An international network of 20 autonomous nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) based primarily in transitioning and fragile states, Women’s Learning Partnership for Rights, Development, and Peace (WLP) is dedicated to enhancing universal human rights and gender equality, strengthening civil society, and empowering women to be active citizens and actors of change in their societies. Our mission is to transform power relations and promote justice, equality, peace, and sustainable development by strengthening the feminist movement. We work to overcome histories of political and social authoritarianism and topdown hierarchical leadership, which are replicated in social and family relationships, often with women and girls at the bot¬tom of the order. WLP aims to bring about lasting change toward eliminating gender-based violence (GBV) and promoting universal human rights, equality, and political participation through a multi-level approach, starting with culturally and contextually adapted curriculum in 20 languages that is freely available to all via our website (www.learningpartnership.org), moving on to individual participants in grassroots leadership trainings, and scaling up to national and international advocacy and movement building.
WLP’s Family Law Reform to Challenge Gender-Based Violence project builds on the longstanding efforts and successes of WLP and our partner organizations to bring family law reform to the forefront of our international advocacy work. It aims to provide a basis and support network to counter gender-discriminatory laws that incite, promote, and/or justify violence against women and to become a powerful engine for collective action against patriarchal violence.
The project targets the systemic discrimination against women that impedes efforts to realize the promise of women’s human rights and to eliminate GBV. Women face discrimination that is perpetuated by inequitable patriarchal structures that reflect conservative cultural traditions and institutions. These traditions and institutions, which legitimize male privilege and GBV, have been and still are promoted and sustained by religion, culture, and the governmental policies and laws that reproduce and reinforce it. Family laws that subjugate women to men in the family and leave them exposed to male violence play a central role in perpetuating women’s disadvantages. Family laws that relegate women to a subordinate status are linked to discrimination in other spheres, such as limitations on women’s educational opportunities and labor force participation, as well as the devaluing of women’s work. In politics women are denied full citizenship rights and encounter obstacles to political participation and obtaining crucial roles in decision making. As one would expect in societies where patriarchal values are endorsed and GBV is tolerated (when not actually approved), health services vital for women are often deficient or altogether lacking.
While barriers to equality exist in countries around the world, in the Global South in particular women frequently lack the social, economic, and political power needed to challenge and overcome regressive policies and the political forces that support them. And although some progress has been made in changing regressive policies and discriminatory laws, WLP is concerned that the progress so far has been halting and uneven; our aspirations to improve the chances for effective changes inspire the current project.
WLP is implementing a multi-faceted project centered on challenging GBV through family law reform. This research-based advocacy project is designed to meet a critical need identified by women throughout the Global South, especially those in Muslim-majority societies. The project is driven by a call from the partners and local communities with whom WLP has closely collaborated over the past 17 years, seeking better tools to enable women to end discrimination and counter current legal and social justifications for GBV. Our advocacy training on combatting GBV has reached 50 countries, and our campaigns for family law reform have had significant successes, including reforms in family law in Morocco and the Million Signatures Campaign in Iran. This is the first globally launched advocacy project on GBV that is supported by both an interactive online Corpus of Laws – complete with legal analysis and best practices and strategies – and supplemented by an outreach, training, and advocacy campaign launched by our local partners and affiliates along with a global campaign launched by WLP International.
Where family law and customs grant disproportionate power within families to men, women suffer greater inequities: they may find themselves without the right to consent to their own marriages, without the right to obtain a divorce or custody over children, and without parity in inheritance rights. This disparity of power expressed through inequitable family law codes has been empirically shown to be significantly associated with higher levels of physical violence against women.
Gender-based violence is both a global and local societal ill – global because its perpetrators and victims are in every corner of the world, and local because its forms differ from one place to the next depending on specific cultural, political, and socio-economic circumstances. Whatever form it takes, the defining feature of this violence is the perpetrators’ goal of controlling women and girls. This control entails the imposition of certain gender roles on females, restrictions on women’s and girls’ physical movements, and treating women’s and girls’ bodies as male property. Although the victims of domestic violence are overwhelmingly female, women may be complicit in supporting and sustaining and fortifying male domination.
As awareness and outrage against GBV have increased, particularly during the last few decades, governments and regional entities have adopted measures targeting GBV. States have also worked together to formulate international laws addressing gender-based human rights violations. This international legal regime is expanding, from the Beijing Platform for Action of the Fourth World Conference on Women formulated in 1995 to the United Nations Security Council Resolution 1960 adopted unanimously in 2010 to strengthen the global community’s efforts to end sexual violence during armed conflict.
Despite these positive legal developments, however, implementation and enforcement of national and international laws on violence against women and girls are deficient for three main reasons. First, in many countries, the wrongfulness of GBV, discrimination, and related human rights abuses is obscured under the rubrics of cultural and/or religious practices, which are asserted to be integral to a society’s history and identity. Women and girls who reject female genital mutilation or speak out against so-called “honor crimes,” for example, face attacks and calumny on the part of influential men who enjoy the status of venerable guardians of the local culture and religious faith. Women’s rights activists risk not only physical harm but also ostracism by their immediate families, houses of worship, and communities. Second, in most countries, women have less access to the political and legal systems than men. Whether reporting a case of spousal battery to the police, struggling to leave an abusive husband or lobbying for legislation on domestic violence, a woman is likely to confront unequal power relations at every turn. Finally, to ensure the implementation and enforcement of any law – particularly one that will overturn the established order – requires resources that women may not have, because in most cases they operate at an economic disadvantage. Sadly, and bluntly stated, living a life free of violence costs more money than many women have or can earn in a marketplace that is biased against them and where their chances for decent remuneration are limited.
