While women’s rights have advanced over the decades, gender inequalities and other fundamental human rights violations within families persist, according to a flagship study released from the UN’s gender empowerment agency.
UN Women’s new report, released on Tuesday, “Progress of the World’s Women 2019-2020: Families in a Changing World”, shows that families, in all their diversity, “can be critical drivers of gender equality, provided decision-makers deliver policies rooted in the reality of how people live today, with women’s rights at their core”, said UN Women Executive Director Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka.
But it also adds that families can also be breeding grounds of conflict, inequality and, far too often, violence.
Many of the laws that protect against gender-based violence and gender discrimination focus on women in the public sphere.
In fact, home is where discrimination starts for many girls and it continues throughout their womanhood for the rest of their lives, said Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, executive director for UN Women.
Every single day in 2017, there were 137 women killed by a relative, and bringing those perpetrators to justice is very difficult, said Mlambo-Ngcuka. “These are the people who get away with continued violence without any consequences.”
Laws have made great strides in eliminating discrimination against women outside of the home, said Mlambo-Ngcuka. “We can pass as many laws as we like, but if the home is not safe …”
It is not an accident that family laws have been the slowest to change given that they govern matters like women’s rights to choose who and when to marry, said Mlambo-Ngcuka, adding that the laws also address women’s access to family resources including inheritance.
In sub-Saharan Africa, there are still 11 countries where a married woman can’t apply for a passport and four countries where a married woman can’t pass on citizenship to her children, according to the report published by UN Women.
Challenging these laws can put activists at risk for attack and the threat of death, said Marwa Sharafeldin, board member of Musawah International Movement for Equality and Justice in the Muslim Family.
However, Sharafeldin points to progress made in countries that follow Muslim family laws, which is evident that these man-made laws can—and do—change.
In Gambia, five villages committed to banning female genital mutilation. In Morocco, a law lifted the wife’s duty of obedience to her husband.
In Tunisia, the government banned polygamy.
In Egypt, the age of marriage is now 18.
In sub-Saharan Africa, both women and men are starting to delay marriage, with a small percentage opting not to marry, according to the report.
“This has enabled more women to stay in education longer and gain a foothold in the labor market and be able to support themselves financially for a longer period of time,” said Shahra Razavi, chief of research and data for UN Women.
One policy point, Razavi stressed, was when women have their own income, it strengthens their bargaining power. “It allows them to walk out of relationships that are unacceptable, particular those with intimate partner violence,” Razavi said. “It also gives women greater security in their old age.”
Marriage and motherhood tend to economically penalize women, Razavi said, citing statistics that 52% of married women aged 25-54 are in the labor force compared to 96% men in that age group.
Care-giving to children and elderly parents tend to fall on the shoulders of mother and daughters. “Women are doing three times as much unpaid care work as men,” said Razavi.
The report challenges governments to invest more in child care and elderly care systems to shift the financial burden from women. It also recommended elderly pensions, paid parental leave and income support for families with children.
Developing these policies, Razavi said, would also generate more jobs for women who tend to dominate the care sector.
Mlambo-Ngcuka urged governments to take responsibility safeguarding women and girls against concerted efforts to deny their autonomy and rights to make their own decisions in the name of family values.