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Reform discriminatory laws

Last edited: December 20, 2011

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Creating a legal framework that respects the human rights of women and girls is a critical step in justice sector reform. Access to the justice system is meaningless unless laws guarantee the rights of women and girls. From the constitution to national, regional, and local laws, the legal framework should reflect international principles of human rights, including the international agreements that enshrine women’s rights.

Justice sector reform efforts should include a comprehensive review of laws that discriminate against women, directly or indirectly, to identify the gaps between international standards on women’s rights and national legislation as written. Laws should criminalize violence against women and girls, but legal reform must go well beyond criminal laws. Reform of laws should also ensure that the legal framework provides civil remedies for violence and assures the equality of women in all justice sector processes.

Though certain laws may not directly relate to violence against women, they may facilitate this violence. For example, laws which discriminate against women in marriage may involve many issues: a woman’s civil status, her ability to enter a marriage of her own choosing, her legal capacity to own and administer property, her right to inherit, her right to her own nationality, and her rights and responsibilities with regard to her children. Abrogation of these rights makes women more vulnerable to violence. For example, a woman who has no rights in her home or land may be more likely to stay in an abusive relationship. The fear of loss of child custody or even visitation is another powerful barrier to leaving an abusive relationship. Or, she may be forced into homelessness by a spouse who takes another partner or wife and become at increased risk of sexual assault. A young girl without citizenship status may be more easily forced into an early marriage, and may be more likely to be victim of sexual assault (e.g. forced sex and marital rape) within marriage. A woman with no property may be more vulnerable to many forms of violence.

The Knowledge Module on Legislation examines specific laws on different types of violence against women and makes recommendations for change. The section on Advocating for New Laws or the Reform of Existing Laws in the Legislation module contains detailed information on the process of reforming unjust laws.

See the Programme Implementation Section on Strategies for Reforming Unjust Laws for more guidance.