Indeed, a vicious circle is at work: Women and girls are easy targets of violence because men not only exert control over them in the family but also have assumed and still hold the gate-keeper role vis-à-vis cultural and religious values, resisting new ideas that may subvert their authority and privilege. For those women and girls who reject gender-based abuse as a normal part of everyday life, there are few avenues of redress that are not littered with political and economic obstacles.
3. WLP’s Family Law Reform to Challenge Gender-Based Violence Project
“[T]he issue of gender relations within the family – which is what personal laws are all about – actually relates to the core of power in society at a broader level. Since the family is the basic unit of society, only if there is justice and democracy within the family can you possibly have justice and democracy in the wider society. In other words, the key to democratizing the whole society is to democratize its basic unit, the family, and for this legal reform is crucial.”
WLP’s Family Law Reform to Challenge Gender-Based Violence project aims to empower women and other groups to prevent and overcome GBV through locally-led research and national advocacy campaigns to identify and reform discriminatory family laws that are linked to global, systemic violence against women. The project’s general objective is to contribute to local efforts to reform family law in order to reduce GBV and to develop a powerful coalition of activists around the world who can call upon one another’s support, knowledge, and resources towards ending GBV. The project is designed on the premise that family law is one of the most significant factors contributing to the justification of GBV, and that any solution has to address both legislation and cultural understandings in order to see legal reform actually implemented. Where Islamic law is concerned, WLP must confront interpretations that permit GBV within the family. We have established that there is a plurality of interpretations of the relevant law and that local women’s rights activists can make headway when they have access to interpretations that are favorable to women’s rights and women’s equality. WLP is making these interpretations available to anyone with access to the Internet through an interactive online Corpus of Laws and website. To disseminate this information to those without Internet access, WLP is developing advocacy curricula on this topic, conducting awareness campaigns and trainings, and producing case studies of success stories to be used for these trainings.
What has been lacking is an approach to family laws in Muslim societies that provides analysis of Muslim laws starting from the premise that violence against women is wrong. This project will provide a support network to all those who experience GBV justified in the name of religion and will become a powerful engine for collective advocacy against GBV. Its results will encompass more than mere changes to legal systems, since the project addresses the root cause of social and cultural beliefs that make reform and the actual implementation of progressive laws so challenging. WLP’s unique curriculum, training, and capacity building have and will continue to establish in mainstream culture the essential link between universal human rights and countering violence against women, while at the same time accommodating respect for religious faith. The project has special merit because it addresses the root causes of social and cultural discourses that make reform and the actual implementation of progressive laws so challenging.
Naturally, family laws have been a main area of concern for women in Muslim societies. In Muslim-majority societies especially,6 every aspect of a woman’s life is dictated by family laws that determine a woman’s right to marry, travel, hold a job, choose her place of residence, or take part in decisions about her children’s rights. Even though these societies’ other legal systems, most importantly their constitutions, have evolved and resemble those of other countries around the world, in many cases their family laws have remained outside the march of history and untouched by the changes in values and customs that modernity has brought. Advocacy for reform has been driven by legalistic arguments that have struggled to overcome conservative interpretations of the foundational texts of Shari’a. Although Muslim-majority countries typically appeal to Shari’a law as the basis for their own family laws, any comparisons reveal there are significant differences among their “Islamic” laws on nearly every important issue. This project brings to light these different interpretations of family law in order to challenge the basic premise that Shari’a can be used to justify GBV. An advocacy campaign to challenge this premise can only be effective if it provides a resource that documents the conflicting local interpretations, each of which professes to represent the final word on Islamic family law. By bringing these statements together in one place and exposing their internal contradictions, the premise on which they are based can be shown to be flawed.
The purpose of this project is not to undermine religion or faith. If anything, this project will uplift the very principles on which faith depends. Whether the “Law” is used to justify the violence that occurs when an eight-year-old girl is forced to marry, when a woman who is being cruelly beaten every day is denied a divorce, or when a woman (not the man involved) is stoned after an accusation of adultery, the “Law” can be critically appraised when there is access to comparable laws adopted elsewhere on the same topics that embody justice and equity. In the process, a law that was presented as definitive becomes merely one of many such laws – with the differences in the provisions being attributable to mere humans. And once this understanding comes, the authority of religious rationales for laws permitting violence towards women is eroded.
As individuals throughout various societies set about the task of framing or reforming their constitutions, criminal codes, labor laws, and family laws, we can empower women to take leading roles in this process. By carrying out a unique research project and advocacy campaign that bring activists throughout the regions together around a single objective – ending gender-based violence – within the context of family law reform, WLP is laying the groundwork for advances in other related campaigns on family law reform that are currently challenged by opposition to the wider range of issues they address. By transforming the way religion is used as a basis for GBV and providing new analyses, case studies, strategies, and the capacity for collective advocacy at the national and international levels on this single issue, WLP will demonstrate that any family law issue can be successfully confronted through knowledge and capacity building of communities who long for change. Documenting this progress through events, an interactive website that allows activists to contribute their stories in a “witness” series, and both online and on-the-ground trainings that bring together activists, religious community leaders, legislators, students, and NGOs will facilitate capacity building in multiple regions at once and make it possible for millions of women to benefit from this advocacy campaign.
The project’s advocacy campaign aspect will appeal to more than legalistic arguments, which may or may not be resolved. Through our “witness” series, WLP will appeal to the higher principles of justice that have always overridden rigid dogma based on the prejudices of the day. Through our “witness” series we will document the stories of real women who have had to endure violence on their own physical bodies and the bodies of those closest to them, including their own children, in the name of upholding religion. Experience has shown us that when seeking to change behavior on legal grounds, culture must be changed, and in order to influence culture, the issue must be addressed holistically on all possible levels – most importantly, at the level of the heart. In creating this online collection of voices, who, in turn, will become a community of individuals who support one another across nations and cultures, WLP will foster a powerful coalition of activists and supporters who work in mutual sympathy and who can mobilize for real cultural change.
