Megan Clement is managing editor of Women & Girls at News Deeply. She has broad experience covering human rights, gender, development, politics, science and environmental issues.
Every day, feminists, academics, politicians and lawyers are working to make the planet a fairer place for women and girls, often without seeing results for decades. But in the past month, countries in all corners of the world have made great strides toward gender equality — simply by changing the law.
From Jordan and Lebanon to Nepal, Chile and India, women and girls now have legal rights they did not enjoy a mere month ago. Because of the stroke of a lawmaker’s pen, or a vote in a national parliament, their future may now look completely different.
Here are four ways the world changed for women and girls in August 2017.
On Aug. 22, India’s supreme court banned “triple talaq,” or instant divorce, which allowed Muslim men to end their marriages simply by saying or writing the word “talaq” three times. The procedure was available only to men, and irreversible.
Triple talaq can be devastating for women divorced in this way, who do not receive compensation or alimony, and either lose their children, or are left to raise them alone.
The supreme court case was led by Shayara Bano, whose husband divorced her in 2015, taking their two children with him. Bano is now in a battle to gain custody of her children.
In June, News Deeply reported on the case of Neha Khan, whose husband claimed to have divorced her by writing “talaq” on a piece of paper three times and dropping it on the ground near her family’s house. She had already fled the home she shared with her in-laws due to dowry-related violence. Khan never found the piece of paper.
Until Aug. 21, Chile was one of six countries to ban abortion in all circumstances. Today, there are only five: Nicaragua, El Salvador, the Dominican Republic, Malta and the Vatican City.
Chile’s abortion ban dated back to the dying days of Augusto Pinochet’s rule. The dictator, who took power in a coup in 1973, had overturned the country’s previously liberal abortion legislation in 1989. Current president Michelle Bachelet has been working to change the law for two years.
Life under a total abortion ban meant women were forced to deliver babies that had no chance of living, or they had to undergo illegal abortions, often putting their health in danger and risking criminal prosecution.
Amnesty International reported that 33,000 women and girls were admitted to hospital in the country in 2015 for abortion-related causes; more than a 100 women were investigated for ending their pregnancies in 2014.
Within weeks of each other, three countries in the Middle East and North African region closed legal loopholes allowing rapists to escape criminal convictions by marrying the survivors.
The idea behind the provisions was that, through marriage, a rapist could end a family’s “shame” and restore the “honor” of the woman he had raped. In Lebanon, offenders could go unpunished as long as the marriage lasted for a minimum of three years. The law saw survivors of sexual assault trapped in relationships with their abusers, significantly compounding the trauma of the original rape.
Writing on the situation in Lebanon for News Deeply in May, Myriam Sfeir of the Institute for Women’s Studies in the Arab World said, “Rape ought to be punished severely each and every time it happens. Rapists shouldn’t be spared from punishment; they should receive the strictest of sentences.”
There is now hope that similar provisions will be abolished in Bahrain and Kuwait. The “marry-your-rapist” provision still exists in many countries worldwide, from Algeria to the Philippines to Tajikistan.
For hundreds of years, women and girls in parts of Nepal have been banished from their homes during menstruation or after childbirth, as part of a custom called chhaupadi.
On Aug. 9, Nepal’s parliament voted unanimously to criminalize the practice, starting in 2018. Anyone who forces a woman to adhere to chhaupadi will face three months in prison, or a 3,000 rupee ($30) fine.
Under chhaupadi, women and girls are seen as “unclean” when they have their periods, and can be forced to sleep in cowsheds, as well as being forbidden to touch food, religious icons, cattle or men. Some women are allowed to eat only flatbread when they are menstruating.
Isolating women and girls from their homes makes them significantly more vulnerable to sexual violence and increases their susceptibility to diarrhea, pneumonia and respiratory diseases. Banishing new mothers and infants also leads to higher rates of maternal and child deaths.
Activists told News Deeply the ban was a victory for young girls, who now know it’s illegal for them to be thrown out of their homes. “If implemented effectively, the decision to criminalize chhaupadi could be the end of an era of seclusion and banishment of menstruating women,” women’s activist Pragya Lamsal said.
There is no doubt that these victories are enormously significant to the women of India, Chile, Lebanon, Jordan, Tunisia and Nepal, as well as the thousands of activists worldwide who have campaigned to change discriminatory laws for many years.
Changing the law is one thing, changing people’s minds is another.
Without proper implementation of these laws, women will still face the same situations in informal settings: Private arrangements can be made between survivors’ families and rapists, or between divorced women and their former husbands. Doctors can refuse to perform abortions. Police can turn a blind eye to women who have been banished from their homes.
Discriminatory laws remain in all these countries: Marital rape is not recognized as a crime by Lebanese law, nor is child marriage. The day before India’s supreme court banned triple talaq, it upheld the dissolution of a marriage against a woman’s wishes, deeming it lawful for her to be forcibly “returned” to her parents after marrying a Muslim man.
For these reasons, many will say the hard work begins now for activists and policymakers. But at least they will have the law on their side.