Women Face Bars to Voting, Marriages to Rapists

The intense debate continues over the language of the final document produced by this special session of the U.N. Meanwhile, women's non-governmental agencies from many nations are struggling to obtain basic civil rights.


NEW YORK, June 7-Arguments continue to rage on the U.N. General Assembly floor over whether governments should be held accountable for specific timetables for the progress of women's rights.

Meanwhile, in a building across the street, leaders from non-governmental organizations in five countries urged the U.N. not to drop one crucial deadline: 2005 for the reform of all laws that explicitly discriminate against women.

Despite widespread adoption of the Beijing Plan for Action five years ago, women in many countries across the world still face discriminatory laws they said-laws that limit their right to inherit property, vote, run for political office or even to pass their nationality on to a spouse or child.

“Legal reform is the least we have the right to expect,” said Monique Widyono of Equality Now, the international human rights advocacy group that sponsored the press conference. “These laws symbolize the formal level of the open disrespect governments have for women's fundamental right to equality. Discrimination in laws leaves women with no recourse when they face it elsewhere.”

Zainab al-Harbi, head of the Kuwait Women's Cultural and Social Society, arrived at the conference celebrating a court victory-one that may finally allow women in her country the right to vote. “We have been fighting for 30 years to change the election laws,” in a country where 70 percent of the graduates of Kuwait University are women, she said.

“After Iraq's 1990 invasion, women were recognized as national heroines,” she said. “We said: ‘Fine, we're doing the work-and we're suffering the most. We lost our husbands, our sons. Tell us again why we cannot vote?' ”

A woman is challenging the law by referring to the Kuwait constitution, which states: “Justice, Liberty and Equality are the pillars of society.”

The women also cited the United Nations Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women. Kuwait acceded to the treaty in 1994, but lodged a crucial “reservation” to the article that calls on states to ensure that women have the right to vote in all elections and be eligible for election to all publicly elected bodies.

Now, Kuwait's Administrative Court has taken an unprecedented step by referring the challenge to the nation's Constitutional Court.

“We had six women who filed suit,” said al-Harbi. “We are happy that at least one has been accepted.” Any new election law, she says, will face fierce opposition from Islamic fundamentalists. “This is an unfair distortion of Islam,” she says, “The true fundamentals of Islam are in favor of women.”

The current Kuwait law is not exceptional, the panelist pointed out. They assailed other laws that limit women's rights within marriage, inheritance rights and the right to confer nationality on a spouse from another country. They also pointed to laws that explicitly hamper progress on violence against women, such as the “marriage loophole” allowing rapists to escape punishment by marrying their victims.

“Peru, Argentina, Bolivia and Chile have eliminated the loophole,” said Susanna Chiarotti, head of the Latin American women's rights coalition, representing 17 countries. “Why then do Brazil, Ecuador and Nicaragua continue to offer a choice between jail or marriage?” Such laws, she added, make it difficult to fight violence against women.

A similar law was cited by Meaza Ashenafi, of the Ethiopian Women Lawyers Association, as she outlined her organization's efforts to change Ethiopia's family laws. She emphasized that Ethiopia has a new constitution, which on paper incorporates all international human rights conventions. Yet the family laws still fall short.

“Family law still confirms the right of the husband to ‘discipline' his wife,” she said. “The parliament is still debating whether to enact laws that penalize domestic violence or FGM [female genital mutilation].”

Like Ethiopia, many other governments have ratified or adopted international human rights standards without reforming their national law, panelists said.

“Nepal has ratified CEDAW, but they haven't even changed inheritance laws,” said Susana Pradhan-Malla, the head of Nepal's Forum for Women, Law and Development. “Nepalese women under thirty-five still cannot inherit property or confer Nepalese citizenship to a foreign spouse.”

Jean Kamau of Kenya's International Federation of Women Lawyers also found family law to be the main obstacle to reform in the crucial area of customary law.

“Customary law rules in Kenya,” she said. “And customary law only gives men rights. Women in Kenya are working together to get two laws passed-one on equality, one on affirmative action-which would, she said, supersede customary law. She added that if the laws pass, the nation will be compelled to amend its constitution.

“That will enable us to work through the courts.”

All acknowledged that eliminating discriminatory laws does not in and of itself guarantee women equal protection.

“It is the minimum we have a right to expect,” Widonyo emphasized.

Widonyo also expressed fears, heard often from the leaders of the non-governmental organizations at this conference, that the week's summary of what's been done since 1995 and what is still left to do, known as the Outcome Document, will prove weaker than its predecessor.

“How much longer,” asked Widonyo, “are we supposed to wait?”