Our online advocacy tool, or Corpus of Laws and case studies, will be the foundation for a much larger campaign to bring about dialogue in communities at the local and national levels. WLP’s unique structure, nurtured by like-minded leaders of women’s rights organizations over the past 17 years, has given us the ability to foster dialogue between sheikhs and health practitioners; between members of parliament and young women who are on the verge of choosing their own destinies; between school teachers, community activists, and judges. Unlike other more general campaigns against GBV, or campaigns for the general reform of Islamic family law, WLP’s campaign will have a concrete entry point: we are documenting legal reform as it pertains to violence against women. It will be the first attempt by any organization to centralize all the legal sources and testimonies surrounding the issue. Our trainings and curricula developed around this topic will allow us to gently open the door to analytical thinking skills around many other deeply entrenched cultural practices that require renewed attention by communities and that require women’s full and equal participation.
By addressing violence against women – an issue so fundamental to family law reform – the project’s advocacy campaign will have an influence on other applications of Shari’a law. It will create a ripple effect that has and will work in societies where women long for change but are hindered by a lack of access to information. This project will provide the tools, support network, and online knowledge base to enable a woman to become empowered to protect herself from violence in a society where it may be sanctioned by law. Our trainings and learning manuals are always a direct function of what we learn from women themselves, who, from every corner of the Global South are seeking redress from forms of violence justified in the name of culture, religion, or traditions that have never fully authorized their equal participation.
4. The Project’s Components: Case Studies, Trainings, Documentary Film, and Advocacy Campaign
4.1 Case Studies
WLP partners carried out the project’s locally-led research component on the sociopolitical histories of family laws and effective, culturally specific strategies to reform family laws and counter GBV in the following countries: Brazil, India, Iran, Lebanon, Morocco, Nigeria, Palestine, Senegal, and Turkey. WLP and our partners in these countries formed and coordinated case study research teams of in-country social sciences scholars, who produced a series of case study research reports on the histories, social and political contexts, and efforts to reform discriminatory family laws in each of their countries. In each of these countries, partners held National Case Study Workshops where project researchers presented and discussed their findings with policymakers, lawyers, researchers, activists, key media allies, and representatives of sister organizations, to hear their feedback and recommendations and to develop practical strategies for next steps. Very brief summaries of the case studies follow.
Brazil: For centuries, family laws in Brazil under the influence of the Portuguese colonial legislation helped legitimize violence against women (VAW) by naturalizing male patriarchal domination. Shortly after independence (1822), the first Brazilian Constitution “…considered equality a general principle… The roles of women and men were completely distinct and rigidly hierarchical, with women seen as men’s properties. The Filipino Code allowed the husband the legal right to kill his wife if she was considered an adulteress. The crime of adultery was punished only against the woman, leaving the man with full freedom for sexual relations outside marriage.”8 This understanding was to become firmly ingrained into Brazil’s cultural consciousness as a legitimizing force of VAW for years to come.
The 1890 Constitution declared Brazil a secular republic, paving the way for legislative reforms. In 1916, a Civil Code, incorporating the model of the French Code, was adopted. Substantively speaking, the adoption of the new Civil Code represented more a continuity than a rupture of the patriarchal gender contract inherent in the previous Filipino Code, as it also drew on a hierarchical family model, privileging male dominance and promoting female subordination, thus justifying aggressions against domestic “disobedience,” particularly of the wife. Several legislative advances that have occurred since the 1970s, particularly in the 1980s, with the reestablishment of democracy in Brazil and the entry into force of the 1988 Federal Constitution, which incorporated many international human rights instruments and stated that the state should create mechanisms to prevent violence in the family. Even without specifically referring to VAW, this was of fundamental importance for the approval of the Maria da Penha Law on domestic and family VAW in 2006.
The democratic context that allowed the emergence of social movements and their participation in the legislative constitutional process played an important part in Brazil, as did feminists and their strong articulation and commitment in promoting an important advocacy process with the state and society. During the past three decades, the feminist movement played an extremely important role in changing discriminatory family laws, with a strong emphasis on laws against VAW.
India: Upon independence, India became a constitutional, secular democracy, with the principles of equality and secularism written into the Preamble of the Constitution. While the Indian Constitution grants specific rights to religious minorities, there are some rights conferred on all religious communities – among these is the right to be governed by personal laws in areas of marriage, inheritance, succession, etc. Three sets of religious personal laws – Hindu, Muslim, and Christian laws – have figured in public debates and jurisprudence, especially in terms of their specific relationship to the Constitution and other public law (notably criminal law).
The early 1980s witnessed the rise of new feminist voices in India. As women’s rights movements gained momentum, a number of mass movements and democratic rights groups recognized the need to frame women’s rights as part of a broader analysis of human rights. During the 1980s, the state adopted a pronounced “pro-woman” stance and assumed the role of the key arbiter of women’s rights. This period witnessed the rapid growth in women’s organizations, and a large number of women of different generations from all walks of life entered activism as a politically conscious choice.
Apart from wage discrimination, the sexual division of labor, the devaluation of women’s labor, the invisibility of women’s domestic labor, and domestic violence (especially related to dowry), there was serious concern about women’s vulnerability to sexual violence – especially custodial rape. Feminist campaigns brought these issues into public view through a multipronged strategy that included media exposure, strategic litigation, case work, public protests, consciousness and awareness raising at the local and national levels, and lobbying for changes in the law. Feminist mobilization on issues of violence against women politicized what was up to that point understood as a “social issue.” After three decades of struggle to end violence in the home, in 2006 the Protection of Women from Domestic Violence Act was enacted; it included legislation, legislative impact assessment, the deliberations of a Parliamentary Standing Committee, and close monitoring and evaluation.
