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New International Database of Laws on Women’s Status

July 09, 2018

The Global Women’s Leadership Project (GWLP) at Penn Law, developed under the auspices of Under Secretary General and Executive Director of UN Women Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, has created a clearing house of information on laws that govern women’s status in the family, as the first phase of the UN Women’s Family Law database.

This is the first mapping of its kind that goes beyond the boundaries of traditional family law to examine the entire legal system of a country to identify the law’s subtle and powerful impact on a woman’s status in her family. Rangita de Silva de Alwis, Penn Law’s Associate Dean of International Affairs and Project Director, says of this initiative: 

Family law is a litmus test with regard to the status of women and has the most intimate and powerful impact on women’s lives.  The family is both a social and legal construct and is often the locus of gendered power relations in the family. The cultural construction of gender determines the role of women and girls within the family while the construction and definition of gender is deeply embedded in culture. Martha Minow has argued that rules about roles and duties between men and women, parents and children, families and strangers historically and conceptually underlie other rules about employment and commerce, education and welfare, and perhaps the governance of the state.  Family law inequalities are often translated into inequalities in nationality law, penal law (for example, the responses to domestic violence), and employment law (husband’s consent to employment, finances, etc.). Under Personal Law systems, subtle but insidious discrimination against women takes place in the name of religion and women are often sacrificed at the altar of family. In every country in the world, family law is a locus of gender discrimination and magnifies the unequal status of women in the economic sphere.  While domestic violence has been described as the biggest barrier to women’s economic development, unequal inheritance and citizenship rights inhibit a woman’s access to economic resources, credit and government loans and collateral. Inequality in custody, guardianship, place of residence inhibits a woman’s freedom of movement. Discrimination in marriage and divorce impact a woman’s rights to economic participation and reinforces an unequal playing field for women.  

The GWLP is one of the first efforts to map the panoramic sweep of laws that regulate a woman’s role in the family and society, including laws governing property, inheritance, custody, guardianship, marriage, divorce, residence, citizenship, domicile, age of marriage, guardianship, female genital mutilation (FGM), “husband obedience “ and sex-selective reproductive decisions. The first phase of the database covers the 54 African countries; the 19 civil law countries in Latin America and 32 states of Mexico; the 51 independent states of Europe; Israel; India; and Pakistan. The research on the Middle East is ongoing.

This contribution helps advance Sustainable Development Goal 5.C, which calls for: “Adopting and strengthening sound policies and enforceable legislation for the promotion of gender equality and the empowerment of all women and girls at all levels.”