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Girls & Women

11 laws from around the world that stand in the way of gender equality

A young woman from a fishing community in West Bengal in eastern India. She comes from a village that is known for high levels of trafficking of women and girls to other major cities
Flickr: UN Women/Anindit Roy- Chowdhury

Today, more countries uphold gender equality in their constitutions than ever before- and this is reason to celebrate. But, at the same time, many of these same countries uphold laws that prevent women from being treated as equals.

Equality Now published a fantastic report that includes examples of discriminatory laws around the world that affect women. I have to be honest- I was surprised by a few of the countries that made the list. Here’s a sample from the report:

1. Democratic Republic of the Congo

A woman of Bompata Encampment, Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) | Flickr: UN Photo/Marie Frechon

In DRC, a law states that the husband is the head of the household, and the wife must obey her husband.

2. Japan

According to the Civil Code of Japan, a man is free to marry once he turns 18, but a girl can marry once she turns 16.

3. Yemen

In Yemen, wives are required to have “legitimate intercourse” with their husbands when they are “fit to do so”. They are also required to obey, and refrain from leaving their home unless given permission from their husbands.

4. United States of America

As an American, I found this one interesting. In the United States, children born out of wedlock wishing to obtain US citizenship face different conditions, depending on whether they obtain status through the mother or the father. The laws are rather complicated and detailed, but the take away is this: the law intrinsically treats women and men differently. Gender equality is not about giving preference to either gender, hence the word, "equality".* 

5. Saudi Arabia

Manal al-Sharif, a women's rights activist from Saudi Arabia who helped start a women's right to drive campaign in 2011 | Wikimedia Commons

In Saudi Arabia, a fatwa (Islamic ruling) states that women should not drive because doing so could lead to the removal of the hijab, interactions with men, and “taboo” acts. The government claims there is no law preventing women from driving cars, however Equality Now notes that fatwas have the force of the law in Saudi Arabia.

6. Chile

Husbands are responsible for the spouses’ joint property in Chile, as well as property belonging to the wife.

7. Madagascar

In Madagascar, the Labor Code states that women are not allowed to be employed at night in any “industrial establishment... except for establishments where the only ones employed therein are members of one same family.”

8. Russian Federation

Women are prohibited from doing “heavy work” or working in harmful, dangerous conditions. Equality Now notes that other types of work women may not engage in, include, “ driving trains; operating bulldozers, tractors and trucks; carpenting; plumbing in sewage systems; cutting and cleaning leather materials in leather production; steelmaking; building and repairing ships; inspecting watercrafts in the fishing industry; frontline firefighting; and working as a professional sailor and aircraft and ship mechanic.”

9. India

A husband and wife in Hampi, India | Flickr: Matt Murphy

In India, unless the wife is under 15 years old, sexual acts between a man and his wife cannot be considered rape.

10. Nigeria

Husbands are permitted to punish their wives using physical force for the purposes of “correction”, so long as the offense doesn’t result in “grievous hurt.”

11. Egypt

Egyptian law protects honor killings. If the husband catches his wife committing adultery and kills her on the spot, the law states that he will be punished with detention instead of stricter penalties prescribed for other murders.


Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said it beautifully: “The world will never realize 100 per cent of its goals if 50 per cent of its people cannot realize their full potential."

That’s why we need to make sure all women and girls have the opportunity to thrive. We can’t move towards a more equitable world so long as young girls are being pulled out of school to become child brides, and women are treated as property who are incapable of making their own decisions.

The time to act is now. Sign the Action/2015 petition to protect the rights of women and girls everywhere.

*Update: this article was updated on March 9 at 12:15 PM to reflect the complexities in US Citizenship law.