Discriminatory Laws Undermining Women’s Rights
This paper has been requested by the Eu ropean Parliament’s Subcommittee on Human Rights (DROI) to
pro vide ins ight into the current s ituation a nd recent t rends in t he abolitio n or r eform of dis criminatory laws
undermining women’s rights in countries outside the European Union (EU) 1. The paper addresses factors
relevant fo r successful r eform processes and ob stacles in the path of r eform, ana lyses the perfor mance of
the EU’s policies and instruments, and presents case studies from four countries – Bangladesh, The Gambia,
Tunis ia an d Ukr aine.
At a time where an incr easing number of coun tries across the wor ld are tak ing illiberal stances, the EU
needs to continue its strong support for reform of laws that discriminate against women. The EU has
numerous tools at its disposal to s uppo rt g ender equa lity throu gh po litical dialo gues and bilate ral
cooperation, as well as direct support to women’s organisations. The most effective approach for the EU to
take to support the reform of laws that discriminate against women is to apply a com binat ion o f me asures:
political dialogue, public advocacy, support for women’s rights and other like-minded organisations,
engagement with a broad range of stakeholders at national and local levels, and targeted programmatic
support informed by gender analysis and making use of gender-disaggregated data.
Discrim inator y family and pers onal status laws, includ ing inher itance laws, a re the m ost difficu lt area in
which to secure r eform. Even though equality between men and women should be promoted in all se ctors,
the r eality in many countr ies is th at refo rm of pers onal st atus laws ma y be difficult if n ot impo ssible to
achieve in the short to medium term. In such contexts, it is legitimate to support incremental steps towards
the e vent ual ab olitio n of discr imina tor y laws and policies . In many count ries , lega l framewor ks for
combating gen der-based violence are either yet to be est ablished or need to be strengthened. While legal
pro tectio n of wo men’s civil and po litical righ ts h as imp rov ed sign ificant ly ov er th e past few decades, t he
trend in legislative refor ms on, among oth ers, freedo m of m ovement and citizensh ip suggests that
progres s may have now plateaued. Girls’ development, education and economic opportunities continue
to be affected by d iscrimina tory marriage laws permitting girls to marry earlier than boys. Labour laws in
many cou ntries continue to be influenced by social norms wher e men are considered to be t he primary
economic provider for the family. There is also an over representation of women in the infor mal sector,
where there are no protections against harassment or discriminatory practices.
Factors that support the elimination of discriminatory elements in law include the ratification of the
Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) and other
internat ional sta ndards, increased women’s r epresentation in elected office, research an d advocacy by
women ’s righ ts and o ther civ il societ y orga nisations, strateg ic litigation and awar eness ra ising. A mong
these facto rs, fem inist a ctivism 2 has been one o f the key factors in driving law reform. Th e increased
represen tation of women in elected office can often, but does n ot by itself, lead to gender-sens itive legal
reform pr ocesses in a ll areas where exist ing laws undermine women’s rights. For the EU, the focus in
programming should therefore include provision of technical support to parliamentary committees and
Ministries to advance legal refor m processes.
Given the central role that women's rights organisations play in succes sful lega l refo rm – fr o m b ui ld ing an
evidence base, to analysing and raising the problems with existing laws, and campaigning for change –
the EU should continue to intensify its capacities to support women’s groups in countries where the space
for hu man r ight s advocacy is sh rinking. Th is inclu des de veloping s trategic r esponses t o cove r the diff erent
stages of the closing space.
1 The focus of the paper is on those countries that are recipients of European development assistance / cooperation.
2 Feminist acti vism and women's ri ghts activism are tre ated as synonyms t hroughout the study. Accordi ng to th e Oxfor d defini tion,
feminist activism is the advocacy o f women's ri ghts on the ground of the e quality of the sexe s.