More than two decades have passed since a series of dynamic international conferences in the 1990s — on human rights, reproductive choices and broad empowerment for women — inspired and encouraged women around the world to raise their hopes in many ways. Subsequently, there have been gains in female education at all levels, a bigger presence of women in boardrooms and parliaments and more female-friendly health and family planning services in many places.
But much remains to be done to give women more effective roles in their personal lives.
There have also been stumbles and setbacks, and often the reality is different from the rosy statistics. For example, statistical spikes in education are measured in school enrollment and not actual attendance, which often tells a different story. Millions of women still endure domestic violence and intimidation, with no recourse to the law. The freedom to use contraception to limit family size, a contributor to endemic poverty, is not the same as “access” to family planning when a teen-age girl or woman is forbidden to obtain it, sometimes literally on pain of death.
A bone-thin woman in ex-urban Mumbai living on what house-cleaning jobs she can find to feed her children, told me a few years ago that the nearest family planning clinic was within walking distance of her small shack of a home in an illegal slum, but that if she ever went to the clinic, she said, her husband would beat her mercilessly.
In mid-February, a coalition-in-the-making drew a large number of expert participants to a meeting at the United Nations to press for more attention to the promotion and enforcement of women’s legal rights, an indispensable factor in empowerment.
The conference was sponsored by UN Women, the Inter-Parliamentary Union (IPU) and Equality Now, a New York-based nongovernmental organization that has been a leader in the rigorous use of case law to promote and protect the rights of women. A touchstone for the campaign is a provision in the Sustainable Development Goals, No. 5.1, calling to end discrimination in laws and policies by 2030.
Equality Now was among the first organizations in the United States to challenge successfully the sex-tour operators who were sending men abroad to exploit women. The campaign led to convictions and new laws that made the practice a crime. The organization, with offices in Asia and Africa, was also a pioneer in supporting African women campaigning to end female genital mutilation within their own culture.
In Africa, women have been building national organizations to work from local bases to strengthen legal rights. One such group is Women and Law in Southern Africa, Research and Educational Trust, which has branches in Botswana, Lesotho, Malawi, Mozambique, Swaziland, Zambia and Zimbabwe. In Malawi, where the group took shape almost 20 years ago, after the sundry international conferences. Issues on the agenda range from the feminization of HIV/AIDS to poor women in custody who need legal protection.
For the Inter-Parliamentary Union, the task is clear, said Martin Chungong of Cameroon, the organization’s secretary-general, speaking at the UN conference. He not only welcomes more women in politics to the IPU but also calls for action from all legislators in writing nondiscriminatory laws and demanding government accountability in enforcing them. He spoke of being keenly aware of the work still to be done in dealing with customary laws and traditions that discriminate against women or harm them.
As evidence of the legal constraints women may face in virtually all aspects of their lives, Bjorn Gillsater, manager of the World Bank’s New York office, drew attention to its latest edition of “Women, Business and the Law: Getting to Equal,” published in 2016.
The report included findings of discrimination based on data from 173 national economies, and was designed to measure legal restrictions on women’s employment and entrepreneurship. It also looked at personal curbs, such as being denied the right to apply for a passport, travel abroad or choose where to live. Lacking fair treatment, much less equality, in an economy at any level hinders the empowerment of women and their personal development. Circumscribing women’s rights in family law only increases obstacles and hobbles dreams of advancement.
Yasmeen Hassan, global of executive director of Equality Now, said at the UN meeting that while there have been changes for the better in family law in many places, progress is slow. In some cases, conditions are getting worse.
The World Bank report found that of the 173 countries surveyed, 155 had at least one legal gender-inequality provision. The worst regions, with 10 or more discriminatory measures, were found in the Middle East and North Africa, sub-Saharan Africa, East Asia and the Pacific and South Asia. The report lists among its key findings:
• In 100 economies, women face gender-based job restrictions.
• Forty-six of the countries covered have no laws specifically protecting women from domestic violence.
• In 18 places, husbands can legally prevent their wives from working.
• Reduced legal gender equality is associated with fewer girls attending secondary school relative to boys, fewer women working or running businesses and a wider gender wage gap.
The bank report uses 21 criteria to measure differences in legal status between men and women, covering a wide range of activities from being able to open a bank account to having a woman’s court testimony carry the same weight as a man’s to having the legal ability to claim equal tax deductions. All these cripple women’s economic participation, which limits their ability to carve out lives of their own.
The survey adds a further five factors that married women face that may amount to a loss or denial of individual rights and liberties. These are: whether they are legally required to obey their husbands, whether they can convey citizenship to a foreign husband and — in terms of family wealth — whether they can be administrators of marital property, enjoy legal recognition for nonmonetary contributions to such property and have the right to inherit it from a deceased husband. That last issue is a tormenter of many of the world’s poorest women who, when widowed, are stripped of their homes, possessions and frequently their children.
There are consequences to how societies and governments treat women legally, the report concludes. When women have voices in politics and the economy, legislatures have shown more action on child welfare and public health, for example. On the other hand, when there is no legally protected place in society, the report said, families may not think it’s worthwhile to send their girls to school, especially at secondary level.
When women and girls are condemned to live perennially on the legal margins, another generation is lost to the endless cycles of poverty within their families, and their communities cannot benefit from their participation and their potential skills in the development of the nation.
Barbara Crossette is the senior consulting editor and writer for PassBlue and the United Nations correspondent for The Nation. She is also a member of the Council on Foreign Relations. She has also contributed to the Oxford Handbook on the United Nations.
Previously, Crossette was the UN bureau chief for The New York Times from 1994 to 2001 and previously its chief correspondent in Southeast Asia and South Asia. She is the author of “So Close to Heaven: The Vanishing Buddhist Kingdoms of the Himalayas,” “The Great Hill Stations of Asia” and a Foreign Policy Association study, “India Changes Course,” in the Foreign Policy Association’s “Great Decisions 2015.”
Crossette won the George Polk award for her coverage in India of the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi in 1991 and the 2010 Shorenstein Prize for her writing on Asia.