The campaigns for criminal law reform introducing the new offence of torture and murder for dowry in the 1980s fueled a new turn in feminist mobilization. And yet, two decades later, the CEDAW Committee marked the rise in dowry deaths as a matter of concern and the Law Commission of India published a second report on dowry deaths recommending the death penalty. It is clear from the study of criminal law reform on domestic violence, that changes in public law alone are inadequate to combat violence in the family. This is the case even when campaigns are vibrant, robust, and knitted together with pre-legislative action. The cultural determinants of domestic violence and its embeddedness in particular expressions of “religious” values, negate completely women’s right to life and personal liberty – and this is particularly aggravated during periods of heightened religious nationalism and fundamentalism.
Iran: During the reign of Reza Shah Pahlavi (1925-1941), education reform and unveiling, fully or partially derived from the values inherent in the Constitutional Revolution period (1905-11), laid the foundation for the emergence of modern thinking about the position of women in society. Codification of family law took place between 1928 and 1935 as part of the civil code.
During Mohammad Reza Shah’s reign (1941-1979), as the number of educated and working women increased, so did their protests against discrimination. During the 1940s and 1950s, women became increasingly active, formed charitable, professional, and socio-political organizations, and began to think seriously about political involvement. In the 1960s and 1970s, they achieved the right of suffrage, were elected to the houses of parliament, were appointed to the cabinet, and sponsored and pushed for forward-looking family protection laws that brought the nation close to gender parity. By the late 1970s, Iran was one of the most advanced and dynamic countries in the developing world.
Since the 1979 Islamic Revolution, Iran has regressed significantly in women’s rights and legal reforms towards gender equality. The leaders of the Islamic Republic have rescinded in law and restrained in practice much that women had gained since the Constitutional Revolution period, especially during the 1960s and 1970s. The nearly four-decade-long women’s struggle for gender equality in post-Revolutionary Iran has not resulted in substantial legal reforms. Nonetheless, women activists have never given up. Rather, they have struggled continuously to discover new ways and means of influencing the regime. In the course of their activities they learned that even the smallest form of positive legal reform depends on their ability to establish dialogue – whenever and wherever possible – with the more moderate members of the parliament, the judiciary, or the government. The importance of religion in the decisionmaking process means that to succeed, women’s rights advocates must gain the support and endorsement of at least some influential religious authorities. And given the Islamic Republic’s hostility toward gender equality and consequently the low probability of legal reform, it is also critical to raise awareness among ordinary women and to seek innovative ways in minimizing the impact of discriminatory laws on women’s lives. Advocates, for example, have promoted using the marriage contract as a first step for raising awareness on equal rights in marriage and encouraging pre-nuptial agreements that cover rights relating to child custody, divorce, and travel, among other rights.
In contrast to the project’s other case studies, family law reform initiatives in today’s Iran are not a matter of contestation of alternative discourses and actors but a very fundamental “regime” problem, making change arduous but not impossible.
Lebanon: After independence (1943), plural personal status systems were maintained in Lebanon to demarcate religious communities. Lebanese law on personal status matters is sectarian, with eighteen legally recognized religious confessions (sects) in Lebanon belonging to the three monotheist religions. Lebanon has only one non-sectarian family law (the “Law on Inheritance of non-Mahometans,” meaning non-Muslims). But this only relates to inheritance matters and is mainly applied to Christians, Jews, and other non-Muslims. This system of confessional autonomy in the regulation of internal affairs is so institutionalized that governance in personal status matters is constitutionally defined as outside the realm of state authority. Hence, the state legally marginalized itself in family matters, leaving the experience of Lebanese citizens to ascribed kin affiliation and religious descent.
In Lebanon, religious, legislative, and judicial pluralism is all-encompassing, as it not only determines personal status matters but also the formal logic of representation and governance. Consequently, “Lebanese citizens have no existence outside their respective religious communities, whether on the level of personal status or on the level of national elections and political representation.” The delegation of family law and personal status to religious leaders has consolidated their influence over social, political, and legal life, thus creating a strong patriarchal resistance to women’s struggle for rights.
The passage of the Law for the Protection of Women and Family Members against Domestic Violence (No. 293; 7 May, 2014) was not formulated as a direct reform to family laws. However, the elaboration and the passage of this law opened, for the first time in Lebanon, a serious breach in the general legal system regulating family issues. In the Lebanese demographic, social, cultural, and political situation, religious communities play a major role on all levels. Despite this, the promulgation of the 2014 Law happened thanks to feminist NGOs and human rights activists’ lobbying in a context of rising public demand to address the growing number of severe cases of domestic violence. This law’s approval was a watershed legislative event regarding family laws matters related to gender-based violence.
Although the 2014 Law did not specifically and directly reform family laws, it did seriously affect the family law system. Reforming the religious personal status laws is, for the time being in the circumstances in Lebanon, not practically acceptable to most of the Lebanese stakeholders. Therefore, currently in Lebanon, the most pragmatic, realistic, and efficacious way to challenge gender-based violence would be to amend some of the 2014 Law’s provisions in order to remedy their shortcomings.
Morocco: Throughout much of the history of Morocco the tribal lineage system has served as the basic political unit and building block of society, with marriage serving as a powerful tool to build tribal networks. Under French occupation (protectorate), while controlling penal and commercial realms, the French largely refrained from intruding into the local structure and practices in the private sphere. Post-independence Morocco had to embrace the challenge of consolidation and centralization, which was resolved through an alliance between the monarchy and rural notables. Patriarchal tribal networks were co-opted into the monarchy in exchange for political patronage, creating a mutually reinforcing interdependence between the patrilineal tribal networks and the monarchy. Parallel to the formation of centralized state structures, such as the unified court system, the localized norms based on custom and Shari’a became codified into the family code – the Mudawana – adopted in 1958.
