President Bashar al-Assad
Presidential Palace, Damascus
Syrian Arab Republic
We are writing to express our support for your decision, as reported in the media, to set aside the draft personal status law, which would have continued the unequal treatment of Syrian women. The current draft would leave a number of problematic articles in the existing law intact, and would fail to enhance and protect the legal status of women. We understand that the draft law has been returned to the Ministry of Justice, which we hope will create an inclusive process to revise the draft law so that it will be fair to all Syrians.
There is a growing trend in the Arab world to amend laws on the subject to ensure equal treatment for men and women. A few years ago Morocco amended its family code or mudawannah to grant equal rights to men and women in family matters. Morocco, Egypt and Yemen have also recently granted women the right to pass on their nationality to their children. We hope that other countries in the region, including Syria, will soon follow suit.
We would like to share our concerns about some of the discriminatory provisions in the draft law and the supporting documentation in the hope that it will assist you in revising the law, consistent with Syria's Constitution and international human rights standards. Article 25 of Syria's Constitution states that "freedom is a sacred right and the state guarantees its citizens' individual freedoms and protects their dignity and security. Article 25(3) further notes "the citizens are equal before the law in their rights and duties."
Here are provisions that cause concern:
- The draft law is discriminatory with regard to marriage age, allowing marriage for males at age 18 and females at 17 in one provision and boys at 15 and girls at 13 in another if they have reached puberty and have been granted permission by their guardians.
The Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), ratified by Syria in 2003, states in article 16 (1) that state parties must take appropriate measures to eliminate discrimination against women in all matters related to marriage and family relations. The Committee on the Rights of the Child, which provides the guiding interpretation of the Convention on the Rights of the Child, also ratified by Syria, has also addressed this issue. In its General Comment no. 4 (2003) the Committee expressed its concerns about early marriage and pregnancy, which it described as significant factors for problems related to sexual and reproductive health. It states clearly that the Convention requires states to ensure the minimum age for marriage is the same for both girls and boys, and goes on to strongly recommend States Parties to increase the minimum age for marriage with and without parental consent to 18 years, for both girls and boys.
- The draft law does not allow Syrian women married to non-citizens to pass on their nationality to their children, while it does not restrict men in this way.
Article 44 of Syria's Constitution clearly states "The family is the basic unit of society and is protected by the state." By denying Syrian women the right to pass on their nationality to their children, the Syrian government denies equal protection to their families.
- The draft law's system of guardianship for women subjects female decision-making in family matters to male supervision. Specifically, article 20 requires adult women to receive consent from a male guardian to marry. In instances where a marriage has occurred without consent, article 27 stipulates that a woman's male guardian may invalidate her marriage if her husband was found incompetent.
Article 15 of CEDAW specifically requires states to "accord to women, in civil matters, a legal capacity identical to that of men and the same opportunities to exercise that capacity." State parties are also required to ensure that all contracts with a legal effect directed at restricting the legal capacity of women will be voided.
- Numerous articles in the draft law deny women autonomy and freedom of movement. These include provisions in article 37 (1) that state that women are not permitted to work outside the home without their husbands' permission and that even a divorced woman can lose her alimony payment if she works without her former husband's permission. Article 70 also denies women the right to travel outside Syria without permission.
Article 15(4) of CEDAW obliges states to grant women the same rights as men with regard to freedom of movement. In addition, article 13 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) states that "everyone has the right to freedom of movement and residence within the borders of each state" and that "everyone has the right to leave any country, including his own, and to return to his country." Article 12 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR)acceded to by Syria in 1969, requires all state parties to implement the right to freedom of movement both within a state and the right to enter and leave one's own country.
- The draft law also creates a discriminatory system for divorce. Under article 86, men have the right to divorce by simple repudiation while women must prove that there is a "valid" reason. In instances where a consensual decision has been reached by both spouses, the woman must repay her dowry to her husband.
Article 16 (c) of CEDAW says that state parties are responsible for guaranteeing "the same rights and responsibilities during marriage and at its dissolution." The ICCPR obliges states to "take appropriate steps to ensure equality of rights and responsibilities of spouses as to marriage, during marriage and at its dissolution. In addition, as the body responsible for interpreting the ICCPR, the United Nations Human Rights Committee has noted that "any discriminatory treatment in regard to the grounds and procedures for separation or divorce, child custody, maintenance or alimony, visiting rights or the loss or recovery of parental authority must be prohibited."
On another matter, we commend your efforts to reform article 548 of the penal code, an important step to reform laws that effectively grant immunity to men who murder their female relatives. However, we remain concerned about other provisions in the law that urgently need changing to address adequately the issue of so-called honour crimes and to protect women and girls from violence.
Article 548 of the penal code still provides a 2-year minimum sentence for killing a female relative on the basis of honour. Articles 548, 239, 240, 241 and 242 grant immunity or a reduced sentence to a man who murders his female relative. In addition, Article 192 states that if the criminal act was based on an honourable intent, then the judge has a number of options to reduce the sentence, including short-term detention or imprisonment.
Violence, of any kind, against women has long been considered a human rights violation that all states have a responsibility to eradicate. The United Nations General Assembly resolution 61/143 on the Intensification of efforts to eliminate all forms of violence against women notes that states need to condemn such violence and to "refrain from invoking any custom, tradition or religious consideration to avoid their obligations with respect to its elimination as set out in the Declaration on the Elimination of Violence against Women."
We ask your government to abolish all articles that reduce sentences for "honourable intent" and that effectively grant reduced sentences for crimes provoked by passion. We also ask your government to amend the unequal treatment of women under these provisions in the penal law and to consider all cases of murder as such.
We urge you to ensure the revision of the above - mentioned articles in Syria's Personal Status Law. We also urge you to withdraw Syria's reservations to articles 9(2) and 16 (1) (C) of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women concerning equal rights between men and women to pass on their nationality to their children and the equal rights and responsibilities of men and women during marriage and its dissolution.
Finally, we recommend the Ministry of Justice grant the Syrian Commission for Family Affairs (SCFA) the responsibility for redrafting this law, under its mandate, issued by presidential decree in 2003. We ask that this process be open and transparent, with consideration given to the knowledge and perspectives of all parties who offer their views and the full participation of civil society organizations, including women's rights organizations and legal experts.
Personal status laws affect the lives of ordinary men and women, and as such they should treat both equally, and in particular should enhance, not reduce, women's rights. Lessening the inequality that women face in their families will ultimately assist women to advance in Syrian society. We welcome the opportunity to discuss these matters further and look forward to your response.
Executive Director of the Women's Rights Division
Human Rights Watch
CC: Ministry of Justice
Prime Minister of Syria