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High-Level Roundtable on Women and Legislative Reform Spurs Dialogue on Translating Gender Equality Laws into Action

By: Arhama Rushdi, L’18, Leah Wong, L’18 & Kait Johnstone, Administrative Coordinator, International Programs

On March 10, the eve of the Commission on the Status of Women’s 61st session in New York, Penn Law, UN Women, UNESCO, The UN Sustainable Development Goals Fund, and the International Law Development Organization (IDLO) convened leading women jurists, legislators, policymakers and advocates engaged in legislative and policy drafting for a High-Level Roundtable on Women and Legislative Reform hosted by Wachtell, Lipton, Rosen and Katz. Against the backdrop of the CSW’s annual two-week session when representatives of UN Member States, civil society organizations and UN entities gather to shape global standards on gender equality, thirty women and men representing over twenty countries analyzed the legal implementation gap through the prism of representative case studies on gender equality, violence against women and personal laws.

The roundtable spurred critical thinking and dialogue on the importance of gender disaggregated data analysis as well as theoretical and practical strategies to translate laws into action. “Lawmaking is about breaking the silence [on the discrimination that women experience daily],” affirmed Associate Dean of International Affairs, Rangita de Silva de Alwis  who helped to convene the Roundtable.  

On the panel discussing violence against women, speakers denounced child marriage as a crime that not only continues to harm generations of children globally, but is also utilized as to control women’s sexualities and bodies from a young age. The protection of women from sexual abuse during wartime correlates with lawmaking on child marriage.

Agnes Igoye, Deputy National Coordinator of the Prevention of Trafficking in Persons department and one of the architects of the Ugandan National Action Plan against Human Trafficking, recalled how she was dressed as a boy as a child, so that her family could smuggle her from LRA’s harm.

Although Zimbabwe is the first and only country in the world that has constitutionally prohibited early marriage, there is a law enacted in the country that directly conflicts with the constitutional safeguard. This national law has been challenged as the justice system continues to use it to undermine the supremacy of the constitution and rights of young girls and women.

“Another word for child marriage is needed. The term child marriage seeks to normalize the abnormal,” Nyaradzayi Gumbonzvanda, Goodwill Ambassador of the African Union Campaign to End Child Marriage. Dean de Silva de Alwis  brought up the recent constitutional challenges to Zimbabwe’s national law permitting early marriage as part of the broader strategy to dismantle gender discrimination in the laws in the country.   

A recurring theme of the roundtable was that of legal terminology reflecting the severity of the circumstances affecting women as a means of contextualizing the acts, leading to better enforcement of the laws.  In the context of migrant labor and trafficking, Professor Sarah Paoletti noted, “We must think of trafficking as modern day slavery. The failure to do so is problematic on the enforcement side of things–if you don’t see shackles and barbed wire–it does not look like and is not recognized as trafficking.”

Yakin Ertuk, former UN Special Rapporteur on Violence against Women discussed the movement towards progressive legislation in Turkey. Being the first and only muslim majority country where secular law governs law including family law, Turkey serves as an example for other nations to follow. The reforms in sexual harassment laws made the women’s personhood and bodily integrity  central to the law rather than grounding a women’s sexuality in public morality as common for many Islamic nations.

Similarly, Asma Khadar,  former Minister of State for Jordan, discussed the women’s movement in Jordan. While there has been significant constitutional reform to include gender equality as well as the first female Vice President, practically women are still subject to discrimination. For example, even the Vice President was required to receive her husband’s permission before she could travel for her Vice Presidential duties.

Rabea Naciri, President of the Democratic Association of Moroccan Women, discussed the successes of the Moroccan women’s movement in achieving family code (Mudawana)  reform after over two decades of activism. Morocco has now abolished laws requiring male guardians for women and women’s obedience to their husbands as well as set an equal minimum age for both genders and constraints on polygamy. The reforms to the family code paved the way for constitutional reforms, all necessary components to change the normative from a paternal family structure to one that grants women more liberty and agency as heads of households.

Despite the progressive legislation, recognition of gender equality in formal legislative frameworks, and the enforcement of existing legislation and regulations, violations of women’s rights remain pervasive and the justice system continues to be inaccessible for most women.

Panelists urged the importance of all stakeholders – private sector, civil society, lawmakers – in realizing true gender equality by highlighting the impact that upholding women’s human rights has on economies, development, and peace and security.

“Gender equality is a win for all and can increase economic growth by up to 28 trillion dollars,” shared SDG Fund Director, Paloma Durán. “However, legal reforms are not enough. Political and budget commitment is needed for true gender equality,” she later stated.

The roundtable served as a nexus of ideas and reflections on a broad range of issues, from the misuse of culture to justify early and forced marriage to the need for more stringent anti-discrimination policies in international recruitment to combat the exploitation of female migrant workers. Panelists provided case-based analysis of the ways in which the laws that they helped to author were being implemented, both successfully and unsuccessfully, and identified potential solutions and trends that cross-cut the various facets of gender equality. This compendium of ideas will continue to forge pathways toward gender equality through legal reform and advocacy. In her closing remarks, Jodi Schwartz L’84 asserted the importance of recommitting to finish the unfinished business for women’s equality across all sectors.

In the following months, Penn Law and its partners will release a full report with findings from the roundtable. This report will be compiled by Penn Law student rapporteurs in attendance at the roundtable: Arhama Rushdi, Amal Sethi, Heather Swadley, and Leah Wong.  The report will be widely disseminated among UN agencies, multilateral institutions, governments, policymakers, legislators, advocates and NGO’s.

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