The Mudawana, rooted in the Maliki school of Islamic jurisprudence, treated women as minors. Although the family law underwent some subsequent minor amendments, its patriarchal essence remained untouched until contested in recent decades. In the 1990s, feminists’ mobilization pressed for reform nationwide, ultimately resulting in the 2004 family law, which marks a milestone in Morocco’s current history and demonstrates that change under difficult circumstances is possible through collective action.
Nigeria: In 1960 Nigeria was internationally recognized as a sovereign state, after a century of colonial rule under the British. The British introduced written statutes to replace the largely unwritten native laws and customs. The provisions of the reform statutes differed significantly from Nigeria’s diverse ethnic, religious, social, and economic realities, and traditional authorities continued to retain powers over their communities. Therefore, locals maintained native customs and complied with the new statutory provisions where and when necessary. This led to legal pluralism, whereby unwritten customary laws operated side by side with codified laws.
Following independence, the 1960 Constitution provided for a parliamentary system of government and a dual legislative framework at the federal and state levels operating at 36 constituent states, including the Federal Capital Territory Abuja. The legal system adopted upon independence is based on English common law, Islamic law, and customary law. A striking dichotomy exists between the legislative architecture and the administration of justice systems in the northern and southern parts of Nigeria. This North-South dichotomy also aims to protect cultural and religious diversity, with the Muslim North and Christian South. The Criminal Code modeled after the English criminal law was administered in English-type courts in southern Nigeria, while northern states had separate Shari’a courts to administer Islamic personal law. Islamic law and the elaborate Shari’a court system, remaining from early nineteenth century, were reorganized after independence.
Since independence, Nigeria has ratified a wide range of regional and international treaties and aligned itself with policy documents that concern the rights of women and girls. Constitutional limitations, however, affect the validity and application of international treaties in the domestic arena. By virtue of the dualist principle enunciated in the Nigerian 1999 Constitution, international treaties only become enforceable when a corresponding domestic law has been enacted by the Nigerian federal parliament. The effect is that the plethora of treaties Nigeria has ratified has no force of law and may not be subject to judicial action until such domestication takes place.
A variety of legislative measures have therefore been adopted at the federal and state levels to provide a legal basis for addressing VAW. The constituent states of the Nigerian federation have enacted different legislations that prohibit all forms of gender-based violence. As the enactment of state parliaments, however, the statutory developments apply only to the legislating states or provinces. The legislative measures, for the most part, addressed VAW through the criminalization of local customs deemed hurtful to women’s rights and interests. In some cases, they focused on reforming state legal institutions, redefining relations in the family, and expanding the scope of official authority to intervene in the private sphere to either prevent or punish violations of women’s human rights.
Legislative protection for women’s rights in Nigeria blossomed in the 2000s, beginning primarily with states in the southern part of the country. Political commitments expressed principally in the form of international treaties and regional charters on women’s rights provided a model framework and the normative content for legislation on VAW. In April 2000, Nigeria adopted a national policy on gender equality and the empowerment of women, called the National Policy on Women, followed by a National Gender Policy in 2006. Beyond the adoption of a national policy for women, the agency – National Commission for Women – that was then responsible for coordinating the government’s equality pursuits was transformed into an independent, full-fledged Ministry of Women Affairs. A plan of action was developed to support its implementation, and key government departments were empowered to monitor the progress of implementation.
Women’s rights organizations and feminist movements have made giant strides in creating advocacy networks around specific issues and influencing federal gender policies. Their organizing successes have yielded a cycle of substantive gains. From enlightenment campaigns to providing legal representation to victims of GBV or litigating in the public interest, these efforts have facilitated the instrumentalization of feminist and equality rhetorics in both national policy frameworks and family law jurisprudence. Winning influential converts such as powerful Islamic monarchs and clerics to their side also enabled very conservative regions to suspend their unwillingness to take issues of gender and family relations very seriously. Despite the absence of a nationally-centralized body of women’s rights movement, advocates have managed to work together, successfully deploying an array of strategies to draw political and legislative attention to gender issues. Even latter-day campaigns around newer categories of rights such as lesbian, gay, bi-sexual, and transgender rights are tapping into the energies of feminists and gender-justice advocates. In turn, these actions are producing shifts in collective thinking and understandings of gender and family relations both in public and private sphere, and resulting in legal reforms in a more organic fashion.
A fourteen-year-long civil society-led activism, which began at a legislative advocacy workshop on VAW in 2001, culminated in the 2015 passage of the Violence Against Persons (Prohibition) Act, held in Abuja. The enactment of this act represents one of the boldest efforts to coordinate and synergize advocacy around the reform of family laws at the national level. However, the progress in implementing legal reforms has been slow, prompting many to question whether Nigeria’s many constitutional and legislative prescriptions of substantive equality actually translate to locally-enforceable guarantees at the state, national, and international levels. The reform of laws impacting women in the family has neither overturned the disproportionate ways that cultural norms affect women, nor uprooted the ingrained patriarchal ideologies that lower women’s status and decrease their autonomy. The result is an upsurge in the nature and scope of the systematic patterns of gender-based violence witnessed across Nigeria’s two major regions – the North and the South. However, behind these obstacles constraining the fulfilment of women’s rights lie many more opportunities for reform.
