen. Equality Now is looking forward to playing an active role in both the Global High-Level Summit on Achieving Gender- Equal Nationality Laws in Geneva in June, and at the Women Deliver Conference in Kigali in July, including leading a session on “Family Law Reform:  A Crucial Feminist Issue for Achieving Gender Equality”, and at the UN General Assembly in September; and we hope that governments will take advantage of these opportunities for learning and collaboration to challenge themselves to finally fulfill the commitments made almost  30 years ago and make equality a reality.

Explore our full Words and Deeds brief on sex discrimination in personal status laws