Legal protection has not prevented women and girls from being discriminated against
Gender equality is vital for the attainment of human rights for all. Article 2 of the United Nations' Universal Declaration of Human Right notes that “everyone is entitled to all the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration, without distinction of any kind, such as race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status." (Article 2; cited by Amnesty International 2016, n.p.). This notwithstanding, women and girls are time and again on the receiving end of discriminatory laws that seem to favour boys and men. In various national legal settings, women and girls are treated as second class citizens in matters to do with education, employment rights, health, citizenships and nationality, property rights and inheritance, and parental rights (UN Women 2016). Such kinds of discrimination against girls and women are contradictory to women's empowerment. This is a clear indication that the current laws have done little in the way of protecting girls and women against discrimination.
Globally, girls and women encounter various hindrances to the full realisation of their rights. They frequently encounter discrimination in social protection, access to education, active participation in decision-making, employment, productive resources, and economic assets. CEDAW (Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women) has defined gender discrimination thus:
“... any distinction, exclusion or restriction made on the basis of sex which has the
effect or purpose of impairing or nullifying the recognition, enjoyment or exercise by
women, irrespective of their marital status, on a basis of equality of men and women,
of human rights and fundamental freedoms in the political, economic, social, cultural,
civil or any other field.” (cited by Craig 2007, p. 29).
Worldwide, discrimination is best exemplified in penal codes and laws pertaining to violence against women, along with their personal, economic, and marital status. In a 2015 economic study of some 173 countries, the World Bank reported that nearly 90% of these had at the very minimum one legal restriction that hindered women's economic opportunities (World Bank 2015). Elsewhere, a report by Equality Now, a non-governmental organisation committed to promoting and protecting human rights, indicated that more than 50 states have citizenship and nationality laws that are discriminatory towards women. Presently, one out of three women experience sexual or physical violence, while some 133 million women and girls across the globe have been the victim of female genital mutilation (FGM) in some 29 states (UN Women 2016).
Efforts to reign in on gender discrimination
Over the years, considerable effort has been made to ratify various national and international laws with the goal of preventing discrimination against girls and women, key among these being the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and CEDAW, girls and women are still discriminated against in the law in many countries (UN Women 2009). Various regions are either characterised by lack of laws that seek to protect the rights or girls and women or the existing laws discriminate against girls and women indirectly or directly. Even among states that have enforced gender-sensitive laws, these are often characterised by poor implementation.
The Equality Now (2014) report demonstrates the effect of child marriage on the life of young girls. Child marriages are prevalent in such countries as India, Saudi Arabia, Morocco and Yemen. Such girls are highly vulnerable to further discrimination and violence, a trend that habitually escalates to the next generation (Equality Now 2015). There is need therefore for all governments to support an in-depth approach aimed at ending child marriage, and hence bring to an end the lost potential and suffering by millions of girls across the globe. In Morocco, Equality Now was instrumental in rallying support to petition the country's Ministry of Justice and Liberties to enforce law reforms aimed at strengthening punishment perpetrators of sexual violence and to eradicate child marriage. This came in the wake of the suicide of Amina Filali, a 16 year old Moroccan who took poison after she was compelled to marry the man who had raped her. Shortly after, Safe, a 15-year old girl was raped and impregnated by a man.
However, Safe, along with her mother, came under increased pressure from a judge and a prosecutor to drop the rape charges against her rapist and marry him (Equality Now 2013). This was aimed at saving Safa's “honour”. However, persistent pressure fro Equality Now compelled the Ministry of Justice and Liberties to endorse reforms to the Penal Code, thereby strengthening the punishments handed out to perpetrators of sexual violence. Some of the amendments include repealing Article 475 that hitherto exempted a “kidnapper” from being punished legally in the even that his victim, who is almost always a minor, marries the perpetrator. Other changes include deleting the clause that permitting judges to approve marriage even where the girl is below the age of 18 years. These changes will go a long ay in protecting Moroccan girls from undergoing similar experiences to those suffered by Safe and Filali.
In Lebanon, women continue to experience extreme hardships under the discriminatory laws of the land that seem to favour men. For example, a Lebanese woman cannot transfer her nationality to her foreign-born husband and children (Equality Now 2016). This is a discriminatory national law that curiously grants men the privilege to transfer their nationality to their wives and children, even when they are not born in Lebanon. In its 2015 report, the CEDAW Committee questioned the Lebanese's government unwillingness to repeal this draconian law that discriminates against women. It further called on the State to adopt laws that affords equal rights to men and women in terms of transferring their nationalities to foreign-born children and spouse (Equality Now 2016).