Palestine: The Palestinian women’s movement is faced with layers of complexities related to colonization and occupation on the one hand and a patriarchal society on the other, both of which pose challenges in combating violence against women. The prolonged and continuing Israeli occupation deprives Palestinians from enjoying their right to liberation and selfdetermination. The cycle of violence includes institutionalized policy-level violations that discriminate against a people at large, which particularly burdens women’s daily lives. Due to the absence of a sovereign Palestinian state, political liberation has constituted the priority for Palestinian women.
Palestinians are subject to an amalgamation of laws inherited from different sources and historical periods: the 1917 Ottoman family law, laws from the British mandate, Jordanian and Egyptian laws, and Israeli military orders. This multiplicity of laws has naturally led to the lack of a consistent personal status law governing family life and the lives of Palestinian women, whether Muslim or Christian.
The legal reform process began with the emergence of the Palestinian National Authority in 1993 and the establishment of Palestinian Legislation Council. Since then, the women’s movement has advocated for legal reform from a human rights perspective in order to ensure participation in the state-building process and the institutionalization of the principles of equality and social justice. Reforming the Personal Status Law, as a tool to combat violence and discrimination against women, is central to the work of the women’s organizations. Given the prolonged and persistent foreign occupation of Palestine, the Palestinian women’s feminist agenda became entangled with the national struggle and more recently became further complicated by the rise of Islamization and fundamentalist movements.
Senegal: The Constitution adopted after independence from France (1963) declared Senegal a secular republic. In the post-independence era, despite the presence of reservations from religious/conservative groups, the government took a bold step to establish a unified legal/ judicial system by abolishing separate courts and adopting the secular Family Code (1972). This code replaced Christian, Islamic, customary, and French colonial laws that previously governed family matters, making it highly controversial. And with the absence of a strong women’s rights lobby at the time, religious discourses occupied center stage in the deliberation of the new law.
When it was adopted in 1972, the Family Code provided an appreciable level of protection to women in the family in terms of some forms of violence that were prevalent (such as repudiation and economic violence, with husbands abandoning their wives after divorce or due to immigration) and contributed to reducing them or at least to raising awareness around those issues. The code’s main characteristics are the unification of the law, the affirmation of the secular character of the society, recognition of the principles of individual rights, and the principle of equality of all citizens.
The debates on the Family Code continued, with a wider and more inclusive public debate and the emergence of two main actors that dominated the debates: the feminists and the pro-Islamists. While the first was mainly manifested through the women’s rights movement, the second was expressed through the MPRS (an Islamic political party) and later in the 1990s with the CIRCOFS. On the 10th anniversary of the Family Code, the government opened a debate; the women’s movements’ main propositions were articulated around establishing monogamy as the common law regime, which was strongly opposed by the pro-Islamist movement, and which did not lead to reform.
However, after the failure of the debates in 1987 due to the radicalization of the two opposing movements, feminists and pro-Islamists, but also due to the state’s neutrality and reluctance to take a position of leadership, the productivity of the debates slowed. Despite the state’s lack of political will and religious resistance, in 1989 the feminists, with the help of female Parliamentarians, managed to achieve the abrogation of the Family Code article that limited women’s ability to engage in a profession at the sole discretion of the husband. They also obtained the obligation of alimony and the sanctioning of laws on family abandonment.
The mobilization of women’s rights organizations resulted in many achievements. These struggles relied heavily on campaigns in local languages and strong advocacy with policymakers. To advance women’s rights, NGOs have used women in political parties extensively to advance their demands. These demands, supported by the structures of the United Nations system and technical and financial partners, resulted in significant changes in several Senegalese legal provisions.
Turkey: Turkey emerged as a republic (established in 1923) from the multi-religious, multi-ethnic millet system of the Ottoman Empire. The process of transition to a modern secular national state carried with it elements of continuity and discontinuity, unity and diversity, tradition and modernity, which today still underlie political tensions with significant implications for women’s activism. The process of modernization and legislative reforms had already started in the late 18th century, which mark the beginnings of change within the Ottoman state, where Islamic clerics and Islamic law played prominent roles. The 1917 unified Ottoman Law of Family Rights was replaced in 1926 by the Swiss-inspired Civil Code, the first secular code regulating personal status and family relations in a Muslim country. The Civil Code was far-reaching in a country with a predominantly Muslim population; it outlawed polygamy and gave women equal rights to inheritance, marriage, divorce, and child custody. With Turkey’s diversity, women have created a movement that has evolved into one of the most powerful democratizing forces in the country. Since the 1980s, women activists have been persistent in raising awareness on patriarchal injustices inherent in the laws and in advocating for the elimination of provisions that reflect patriarchal customs and understandings in the Turkish Constitution, Civil Code, and Penal Code. Numerous successful campaigns of the women’s movement resulted in the amendment of laws and instituted gender equality as the norm in the legal system of the country.
The women’s movement in Turkey owes a significant part of its success to various strategies developed and enhanced in the course of its struggle over the past three decades. An equally important democratic outcome of this struggle is its impact on public debate. The ability of women’s movement to shape and structure public opinion and dictate the terms of the public discourse on issues concerning women and VAW, while not yet finished, nonetheless amounts to a genuine public good. The movement, which became an important force in stimulating public debate and promoting equality-oriented policies and norms, derived its legitimacy from the solidarity of a coalition of diverse and autonomous women’s groups on the one hand, and from its active engagement in international feminist advocacy as well as gender-equality regimes on the other. The pathway into public opinion was deepened and widened through each campaign that the women’s movement launched. This has been a significant step forward in democratizing mind-sets and in rupturing patriarchal forms of thinking and culture. The strategies generated within the women’s movement enabled them to overcome some of the constraints embedded in the hierarchy between the state and civil society. Today, the encroachment of a conservative and repressive political project seems keen on reversing the gains achieved by women; it remains to be seen whether the struggle of the women’s movement will be resilient in countering the attacks of this regressive turn or not.
