Family law reform to change women’s realities across 11 countries

December 08, 2016

Five prominent female thinkers and doers recently demonstrated how changing language in family laws can alter the course of women’s lives. At an October 7, 2016 project launch, prominent advocates from the Women’s Learning Partnership (WLP) — a global partnership of 20 independent women’s rights organizations across the Middle East, Africa, Asia, and South America — gathered to highlight the need for governments to reform family laws.

Home is the place where power dynamics and gender norms begin. The patriarchal relationship dynamics at the level of the nuclear family are institutionalized, legalized, and have become the norm under which a society operates — and the norm for individuals living within these power dynamics. Canada’s International Development Research Centre (IDRC) is joining forces with WLP to reform discriminatory family laws in 11 countries (Brazil, Egypt, India, Iran, Jordan, Lebanon, Morocco, Nigeria, Senegal, Turkey, and the West Bank and Gaza Strip). The project will empower women and local organizations to challenge violence against women, honour killings, and early child and forced marriage via legal language reform.

In her opening speech at the project launch, Nancy Smyth, director general of social development at Global Affairs Canada said “changing the culture of human interactions all starts with the family […] we must address legal barriers that stop women’s empowerment” through people-centred development.

Around the world, women are restricted by laws geared towards maintaining an unequal structure. These laws determine a woman’s right to marry, travel, hold a job, choose a place of residence, or make decisions about their children’s rights. Brazilian sociologist and political scientist Jacqueline Pitanguy said the focus on these laws in the home is because “laws are violent in and of themselves, giving legitimacy to violence. For many women, home is a very dangerous place — it is the first place where violence occurs.”

While interpretations of Shari’a or Islamic law in Muslim-majority societies vary, conservative fundamentalist applications often prevail. These interpretations influence family laws, resulting in violence against women and the legality of practices such as honour killings and child marriage. “When we talk about family laws, we aren’t talking about something ‘out there’. Family laws reflect the most dominant perspectives and paradigms with respect to the relationships between men and women, and show where a woman’s place in society really is,” said Turkish activist and scholar Yakin Erturk. “They are the core of power that get institutionalized at the most intimate levels of life, and translate to society,” the former UN Special Rapporteur on violence against women added.

The WLP project will compare best practices in law reformation, and create a database to inform national and global advocacy efforts. Working with local women’s groups in several regions, the project will facilitate mutual learning about how citizens, activists, and lawmakers can reform discriminatory family laws and counter violence against women.

WLP has collected and documented laws that impact women’s status and role in public and private life in each of the 11 countries. The case studies will provide a basis for comparative analysis and a road map for advocacy and action for change. “[Real women’s] stories are part of the evidence that we need to face this challenge,” said Sue Szabo, the director of the Inclusive Economies program at IDRC.

WLP’s web learning portal will include the case studies, analyses, and an online Corpus of Laws featuring constitutions, family laws, penal codes, and other legal precedents for comparative analyses and best practices for reform. This information will be disseminated widely by WLP through advocacy, trainings, and public awareness campaigns. The culmination will be a global campaign and coalition of activists working to end violence against women through knowledge sharing, networking, and coordination of efforts and resources.

This innovative approach will build the capacity of local actors to develop culturally specific strategies and national advocacy campaigns to reform discriminatory family laws.

This project is expected to create a local-to-global network of activists working to combat violence against women through capacity-building workshops, public awareness events, and outreach. It will produce a “witness series” documentary film sharing personal success stories and challenges in family law reformation and countering violence against women. With IDRC’s support, WLP will inspire a global movement to reform discriminatory laws against women.

Learn more about the project (PDF, 1.56MB).

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