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Feminist advocacy can tackle violence against women

November 14, 2018

Roula El-Rifai

Senior Program Specialist

In August of 2017, the Jordanian Parliament finally repealed an article of the penal code that allowed rapists and other sexual assault perpetrators to escape punishment by marrying their victims. The repeal of Article 308 was the result of a sustained and multi-faceted campaign by individual activists and more than 200 local organizations in Jordan who relentlessly campaigned for the abolishment of the controversial article for more than three years. The campaign involved research, lobbying politicians and religious leaders, extensive use of traditional and social media, door-to-door canvassing, and hours and hours of time and effort by feminist activists.

My reaction to the news has been mixed. It is of course a very meaningful success. Research has been concretely used to support advocacy by feminist researchers to improve women’s lives. The relentless efforts of feminist activists paid off. This success in Jordan is even having an impact in Lebanon and the West Bank and Gaza, where advocates learned from their neighbour’s strategy and convinced governments to repeal this clause from their penal codes. Nevertheless, this victory is only a drop in the sea of changes needed in Jordan and throughout the world before we can attain the very common-sense goal of gender equality.

A new IDRC co-publication documents these uphill battles waged on a daily basis by feminist activists and their allies as they seek to promote their rights locally and globally. Feminist Advocacy, Family Law and Violence against Women: International Perspectives discusses the various strategies that feminist activists and their allies deploy as they seek to reform discriminatory family laws. Around the world, laws that  limit such basic rights as a woman’s right to work, marry, divorce, obtain child custody, and inherit property are often used to justify violence against women and to disempower them.

The book was the result of an IDRC-supported project led by the Women’s Learning Partnership for Rights, Development and Peace (WLP). Its case studies describe advocacy-based family law reform in Brazil, India, Iran, Lebanon, Nigeria, Palestine, Senegal, and Turkey. The volume also contains interviews with feminist leaders in Egypt, Jordan, and Morocco, including Asma Khader, a lawyer, activist, executive director of WLP’s partner organization in Jordan, and one of the leaders of the campaign to repeal Article 308.

WLP works with local partner organizations to empower women through locally-led research and national advocacy campaigns. The lessons WLP has learned are well showcased throughout the IDRC co-publication and are relevant to all national and global advocacy human rights campaigns. The following lessons are worth noting:

  • Strong, local research and knowledge generation are essential components of any advocacy campaign for women’s rights. This is where the momentum for change has to start.
  • Comparative learning is essential when advocating for women’s rights in challenging contexts such as socially conservative societies or societies that are witnessing renewed authoritarianism.
  • Alliances with multiple stakeholders locally and nationally are essential for the success of any advocacy campaign. Sometimes these allies — such as religious leaders — are not always the most evident.
  • Global advocacy campaigns are critical to amplify the voices of women working at local and national levels. A WLP team supports coalitions of local women’s organizations with an eye to bridging their efforts and global gender agendas.
  • Legal change is not sufficient to promote women’s rights. Culture, behaviours, and attitudes towards women directly affect how the laws are implemented, so much work needs to be done locally.
  • Efforts to reform other laws that impact women’s status in society and their lives and well-being are also needed, including criminal law, penal codes, civil laws such as property and financial laws, and constitutions.
  • Religious family laws are diverse and have multiple interpretations in different contexts. For example, there is not one Islamic family law but multiple Sunni and multiple Shia interpretations. Activists must base their strategies on context and how laws are interpreted and applied.

The glass is always half-full for the impressive feminist activists involved in WLP. Many have told me that they have no choice but to be activists and fight for women’s rights. Being depressed is a luxury they cannot afford, they say.

The book helps define an ambitious future research agenda to reform family laws and eliminate gender-based violence. For Asma Khader in Jordan, the next campaign is already underway for women to obtain the legal right to abortion, especially in cases of rape and incest. Her organization is also advocating to ensure that children born as a result of rape can legally bear the family name of their fathers so that they are not ostracized in society.

Mahnaz Afkhami, founder and president of WLP and co-editor of the IDRC co-publication, noted in the book’s introduction that “the activist experience and scholarly research that have culminated in the present volume will be instrumental in taking our work on family laws to the next stage.” The publication is a solid reminder that change towards gender equality is possible, despite the enormous challenges.

Watch WLP’s short documentary Equality: It’s All in the Family, which illustrates the range of family laws globally and their impact on women’s lives.

Roula El-Rifai is senior program specialist in IDRC’s Employment and Growth program.