A family is the most basic unit in society, and while families can be a central support system, they can also be a place where individuals experience exploitation and discrimination, says Musawah executive director Zharin Zhafrael.
“Family is a space for comfort, warmth, love, nurturing, emotional support and psychological security, as well as a place where the basic necessities for survival – food, shelter, clothing – are met. It serves to promote order and stability within society as a whole. It’s where we learn lessons, how to differentiate right from wrong, and to help and care for each other,” says Zharin.
“But, while family is a source of true empowerment, unfortunately, not all families are like that. Some families suppress potential, some families are ‘prisons’, and some, a ‘death sentence’.
“Many of us have seen or heard of either a loved one or a close one being pained, harmed or impacted by discriminatory family laws, policies and practices, be it losing their fair share of inheritance, finding out the husband has a second family during lockdowns and Covid-19, domestic violence, child marriage, or women being unilaterally divorced and left with absolutely nothing because there is no recognition of unpaid care work,” she says.
Without equality in the family, there is no real equality in society, says Zharin, adding that women’s rights and gender justice advocates around the world have been fighting to have egalitarian family laws.
She was speaking at the recent launch of the Global Campaign for Equality in Family Law’s Week of Activism, its new website, as well as Musawah’s Campaign for Justice for Muslim Family Laws.
The Global Campaign for Equality in Family Law, which was launched in March 2020, is led by a coordinating committee of eight leading women’s and human rights organisations: Equality Now (where the secretariat is currently based), Act Church of Sweden, Latin American and Caribbean Committee for the Defence of Women’s Rights (CLADEM), Musawah, Muslims for Progressive Values, Solidarity for African Women’s Rights (SOAWR) represented by the African Women’s Development and Communication Network (FEMNET), Women’s Learning Partnership, and UN Women.
During the week-long campaign from May 15 to 19, activists, civil society organisations, and policy-makers participated in a week of action under the Global Campaign for Equality in Family Law which highlighted the need for equality in family laws in order to achieve a just and equitable future for women and girls around the world.
But it doesn’t just end there; this is a long-term thing, highlights Zharin, citing several studies as examples.
The study Gender-Discriminatory Laws and Women’s Economic Agency conducted by Mala Htun et al (2018), concludes that egalitarian reform of family law may be the most crucial precondition for empowering women economically.
Laws and policies that promote gender equality and justice in the family are imperative in shifting norms and mindsets of societies, she says.
Another study When Do Governments Promote Women’s Rights? A Framework for the Analysis of Sex Equality Policy by Mala Htun and S Laurel Weldon (2020) says that gender-related policies, including family laws, can enable women to access education and employment, improve their ability to care for their families, and increase their chances of escaping poverty, violence, and help them enjoy good health, she adds.
“Of course, a change in the law isn’t the ‘be all and end all’ in removing discriminatory practices and thinking within families and societies. Monitoring and law enforcement, conducting constant and effective public awareness campaigns, collecting and sharing data, ensuring legal frameworks work in sync and not in contradiction of each other, are just as important. But the anchor of equality in society is family law,” says Zharin.
According to Musawah communications and outreach lead Fatima Qureshi, family law is a critical issue because the inequalities faced by women and girls under discriminatory family laws and practices affect all other areas of their lives.
“Many countries around the world have discriminatory family laws and practices that restrict women and girls. There is a strong correlation between inequality in the family and gender-based violence and harmful traditional practices experienced by women and girls,” says Fatima.
“Recent data from the World Bank’s Women, Business and the Law 2023 report shows that only 14 out of 190 economies surveyed have achieved full legal equality, and a typical economy only grants women 75% of the same rights as men. This is linked to gender gap indicators such as educational attainment, economic participation and opportunity, health and survival, and political empowerment,” she says.
“Discriminatory family laws do not allow women and girls to fully exercise their human rights and achieve their full potential. In countries around the world, this legislation prevents women from controlling their right to marry or divorce, inherit property on an equal basis with men, or have equal guardianship and custody rights of their children,” she adds.
Family law reform continues to move at an extremely slow pace, and in some countries, it has regressed over the past decade, says Fatima.
“According to another report by one of the members of the global campaign, Equality Now, ‘sex discriminatory personal status laws violate women’s civil and political rights and negatively impacts women’s ability to conduct aspects of their daily lives’. The discrimination goes beyond family law and marital relations to prohibit rights to confer citizenship, travel, participation in public life, and others.
“This shows us there is a direct correlation between legal authority and power accorded to males in the family and restrictions on women’s autonomy and agency, along with an increased likelihood of experiencing sexual and domestic violence,” she says.
The ultimate goal of the Global Campaign for Equality in Family Law is equality for all women and girls, as well as other marginalised groups under the law in all matters relating to the family.
“It calls on all governments to ensure equality for all women and men under the law in all matters relating to the family, regardless of religion, culture and tradition,” says Fatima.
“The Campaign has three main aims: the repeal and reform of sexist family-and-related laws by national governments, the prevention of introduction of bad family-and-related laws, and the adoption of further legal guarantees of equality including progressive court judgements,” she says.
Along with the Global Campaign for Equality in Family Law is Musawah’s Campaign for Justice in Muslim Family Laws, says Musawah’s Campaign for Justice senior programme officer Syirin Junisya.
“Musawah’s vision is a world where gender equality, justice and non-discrimination are embraced as inherent in Islam while being reflected in laws and cultural practices,” says Syirin.
“Musawah holds the world’s only global repository of Muslim family laws featuring rich and vital information including legislative frameworks, available case laws, policies, procedures and practices in 12 principle areas of concern relating to Muslim family laws in over 38 countries,” she says.
“To make family law a priority issue at the global, regional and national levels, we bring together advocates from across three regions: Middle East and North Africa, Sub-Saharan Africa, and South and Southeast Asia which comprise the MENA region,” she adds.
“Our vision is to build support at the national, regional and global levels for the urgency of reform towards equality and justice for women living in Muslim countries,” says Syirin.
The Global Campaign for Equality in Family Law is calling for membership, which is open to communities, and national, regional or global organisations and groups who would like to be a part of the movement.
Its new website offers a condensed version of what the campaign is about and how people can get involved.
More info at Global Campaign for Equality in Family Law