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Unequal under the law
by Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka
Executive Director, UN Women
June 2019
One of the areas where we have the greatest potential to accelerate gender equality and women’s empowerment is in tackling laws that discriminate against women and girls. There is both scope and incentive for improvement.
Discrimination in law is commonplace. It can take the form of different standards for women and men in passport application, the transfer of nationality to a child or foreign spouse, participation in court proceedings, receipt of inheritance or choice of employment or marriage partner.
Often these laws reflect long-standing exclusion of women and girls from the spaces where laws are designed, implemented or studied. The result has been to normalise – and legitimise – gender inequality.
More than 2.5 billion women and girls around the world are affected by discriminatory laws and lack of legal protection, often in complex, intersecting ways. This puts them at strong risk of being left behind but, conversely, provides a direct route to change.
World Bank analysis this year has shown that a typical economy gives women only three-quarters of the legal rights of men, but that where there was reform, more women worked and were better paid.
Legal discrimination affects women and girls of all social classes and contexts, leaving them vulnerable to a wide spectrum of human rights violations.
For example, lower levels of gender equality in national laws are associated with fewer girls enrolled in primary and secondary education, doing skilled work, owning land and accessing financial and health services. They are also linked with more women facing domestic, family and sexual violence.
When a state allows gender discrimination in its nationality laws, it is implicitly endorsing the notion of women as inferior, with ‘second class’ citizenship.
Children can be left stateless when their mothers are unable to pass on their nationality to them, especially when children cannot acquire their fathers’ nationality.
As adults, they may not be able to get paid work, move freely, open a bank account, own or inherit property or fully participate in society.
Discriminatory laws can also exacerbate inequalities in families by affecting the extent to which women can make choices and exercise agency. Discriminatory personal status laws impede equality in marriage, divorce, inheritance and parental authority and responsibilities.
These shortfalls often overlap with gaps in other rights, such as the right to be protected from various forms of violence, the right to food security, and girls’ right to an education.
On the other hand, laws that promote gender equality can yield multiple dividends for women and societies. When women can inherit on an equal basis with men, mothers can then better invest in the education of their daughters.
This in turn can increase the average age of marriage, because girls who stay in school are less likely to marry early. Avoiding early marriage can limit early childbirth and widowhood, with substantial physical and socio-economic benefits. Instead, girls are better able to look forward to decent work and a sustainable future income.
The McKinsey Global Institute recently estimated that women’s equality in wages and labour force participation could increase global gross domestic product by up to $28 trillion by 2025. This is an opportunity that we cannot afford to miss.
Law reform more broadly, and the repeal or revision of discriminatory laws specifically, is inherent to the achievement of gender equality. This is itself a requirement for realising the transformative ambitions of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. Yet progress in eliminating discriminatory laws has so far been uneven. That is why we want universal action now.
* Progress of the world’s women 2019–2020: Families in a changing world:
* UN WebTV: Launch of Families in a changing world report:
* Report from a UN Expert Group on the Sustainable Development Goals - Tackling global challenges to equality and inclusion through the gender-responsive implementation of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development:

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Widows lose much more than a Spouse: They lose their Dignity
by Eleanor Nwadinobi and Meera Khanna
Every Woman Treaty, agencies
June 2019
For many women around the world, the death of a spouse is magnified by many losses — of their social status, marital home, land, property, social security, dignity and, sometimes, their children. But men, on the other hand, lose none of their human rights while usually gaining support in starting a new chapter in his life.
Unfortunately, discriminatory and punitive behavior toward widows ostracizes them, forces many of them and their children into poverty and represents a form of gender-based violence that is unjust and unacceptable.
The United Nations observes June 23 as International Widows’ Day to draw global attention to the voices and experiences of an estimated 258 million widows worldwide, of whom one in 10 lives in extreme poverty, according to a 2018 report by UN Women.
Many widows face economic, social, physical and psychological violence by their marital families and communities. This maltreatment is worsened by lack of awareness, resources and access to justice.
We have both witnessed the harmful practices widows face as young professionals working in Nigeria and India, experiences that have shaped our work and led to our understanding of this global human-rights violation.
Many widows face eviction from their homes and denial of their inheritance rights to land and other property for which they have worked and on which they depend for their livelihood.
Customary laws and cultural norms tacitly support such economic violence against widows despite statutory law protections. Impoverished widows are often forced into “levirate” marriages — as if they were property to be inherited by a male in-law — and some are forced to fight in court for custody of their children, if they have the knowledge and resources to do so.
Many widows also endure harmful traditional practices that isolate and shame them. For example, in some communities in Nigeria, older widows are expected to forcefully shave the heads of younger widows. New widows may be confined for weeks and forbidden to bathe, while forced by their in-laws to cry in public.
And we’ve seen firsthand how some communities in India enforce stigmatizing codes that govern a widow’s dress and diet.
Often, behavior codes in cultures around the world restrict a widow’s mobility, barring her from access to job training to upgrading her earning abilities to support herself and her family.
Children of widows, especially girls, suffer too, since they are often withdrawn from school and vulnerable to abuse. This contributes to an intergenerational cycle of poverty and sexual violence.
Remember, too, that despite the stereotype, not all widows are old. Violent conflicts in countries where forced marriages to children create many child widows. In some cases, child widows are widowed more than once before they reach the age of consent.
Widows of all ages may lose their spouses due to war, riots, natural disasters, diseases or old age, while some grieve husbands who have simply “disappeared.”
The UN has said that often, widows are treated as “invisible women,” discrimination that can be fatal.
We were moved by the account of a woman in Nepal — Santu Kamari Maharjan, 55 — who told Womankind Worldwide how she has faced decades of discrimination while struggling to support her family since she was widowed at age 32.
Maharjan said that after an earthquake struck Nepal in 2015, she lost her house and belongings, yet was blocked from seeking food aid and other vital resources.
She said: “Everything I owned was gone in seconds. I didn’t have any income after the earthquake. All of the villages collected food and shared it around. The relief efforts giving out materials prioritized the people who could go out and speak, mainly men. Single women couldn’t go, we weren’t allowed to ask for what we needed. If a woman is single, she will be told to keep quiet because she doesn’t have a husband.”
International Widows’ Day is a call for global action to support policies, programs and resources to end all kinds of violence against widows and to restore their right to a life of human dignity, including economic independence.
We must uphold widows’ right of inheritance and their right to start new lives through job training, substantial loans to launch businesses, access to health care and scholarships to benefit their children’s education.
As steering committee members of Every Woman Treaty — a campaign for global treaty — we’re part of a coalition of women’s rights advocates in 128 countries, calling for a global treaty to end violence against women and girls.
Such a treaty would create a binding standard on ending the harmful practices imposed on widows, so women like Santu can get the resources they need to sustain their families and to rebuild their lives.
Widows lose much more than a spouse; they need much more than words of sympathy. Widows need global action.

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