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RIGHTS: Women's Groups Take on Laws Based on Sex

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By Thalif Deen

UNITED NATIONS, Sep 30 (IPS) - When a landmark U.N. conference on women adopted a "platform for action" in Beijing in 1995, member states were urged to commit themselves to revoke all existing laws in their statute books that discriminate on the basis of sex.

But since the adoption of that resolution, human rights organisations and women's groups have unsuccessfully called for the appointment of a U.N. special rapporteur to specifically focus on laws that discriminate against women worldwide.

So far, the Human Rights Council in Geneva - and its predecessor the Human Rights Commission - have both sidestepped the proposal, arguing such a U.N. post is redundant.

Currently, there are more than 30 U.N. special rapporteurs either armed with thematic mandates (right to education, violence against women, human rights of migrants) or country mandates (human rights in Belarus, human rights in Sudan).

But the demand for a special rapporteur to probe gender-related discriminatory laws has failed to materialise.

With a second review meeting of the Beijing conference scheduled for next year - Beijing plus 15 - the call for a special rapporteur has taken on added significance and urgency.

In 2005, a resolution introduced before the Commission on the Status of Women called for "the consideration of the advisability of the appointment" of a special rapporteur.

A second resolution adopted in 2006 called for the appointment but "bearing in mind the existing mechanisms, with a view to avoiding duplication".

A 2008 report put out by the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights said that "if the U.N. is to maintain its credibility and not be dismissed as a mere talking shop, then it will have to ensure that the failure to meet what should be a simple pledge - the removal of laws that discriminate against women" is dealt with as a matter of urgency.

The Human Rights Council, currently meeting in Geneva, is expected to either accept or reject the proposal later this week or by next week. Discrimination against women is within the Council's mandate.

The resolution now under discussion in Geneva has received strong support from several countries, including co-sponsorships from Rwanda, Djibouti, Kenya, Benin and Congo.

The opposition is led by countries such as Egypt, Pakistan and South Africa, who argue that existing special rapporteurs can deal with the issues relating to discriminatory laws.

Faiza Jama Mohammed, the Nairobi office director of Equality Now, told IPS: "We find it so curious that South Africa, which co-sponsored the very same initiative at the Commission on the Status of Women, is now one of the primary voices of opposition."

The South African delegation has stated there is no need for a new mechanism to address this issue, she said.

But several international human rights organisations, including Equality Now, have been studying laws that discriminate against women for the past 15 years.

Unfortunately, there has been little change in the number of discriminatory laws repealed around the world and without legal protection, women have no recourse when trying to access their rights, activists say.

She said the issue of a special rapporteur was raised at the Beijing plus 10 review conference in 2005 "when it was clear governments were failing in their explicit Beijing pledge to revoke all remaining laws that discriminated on the basis of sex."

Mohammed said the target date set in Beijing was 2005, "but now we are almost five years later and still discriminatory laws exist around the world."

For instance, she said, laws in some countries permit a man to inflict an act of violence upon his wife if she is "disobedient" and he needs to "correct" her.

In many countries the minimum age of marriage for girls is lower than that of boys.

Men are allowed to have many wives in some countries and in others men are legally permitted to rape their wives, she pointed out.

Women are also denied the rights to vote, drive, own property, or run for elections. "This is despite repeated promises made by governments," Mohammed added.

She pointed out that all around the world, legal discrimination prevents women from enjoying their rights, making them more vulnerable to violence, preventing their full participation in society and keeping them from achieving equality.

Over the past five years, international human rights organisations have called for a special mechanism within the U.N. that would encourage and aid governments to accelerate their efforts to repeal laws that discriminate against women.

Coincidentally, the 15-member Security Council, led by its current chair the United States, adopted a resolution Wednesday calling for the creation of a senior coordinator to address sexual violence against women worldwide.

The new senior coordinator, who could be appointed soon, will specifically focus on ending sexual violence during and after armed conflicts.

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