As states meet in New York to evaluate commitments made 20 years ago in Beijing, women’s rights are under serious threat across the globe, FIDH said in a note released today.
When governments gathered in Beijing in 1995, they signed up to a road map to eliminate discrimination against women in law and practice. In 2015, it is evident that the political will necessary to translate commitment into reform has fallen woefully short. Not only has progress been slow and halting but in some countries women’s rights have undergone serious setbacks.
FIDH calls on states participating in the 59th session of the Commission on the status of women, which opens on 9 March in New York, to recognise the serious threats to the lives and freedoms of women and girls and to take the measures necessary to eliminate persistent discriminatory laws and practices and to guarantee the freedom and security of those who defend women’s rights.
On 9 March, states will meet in New York to evaluate the progress made in achieving equal rights for women and men, since the adoption of the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action 20 years ago. These instruments formed a road map for the elimination of discrimination against women in law and practice. Yet, in 2015, it is evident that the political will necessary to translate commitment into reform has fallen woefully short. Not only has progress been slow and halting but in some countries women’s rights have undergone serious setbacks.
At the 4th World Conference on Women, governments from across the world asserted that, “Women’s rights are human rights”. They recognised that although “the status of women has advanced in some important respects in the past decade, progress has been uneven, inequalities between women and men have persisted and major obstacles remain, with serious consequences for the well-being of all people”. 20 years on, the same observations hold true.
In Beijing, states pledged to eliminate discriminatory laws within 10 years, by 2005. In 2015, such laws remain in force in many countries, in particular in the areas of marriage, nationality, ownership of property and inheritance. Under family laws in Burkina Faso, Egypt, Gabon, Indonesia, Morocco and Senegal, men are allowed to have several wives. Recent legal reforms in several countries, such as in Mali, in 2011, and in Kenya in 2014, have not put an end to such discrimination. In Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia, Burundi, Guinea, Nicaragua, Sudan and Yemen, the law requires women to “obey” their husbands. Many laws contain discriminatory provisions on the legal age of marriage, such as those in force in Cameroon or Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). In several countries, such as Bahrain and Lebanon, the law forbids women from passing on their nationality to their foreign spouse and their children. Legislation on property ownership and inheritance rights remain discriminatory in all the countries of North Africa and the Middle East, where a woman’s share of inherited wealth is only half that of a man’s, as well as in Chile. In Iran, the testimony of a man in legal proceedings equates to that of two women.
The Beijing Declaration commits the signatory states to “prevent and eliminate all forms of violence against women and girls”. In 2015, domestic law in many countries remains deeply flawed in terms of the prevention of and the response to violence against women. Many states, such as Lebanon, Armenia, DRC, Côte d’Ivoire, Gabon, Egypt, Haiti and Niger, have still not adopted legislation that specifically punishes domestic violence. Marital rape is not a crime in Central African Republic (CAR), DRC, Egypt, Haiti, Cameroon, Côte d’Ivoire, Lebanon, Mali, Morocco or Senegal. In Tunisia, the law allows a rapist to avoid any punishment by marrying the victim. In Egypt and Syria, the law provides for a lesser sentence for men who kill their wives in the name of “honour”. In several states, almost all women and girls are victims of female genital mutilation. 98 % of women in Somalia, 96 % in Guinea, 93 % in Djibouti, 91 % in Egypt and 89% in Mali are victims of this practice.
In many conflict situations, women and girls are targeted. In DRC, Darfur, southern Sudan, Somalia and Syria, rape and other crimes of sexual violence continue to be committed on a massive scale. Victims hardly ever have access to justice, and perpetrators enjoy total impunity. Fundamentalist groups like ISIS in Iraq and Syria, and Boko Haram in Nigeria, promote the exclusion of women and girls from public life and perpetrate rape, abductions, forced marriages and sexual slavery.
According to the Beijing Declaration of 1995, “Peace is inextricably linked with the advancement of women, who are a fundamental force for leadership, conflict resolution and the promotion of lasting peace at all levels”. This was affirmed with the adoption of Resolution 1325 by the United Nations Security Council in 2000 and reaffirmed in subsequent resolutions on “women, peace and security”. Nonetheless, in 2015, women continue to be largely excluded from peace processes of political transition.
In the Middle East and North Africa, the changes brought about by the “Arab Spring” opened up opportunities to promote equality, but also raise risks of regression. In Egypt, the participation of women in the transition process continues to be threatened by ongoing violence against those who attempt to exercise their right to participate in public life. In Syria, the conflict has a particular impact on women and girls and makes them more vulnerable to sexual and gender-based violence.
Risks of severe setbacks are evident in the area of reproductive and sexual rights. In 1995, governments stressed that “The explicit recognition and reaffirmation of the right of all women to control all aspects of their health, in particular their own fertility, is basic to their empowerment”. Today, across all continents, repressive legislation criminalises abortion, engendering serious violations of women’s rights. In 2014, Spain avoided a reform intended to drastically restrict access to abortion following massive public mobilisation. In Turkey, abortion has been legal since 1983, however the president has repeatedly expressed his determination to restrict access. In Nicaragua, Salvador, Chile and the Dominican Republic, abortion is banned without exception. In Ireland, Senegal, Côte d’Ivoire and Bangladesh, extremely restrictive laws only allow for exceptions in cases where the woman’s life is at risk. In Poland, abortion has been banned since 1997, except in cases of rape, incest, foetal malformation or where the woman’s life is at risk. All these laws contain additional procedural constraints which prevent access to abortion in practice, even in the limited cases allowed by law. Women thus resort to illegal and unsafe abortions with sometimes fatal risks and face prison sentences which can be up to several decades in some countries.
These are not merely “new challenges” in the struggle against discrimination against women, but serious threats to the lives and freedoms of women and girls. As demonstrated by the recent rejection by the European Parliament of the “Zuber” report, which called upon states to guarantee gender equality in the context of the economic crisis, and the “Estrela” report on reproductive rights, even multilateral organisations where these values are supposedly firmly established, are unwilling to adopt non-binding instruments to promote women’s rights.
Governments must take urgent measures to eliminate discriminatory laws and practices still in force. In most cases, it is simply a matter of complying with the international obligations to which they have already signed up.
Those defending women’s rights and fighting for equality, often pay a high personal price, as recently evidenced by the death threats against Aminetou Mint El Moctar from Mauritania and the murders of defenders Salwa Bugaighis and Intissar Al Hasairi in Libya and Kasoki D’arcise in DRC. Governments must take action to guarantee their safety and allow them to act without fear of reprisals.