In December Oxfam’s partner in Lebanon, KAFA, launched a ‘Regional Model Law on Violence against Women and Girls in the Arab Countries.’ Here Farah Kobaissy reflects on this historic step for women’s rights in the region.
Our region is characterized by gender inequality. Violence against women and girls (VAWG) is largely seen as a private issue – to be dealt with in the home rather than by law enforcement.
Over the past decades however, women’s rights movements in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) have made significant gains in advancing the status of women under the eyes of the law. This has been against the backdrop of a long-standing marriage between religious institutions and states, and where many countries’ commitments to principles of equality between all citizens, as enshrined in national constitutions, are undermined by laws with a clear bias against women.
This new model law is significant. Developed with the input of more than 15 women’s rights organizations in the region, it provides best practice wording for legislation on VAWG in line with international conventions on human rights and women’s rights. Both the model law itself and the official launch signify a growing push from MENA women’s rights advocates for States to enact civil laws to prevent and protect women from violence.
As KAFA’s Director, Zoya Rouhana, points out, “Parallel to the current wars and crisis, in the region there’s another war targeting women. This is due to the absence of political will and the predominance of a patriarchal mentality among the ruling elite, which perpetuates the stereotypical image of women and discriminates against them in laws”.
Developed with the input of more than 15 women’s rights organizations in the region, it provides best practice wording for legislation on VAWG
In many countries, nationality laws deprive women of their right to pass nationality to their foreign husbands; penal code articles exempt rapists from penalty if they declare their intention to marry the victim; and penal codes criminalize abortion and effectively deny women their right to control their bodies. Most laws also fail to criminalize forced and child marriage. Moreover, in some countries, ‘honour’ killing is still legalized with the possibility for the offender to escape punishment or benefit from a reduced sentence. Adultery laws also reveal more gender-based disparities in terms of punishment and scope. As many have noted, such legal frameworks not only hinder effective protection mechanisms, they also compromise the safety of women and often legitimize violence against women.
It is perhaps not surprising then, that most MENA countries still lack laws or comprehensive legislation on VAWG, with the exception of Tunisia, which recently adopted a progressive law, and Algeria, which recently amended its penal code to address gaps in the criminalization of violence against women by criminalizing some forms of domestic violence. A few other countries, such as Lebanon and Jordan, have also recently adopted partial laws to combat VAWG.
Led by KAFA, the regional model law launched in December 2017 was the outcome of several years of regional meetings and discussion among MENA women rights advocates. Importantly, the model law is guided by the three principles of equality, non-discrimination on the basis of sex and gender, and responsibility of the State to protect the rights of every human being without an intermediary.
Speaking at the launch on 08 December, Asma Khodr, former Jordanian government spokeswoman and a prominent women’s rights activist, said, “The other principle [underpinning the model law] is that violence against women is solicited by the very fact of their secondary status as citizens… Existing laws have not listed all patterns of violence to include violence against women. All of this has driven us to draft a model law that defines and details all forms of VAWG.”
Oxfam was proud to support this model law, which establishes a common vision, goal and normative framework for civil society in MENA to advocate for the development and reform of national legislation on VAWG. Most importantly, it lays the ground for a regional alliance that strengthens the collective power of national women’s rights organizations in their fight against violence against women. Looking forward, this unified regional action will be a priority as women’s rights movements are set the uneasy task of translating words into practice.