When Laws Legitimize Gender Inequalities


On 18 October, Professor Rangita de Silva de Alwis gave a talk about the legitimization of gender inequalities through the rule of law during a session of Gender Views at UNESCO Headquarters in Paris. Professor de Silva de Alwis is the Associate Dean of International Affairs at the University of Pennsylvania Law School, where she teaches international women’s rights.  She is a human rights scholar and practitioner with over 25 years of experience working globally with a vast network of academic institutions, government, and nongovernment entities on women’s human rights law, policy making and institutional reform. She has convened several transnational networks including the Women’s Leadership Network in Muslim Communities, the Asia Cause Lawyer Network in India, and the Gender and Law Expert Group and the Women’s Watch in China. She has advised international organizations on state accountability under the relevant human rights treaties and the intersections of the different treaties and treaty bodies. She also serves on the UN Women High-Level Working Group on Women’s Access to Justice and as a Global Advisor to the UN Sustainable Development Goal Fund. She has published extensively on gender law reform.

Professor de Silva de Alwis described the global mapping she has conducted as part of the Global Women’s Leadership Project, which provides research for UNESCO and UN Women in support of our work on women, peace, justice and women’s human rights. She acknowledged and recognized the leadership of UNESCO and the longstanding contribution of Ms Saniye Gülser Corat, UNESCO’s Director for Priority Gender Equality, to this process.

The mapping helps in tackling gender inequalities in legislation, by identifying provisions in laws that discriminate against women across a wide range of fields (family law, inheritance, land ownership, property, employment, financial services…). She further explained that while some laws are openly discriminatory towards women, others are causing gender inequalities in more indirect ways and are therefore more difficult to identify and reform. Professor de Silva de Alwis presented cases where the notion of “best interest of the child” is wrongly used to perpetuate harmful practices such as child marriage in Bangladesh. She cited other numerous examples of loopholes in the law that are discriminatory and harmful for women, such as the prohibition of child marriage only up to the age of puberty in Nigeria; child rapists being exonerated if they marry their victim in several countries worldwide; and virginity testing of girls over 16 in South Africa, and many other countries. 

Professor de Silva de Alwis emphasized that legislation can also be inequitable by being overly protective of women. For instance, the 2018 World Bank Report on Women, Business and the Law reveal that 104 economies still prevent women from working in certain jobs, because supposedly they would not be fit for these kinds of jobs. For example, Chinese law prohibits women from working underground and above ground, such as high-rise construction for fear of exposing them to hazardous working environments, thus disempowering women from economic opportunities. For Professor Rangita, “we need to make sure that the rule of law is gender friendly around the world.”

It is important to keep in mind that other factors have impact on the way gender inequalities are perceived in different societies; Ms Corat highlighted UNESCO’s concern in the persisting issues of gender inequality in the context of extremist ideologies: “the rise of extreme ideologies influences the way laws are developed and interpreted”.

Professor de Silva de Alwis’ presentation was followed by a Q&A session with the audience. Several follow-up questions were asked on how discriminatory practices and cultural norms are embedded in national legislation in all corners of the world.

For those interested, you may click on the following link for the publication entitled Making Laws, Breaking Silence: Case Studies from the Field, edited by Professor de Silva de Alwis and published in partnership with UN Women, UNESCO, Sustainable Development Goals Fund and the University of Pennsylvania Law School.

See all the pictures here.