Various studies have pointed towards obvious gaps between current anti-discrimination laws and their implementation. Variations between legislation and implementation are obvious where non-partisan gender stipulations exist in constitutions and civil codes affording all citizens equal rights but are often compromised by prejudicial customary practices and laws. Statistics retrieved from the UN Women's constitutional database show that out of the 195 constitutions, only 3 lacks clauses on non-discrimination and equity. Nonetheless, the existence of definite clauses on affirmative action, public participation, or interim special measures reveals an unambiguous disengagement between substantive equality and legal equality (UN Women 2016). Poor implementation of laws is usually due to poor public services and insufficient funding. It is also an indication of cultural and structural barriers that hinder women's access to justice, empowerment opportunities, political office, and resources (UN Women 2016).
What does the future look like?
If at all we are to deal with the issue of discrimination against girls and women, it is important for respective States to develop strong and elaborate oversight mechanisms and legal frameworks aimed at advancing gender equality. This will go a long way in seeing to it that commitments to gender equality are sufficiently executed and monitored (Equality Now 2015). Moreover, there is need to ensure that the drafting of new legislations encompasses a gender impact assessment, and that its implementation is based on a gender context that ensures the respect and protection for women's and girl's human rights. It is also important to develop public initiatives that call for enhanced female representation as a means of promoting policies and impact change with a view to eradicating gender differences between lawful conventions and to deal with discriminatory practices. Furthermore, there is need to revoke discriminatory legislations that hinder women's participation. This will go a long way in facilitating the passing of legislations and statutes of special measures that advocate for equal representation. Short-term measures aimed at promoting women's representation in public institutions and politics could also effectively confront discriminatory stereotypes and social norms on women's leadership (Amnesty International 2016). Supporting the actions of women legislators is also crucial as this would promote their authority over legislation and administration. Women's rights groups should also be supported so that they can access decision-making processes. This will enhance public accountability on gender equity matters. Besides, male and female legislators are charged with a vital responsibility of consolidating gender-sensitive strategies and practices across diverse areas, in addition to validating that all the laws drafted, debated and approved doe not passively or actively discriminate against girls and women (Equality Now 2015). Another crucial role of legislators is to see to it that gender-sensitive laws and reforms are appropriately financed and implemented in order to achieve real difference.
Girls and women should be treated the same way as boys and men under law in order to enable them enjoy equal rights and opportunities as men and boys, and so that they can achieve their full potential. Even though nearly all States have laws or stipulations that are intended to prevent gender discrimination, these are either poorly implemented or not implemented at all. Consequently, girls and women continue to suffer discrimination. If at all we are no protect girls and women against discrimination, it is important to repeal all the laws that discriminate against women and girls in line with the current international and regional standards. It is also important to support women's rights groups and female legislators to facilitate in the development of gender-sensitive laws that protect women and recognise their human rights.
Amnesty International (2016). Violence Against Women Information. [Online]. Available at:
http://www.amnestyusa.org/our-work/issues/women-s-rights/violence-against-women/violence-against-women-information [Accessed 09 Dec. 2016]
Craig RL (2007). Systemic Discrimination in Employment and the Promotion of Ethnic
Equality. Leiden, Boston: Martinus Nijhoff Publishers.
Equality Now (2013). Morocco: Enact legal reforms to strengthen punishments for sexual violence & prevent child marriage . [Online]. Available at: http://www.equalitynow.org/sites/default/files/Morocco_41_2_EN.pdf [Accessed 08 Dec. 2016]
Equality Now (2014). Marriage & Related Human Rights Violations. [Online]. Available at: http://www.equalitynow.org/childmarriagereport [Accessed 09 Dec. 2016]
Equality Now (2014). Protecting the Girl Child: Using the Law to End Child, Early and Forced Marriage and Related Human Rights Violations.
Equality Now (2015). Global: End Child Marriage. [Online]. Available at:
http://www.equalitynow.org/action-alerts/global-end-child-marriage [Accessed 09 Dec. 2016].
Equality Now 2016. Lebanon: Give women equal citizenship rights to men under the nationality law. [Online]. Available at:http://action.equalitynow.org/o/6208/p/dia/action3/common/public/?action_KEY=8884 [Accessed 08 Dec. 2016].
UN Women (2009). Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women. [Online]. Available at: http://www.un.org/womenwatch/daw/cedaw/cedaw.htm [Accessed 08 Dec. 2016].
UN Women (2016). Violence Against Women. [Online]. Available at: http://www.unwomen.org/en/what-we-do/ending-violence-against-women/facts-and-figures [Accessed 08 Dec. 2016]