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Women's Status in the Family

The family remained one of the most contested sites for progress on women's rights. During Beijing + 5 at the U.N. in June, governments congratulated themselves on their efforts to ensure equality for women in all spheres of life. Some governments did, in fact, change national legislation to guarantee women's equality in the family. For example, according to a September 2000 United Nations Population Fund (unfpa) report, both the Czech Republic and Cape Verde enacted new family codes that guaranteed women equality. Nevertheless, many other governments were unyielding in their resistance to reform personal status laws that discriminated against women. Governments justified their inaction as preserving their societies' morals, unity, religion, culture, and tradition. Countries like Morocco, Rwanda, Algeria, Israel, and Egypt maintained laws and practices that blatantly discriminated against women in marriage, access to divorce, child custody, and inheritance, among other issues. These laws and practices relegated women to a subordinate status in the family and restricted their autonomy to make decisions about their lives.

In Morocco, the Family Code granted different rights to women and men and consistently rendered women's autonomy subject to male guardianship and authority. The introduction by Prime Minister El-Yousoufi of a national plan for the integration of women in development in March 1999 raised hopes that women's status would improve in critical areas. However, by late 2000, the government had made negligible progress toward implementing the plan, as a result of resistance by conservative and Islamist factions to the plan's section on reforming the Family Code. The section on the reform of the personal status code calls for, among other things, raising the age of marriage for girls and women from fifteen to eighteen, canceling the guardianship requirement for adult women, outlawing polygamy except in certain cases, giving women the right to half of their husbands' property after a divorce, and allowing divorced women to maintain custody of their children if they remarry. In March 2000, conservative and Islamist factions organized a march in Casablanca in opposition to the plan, while progressive factions organized a march in Rabat in support of it. In May 2000, in response to the intense public debate around the proposed legal reforms, the prime minister appointed a committee of scholars and religious authorities to consider the controversial aspects of the plan and make recommendations to King Mohamed VI. As of late October 2000, this committee had not met. Moroccan women's rights activists argued that, since the plan addresses only a minimum of their demands, a self-described progressive government should have no problem meeting them.

In Israel, an amendment to the Equal Rights for Women Law was passed in March 2000. The amendment deals with, inter alia, equal social rights for women in all spheres of life: the right of women over their bodies, protection against violence and trafficking, and representation for women in the public sector. The equality proposed by this law extended to all spheres of life except family life. Issues of marriage and divorce continued to be exclusively within the jurisdiction of the religious courts, be they Jewish, Christian, Muslim, or Druze. These courts controlled women's lives and their right to administer their lives. For example, under these religious courts, women did not have equal access to divorce. According to the Israel Women's Network, thousands of Jewish women continued to be a gunot, "chained" women whose husbands refused to divorce them. Mevoi Satum (Impasse), an Israeli organization dedicated to helping a gunot, estimated that over 97 percent of men who deny their wives a divorce were physically abusive.

In January 2000, the Egyptian parliament passed a new law on divorce. The Khole' law opened the possibility for the first time for women unilaterally to request divorce on grounds of incompatibility, while requiring women to forgo alimony and to repay their husbands any dowry. Many women's rights activists acknowledged that the new law facilitated women's access to divorce, but noted that it is too early to assess its full impact.

In Uzbekistan, despite the constitutional guarantee of full legal equality between men and women, in practice, women continued to face discrimination in their access to divorce and to marital property. Privileging "protection of the family," over women's equality and autonomy, the Uzbek government erected legal and administrative barriers to divorce. Courts refused to grant women divorce without permission fromlocal authorities. Also, a husband's refusal to divorce barred his wife's legal claim to marital property, although he, relying on the lax enforcement of laws against bigamy, could re-marry at will.

On a positive note, the Rwandan Supreme Court, which by law must approve all new legislation before it becomes binding and enforceable, finally approved the inheritance bill adopted by parliament in June 1999. The new inheritance law became applicable to all Rwandans in November 1999, reversing decades of inequality women faced in the area of inheritance. Women had encountered barriers in reclaiming their property after the 1994 genocide, mainly due to discriminatory customary law. By law, Rwandan women can now inherit property from their parents or husbands. The law enables widows whose deceased husbands' male relatives had already inherited their property to reclaim it. Rwandan women's rights activists cautioned, however, that without a nation-wide campaign to educate women and society at large about the new law, the daily reality of discriminatory land inheritance practices would continue to dominate most women's lives.

Human Rights Watch World Report 2000

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