Eight Steps to Make Things Better for Women and Girls

by Shelby Quast | ShelbyRQuast | Equality Now
Wednesday, 15 April 2015 15:22 GMT

* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

During the past two decades we have seen progress in several areas for women and girls around the world.  Over half of the laws Equality Now highlighted in 1999, which discriminate on the basis of sex, have been partially or fully repealed or amended. 

In Morocco and Argentina, rapists can no longer escape punishment by marrying or settling with their victims.  Kenyan, Senegalese, and Surinamese women can now pass their citizenship to their children and spouses on the same basis as men, while Iraqi women can get a passport without needing a man’s permission.  22 out of 28 countries on the African continent with higher prevalence of female genital mutilation (FGM) have laws banning this extreme human rights violation. 

Progress has been slow though and we need to accelerate change. To help clarify what we think should happen next, we have put together eight key steps which we recommend every nation to take to accelerate progress:

1. Every constitution should guarantee equal rights: 

This seems like an obvious one, but it is still not the case everywhere.  According to UN Women, 143 countries now guarantee gender equality in their constitutions, but that leaves dozens which have yet to ensure this fundamental legal equality for women and men.

2. Every nation should establish a minimum age of marriage of 18 for both women and men, including equal rights to enter, exit and within marriage

Many countries still allow girls to marry younger than boys, while several others such as Yemen and Saudi Arabia have no minimum age of marriage at all.  Other countries have even backtracked on this – for example Kenya introduced a new Marriage Law in 2014 legalising polygamy, including without the consent of the first wife.

3. Ensure that no law legitimizes violence against women and girls

In the Bahamas, it is legal for a man to rape his wife, if she is over 14 and in Singapore if she is 13.  In Lebanon and Malta, a kidnapper can avoid prosecution if he marries his victim.  There is still no law against female genital mutilation (FGM) in six countries where it is more prevalent on the African continent, including Mali and Liberia, despite President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf’s recent condemnation of countries which have yet to muster the courage to ban the irreparable harm inflicted by genital mutilation on young girls in traditional societies”.

Nowhere has reached perfect gender equality, but Iceland, Norway and Sweden are often cited as nations which perform better than others.  These countries are three from only a handful globally which have enacted laws which decriminalize people in prostitution and provide exiting services and support, while also recognizing the need to reduce the demand which fuels sex trafficking.

4. Ensure equal rights to property ownership and inheritance

In Chile, husbands supposedly “control marital property”, while in both Tunisia and the United Arab Emirates, a son inherits twice as much as a daughter.  

5. Ensure equal rights to transmit nationality

Equality Now is one of few international organizations campaigning for equal nationality laws.  This usually means that women can pass their nationality to their children and spouse in the same way as men can, thereby eliminating hardships such as statelessness or potentially abusive relationships due to the power a man might hold over his wife.

6. Ensure equal employment rights

In Russia, there are still 456 jobs that women are not allowed to have – including driving a train or fixing a leaking pipe.  Clearly, as long as women are not allowed to do the same jobs as men, we all lose out.

7. Ensure equal education opportunity

Now that we have reached almost universally accessible primary education for both girls and boys, we need to do the same for secondary and tertiary-levels everywhere.  We should also ensure that schools are safe and secure places for both boys and girls to learn.

8. Ensure that women have the necessary security to participate in peace-building

The equal rights of women and girls tend to be the first compromise made in times of political or economic conflict.  We’ve seen this time and time again in countries such as SyriaAfghanistan and Egypt, where what seemed to be initially positive outlooks for women’s participation turned negative and peace-building has proven difficult.

Women are rarely (if ever) part of decision-making or peace-building processes in post-conflict environments.  When they do participate, there is little, if any, security or accountability for violence against them.  They are often silenced as happened last June in Libya with the horrific killing of Salwa Bugaighis, a leading women’s advocate, whose only objective was to build a safe and prosperous country.

These eight steps are certainly not a complete solution.  However, they are a good foundation to build from.  Commitments have been made over and over again, but governments continue to skirt around the issue.  It can be exasperating but we have to keep the momentum up.  We cannot end poverty or build happy, fair and peaceful societies, without ensuring equality for women and girls. 

Please join the growing movement to end #UnsexyLaws: