“Various forms of discrimination against women not only exist in all societies, but are even codified by the very governments which should be fighting that injustice.” (Sarah Jones in Women Can’t Wait)
Countries around the world have a variety of laws discriminating against women, ranging from age of marriage, nationality, freedom of movement to the right to divorce, work and retire under the same conditions as men.
Different minimum ages for marriage for girls and boys are very common, often to the disadvantage of the girl. In the DRC, girls can marry at 15, boys at 18. In Guatemala, girls have to be only 14 years old as opposed to boys who can marry at 16. In Japan, girls can marry at 16 and boys at 18.
While the general rule in Syria is that girls can marry at 17 and boys at 18, girls can receive permission to marry at 13 (boys at 15), if they have reached puberty.
These exemptions have led to girls marrying at 12 or younger, for example in the Philippines or in Iran.
These differences in the legal marriage age are especially discriminating when they don’t grant majority at the time of marriage. A girl in Afghanistan can get married at 16, but is only eligible to vote in elections at 18, whereas for boys minimum age for both is 18.
In addition to these disadvantages with regards to marriageable age, many women face discrimination in relation to custody of children. Many countries’ laws still see the father as the legal guardian of the child. The mother, if she can, has to fight to gain custody.
Kenya, Nigeria and Malaysia discriminate against women who are married to foreigners: Whereas the wife of a citizen of all three countries has no problem obtaining citizenship, this is not the case for husbands of Nigerian, Kenyan or Malaysian women. In Kenya and Malaysia, the same rule goes for children.
In many states, women also face restrictions in their freedom of movement. These discriminations usually refer to women not being allowed to move or travel without male company. The OHCHR project uses the example of Sara Longwe v. Inter-Continental hotels, where “a Zambian woman took on the hotel chain after it had refused her entry to its bar to wait for her children who had been swimming at the hotel, because the hotel had a policy of not permitting women unaccompanied by men to enter its premises. The same rule did not apply to men. Longwe successfully challenged the hotel policy which was held to constitute a violation of her freedom of movement and her right to be free from discrimination in light of international obligations entered into by the Zambian state.”
In Iraq, a woman wishing to obtain a passport has to ask her father’s, brother’s or uncle’s written permission. Similar laws exist in Malaysia, Qatar and Libya. In Egypt and Iran, the woman needs her husband’s agreement to obtain a passport.
Further, there are a range of obedience laws which affect women’s freedom in relation to their husbands. In the DRC a wife is placed under the authority of her husband and has to agree to his choice of residence. In Cameroon, a husband can decide whether his wife may study or work and he can choose the kind of study or work.
The OHCHR project states that “the legal systems of Kenya, Ghana, Ethiopia and Nigeria were all identified as ‘permitting’ non consensual sex in marriage. The Centre for Reproductive Rights also identifies Cote d’Ivoire and Benin as not recognizing marital rape as a criminal offence.” The laws of Yemen and Sudan request wives to be sexually available to their husbands, refusing can be seen as act of disobedience.
The list of laws that discriminate against women is endless. A good overview, where many of these examples were taken from, is the OHCHR project on a mechanism to address laws that discriminate against women.
Sarah Jones, Tony Award® winning playwright and performer, in her brilliant piece Women Can’t Wait portrays eight different women from around the world describing how discriminatory laws in their countries influence their lives: Praveen from India, who suffered marital rape, Hala, whose sister died in a so-called honour killing in Jordan and Anna, only 13 years old, from Kenya, who expresses her wish to escape female genital mutilation. Sarah performed Women Can’t Wait at the United Nations headquarters in March 2010.
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