We have already conducted several training and follow-up activities to form a global coalition of activists with knowledge and skills on family law reform strategies to end GBV. In September 2016 we and our partners held a MENA Regional Advanced Training of Trainers Institute on Advocacy for Family Law Reform in Beirut; in October 2016 we held a Global Facilitators Capacity-Building Workshop in Bethesda, MD; and in February 2017 we conducted an Advanced Global Training of Trainers Institute for Human Rights in Beirut.
All these institutes aimed to strengthen the knowledge and skills of women’s rights activists for family law reform and to share and expand their knowledge gained from the family law reform case study research. WLP partners and staff designed these trainings to build the participants’ advocacy knowledge and skills to advance local and regional advocacy campaigns. Drawing on WLP’s manuals including Leading to Choices: A Leadership Training Handbook for Women, Victories over Violence: Ensuring Safety for Women and Girls, and Beyond Equality: A Manual for Human Rights Defenders, as well as relevant research on family law issues in relation to GBV, the participants explored the connection between family laws and violence against women in the private and public spheres; and they developed practical plans to implement, monitor, and evaluate local advocacy campaigns.
The institutes, along with partners’ continuing transnational collaboration and coalition building at the national level, are critical to preparing the global team of activists and trainers to mobilize the family law reform campaign. Through the training and follow-up activities, participants joined a network of activists whose experiences and needs are informing WLP’s development of learning tools for family law reform efforts, which will be shared across the campaign countries.
4.3 Documentary Film
We also produced a new documentary film, Equality: It’s All in the Family, which focuses on the links between family laws and GBV. To gather material for the film, we interviewed 26 experts from around the world, including judges, lawyers, NGO leaders, UN rapporteurs, World Bank officials, and grassroots women. The film features personal stories about the impact of family laws on women’s lives and security and examples of successful advocacy campaigns for legal reform. We launched the film at a public conference on October 10, 2017.
4.4 Advocacy Campaign
Through this project WLP will launch national campaigns in three regions (the Middle East/ North Africa, Southeast Asia, and sub-Saharan Africa) that will generate an international dialogue and a powerful collective voice for the legitimate use of family law to advocate against GBV. In addition, WLP is researching, collecting, and organizing Muslim religious and cultural laws and interpretations on this issue across these three geographical areas and will make them universally accessible online. This project will create a corpus not only of family laws related to GBV, but also, where interplay with laws relating to GBV exists, of constitutional and criminal laws. Today, as people in these regions set about the task of framing or reforming their constitutions, criminal codes, and family laws, this project will aid reformers by providing them with easy access to religion-based resources developed at the local level and tailored to meet their cultural needs, as well as examples of the broad range of possibilities for Islamic legal interpretation around the world from which they can expand their understanding and knowledge of the faith.
The advocacy campaign will begin by creating a methodological working group comprised of two WLP Board members, six partners from our case study countries, three members of the Project Advisory Panel, and the WLP leadership team. The working group will conduct a needs assessment, finalize our strategy and work plan for the three-year project, consolidate research tools, and introduce the project to relevant research institutions and scholars. The working group will then recruit one legal and one family law expert to undertake the comparative corpus of laws and family law review to be used in support of our advocacy campaign against GBV.
The online component of the advocacy campaign will enable women to easily access recommended legal recourse to their given circumstances, consult our wide network of advisors and partners, document their cases, and work to find solutions collectively and with the support of other women facing similar challenges. As more women become empowered to use these advocacy tools, strict, culturally entrenched notions of what constitutes Shari’a law and who can legitimately make this determination will be loosened and a transformative shift in what is “mainstream” thinking can occur. And because the advocacy campaign addresses a single topic within family law, it will be easier for advocates struggling to reform other aspects of family law to achieve measurable objectives through applied, focused pressure against GBV; this may be the most effective way for them to make progress, as gains on one issue will open the door for activists to use family law to justify challenges on other human rights issues.
The relationship between family law and GBV is strong and clear throughout the world. In many cases in the Global South (but also in various countries in the West), family law reinforces patriarchal structures that legitimize male privilege and restrict women’s rights. That is why WLP developed our multi-faceted project on Family Law Reform to Challenge Gender-Based Violence and why we are committed to national and global advocacy campaigns based on the project’s case studies, trainings, and resources. We believe that the most effective way to address changing family laws and thus GBV is to address both legislation and cultural understandings in order to see legal reform actually implemented.
Analyses of the project’s case studies and discussions at the national and training institutes have shown us several factors23 that we can and should keep in mind as we move forward:
- Reform advocacy initiated by feminists through building coalitions among diverse women’s groups and positioning their movement above political party lines will not only be empowering in itself but will also give legitimacy to women’s demands.
- Sensitizing mass media and the public discourse on matters related to law and its implications for women’s human rights as well as the state obligation in that regard has exponential benefits, as it will influence the mind-sets of politicians, decision makers, judges, and law enforcers, as well as ordinary citizens, thus contributing to democratization and the rupturing of patriarchal culture.
- Establishing links with international and transnational women’s organizations and networking around common issues contribute to building a hospitable international environment and influencing national-level public debate and state receptiveness to feminist law reform advocacy.
- Law reform campaigns that are carried out in isolation from social, political, or cultural contexts will rarely achieve their objectives; therefore, effective strategies for enhancing women’s rights require a multi-pronged approach that is sensitive to local particularities.
With these factors in mind, through the consistent capacity building, awareness raising, and advocacy campaigns that we and our partners are implementing along with our colleagues in other NGOs, we have already achieved sustainable change in altering and improving national gender policies or attitudes in several partner countries:
- WLP Brazil/Cepia joined forces with activists and legal experts in an advocacy campaign to secure the passage of the Maria de Penha Law, which established a legal definition for the murder of women by men (femicide) and increased minimum mandatory sentences for crimes against women.
- WLP Jordan/SIGI/J achieved a major milestone when over 50 women participants of their Women’s Empowerment and Political Participation program ran for public office in the 2016 elections. SIGI/J also led a coalition of 46 local NGOs and networks in monitoring Jordan’s 2016 parliamentary elections from a gender perspective, by training and guiding 1,000 election observers, most of whom worked as observers on registration day, on polling day, and at other important election events. Female MPs won 20 of 130 seats in these elections and appeared in all but 7 of the 226 party lists (including the Islamists’). The increased number of female candidates helped to create a shift in the public’s perception of women as leaders and political actors, which presented an opportunity for women’s rights organizations and activists to advocate for higher quotas for women’s representation in government.
- SIGI/J’s campaign against Penal Code Article 308, which permitted convicted rapists to escape legal punishment if they marry their victim, successfully pressured the Jordanian Parliament to repeal the Article in 2017.
- SIGI/J worked with others to change the Personal Status Law, which now gives women property rights, sets the age of marriage at 18, and grants alimony for divorced women and their children, acknowledging the importance of protecting women’s and children’s rights and expressing the importance of enforcing the personal status laws in courts.
- In August 2017, after years of advocacy by WLP Lebanon/CRTD-A and other NGOs, Lebanon repealed the law that allowed rapists to avoid punishment by marrying their victims.
- CRTD-A collaborated with other women’s organizations working on the Nationality Campaign to achieve significant successes across several national ministries: the Ministry of Health now allows non-citizen families of Lebanese women to benefit from governmental health coverage; the Ministry of Education has given priority for public school registrations to non-national children of Lebanese mothers; and the Ministry of Labor has recognized the right of nonnational families of Lebanese women to work and has excluded them from a recent decree restricting foreigners from several white collar occupations.
- As a result of CRTD-A’s engagement with Lebanon’s Ministry of Social Affairs (MOSA), first advocating for women’s equal nationality rights, then by conducting the first-ever Gender Audit for a Lebanese ministry, MOSA requested that CRTD-A develop a National Gender Strategy to inform MOSA’s activities and institutional development, which resulted in a significant government ministry incorporating recommendations grounded in feminist and democratic principles.
- A Libyan woman participant in a WLP Middle East Regional Training of Trainers Institute was elected to Libya’s Constitutional Commission to develop the country’s first-ever constitution; three Libyan participants in WLP trainings also ran as candidates for the Committee of Sixty to draft the country’s new Constitution and implemented a leadership workshop for young activists.
- As a result of WLP Mauritania/AFCF’s campaigns to combat child marriage and child labor, Mauritania’s Council of Ministers recently adopted the legal framework for combatting violence against women and a draft law prohibiting underage female domestic labor.
- WLP Morocco/ADFM’s efforts resulted in Morocco’s removing its reservations to CEDAW (2011) and in the inclusion in the new Moroccan constitution of a mandate to realize equality between women and men.
- ADFM’s long history of working with Soulaliyate women to advance women’s equal land rights resulted in the first-ever land compensation payment to Soulaliyate women in 2013; later 18 women (16 of whom were WLP trainees) from the Soulaliyate community were elected as representatives of their Jmaâ (ethnic community/tribe).
- Following years of advocacy by ADFM and activists trained by ADFM, in 2014 the Moroccan government repealed the section of the Penal Code that pardoned rapists who marry their victims. In 2015, ADFM achieved a major victory in postponing the passage of a bill that legalized loopholes to permit child marriage and other discriminatory practices.
- In February 2016, WLP Pakistan/Aurat Foundation’s collaborative advocacy work with allied CSOs culminated in the passage of the groundbreaking Punjab Women Protection Bill, which criminalizes physical violence, abusive language, stalking, and cyber harassment against women in the Punjab province of Pakistan.
- After participating in WLP Pakistan/Aurat trainings on leadership and gender equality, attendees took actions to advance women’s rights and assumed formal leadership roles. One participant has formed a women’s group within Pakistan’s journalist association that advocates against sexual harassment of journalists in the workplace.
- WLP Palestine/WATC has supported and empowered women to advocate to their local councils for free and fair elections: in 2016, WATC trained more than 120 women who are already members in the local councils or interested in running for elected positions.
- WATC worked with Palestinian prosecution departments to express the demands of women in establishing new “family protections units” and policies to assist prosecutors in handling the cases of women and children. Previously, prosecutors were not trained on dealing with cases involving GBV and often stated that Palestine’s penalty laws do not clearly define violence against women.
- Thanks to advocacy efforts of WATC and their CSO network, in 2014 Palestinian President Abbas joined 21 international conventions, including CEDAW; in 2015, as a result of WATC’s advocacy efforts, for the first time ever, Palestinian courts sentenced two criminals to 25 years’ imprisonment for murdering women for honor crimes.
However, it must be stated that because the roots of these problems lie deep within the societal fabric and cultural norms, the change that we seek requires significant and continuous investment over a long period of time.
Supporting women and youth as they struggle for women’s rights, peace, and the ideals of moderate, pluralistic democracy – especially combatting gender-based violence – is critical. With leadership skills, transnational networks, and technical know-how, women can venture – fully prepared – into social and political spaces as leaders, advocates, and role models to continue to strive for inclusive, egalitarian democracies that assign equal value to women’s voices, lives, and experiences, and enshrine gender equality as foundational to a democratic, peaceful, prosperous, and progressive future.
From Making Laws, Breaking Silence: Case Studies From the Field, University of Pennsylvania Law, Sustainable Development Goals Fund, United Nations Education, Scientific and Cultural Organization (2017)
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