The concept of “human rights” comes up a whole lot. There are hundreds of stories about human rights violations -- how the international community fails to protect them, investigates them, demands justice for them, and more.

But what actually defines a human right? What rights do all human beings have that transcend citizenship, nationality and identity? And whose responsibility is it to protect those rights? The government? The United Nations? An international community of civilians and whistleblowers?

It’s important to know what human rights really are, and it’s equally important to recognize when institutions -- such as the law -- violate them rather than protect them. There are an alarming number of countries all over the world with laws that blatantly violate internationally recognized human rights and contradict commitments to equality present in their own constitutions. For women, these kinds of laws are particularly salient.

human rights - flickr - United Nations - body3.jpgDisplaced women taking English classes - Sudan
Image: United Nations

Women suffer disproportionately from discrimination in the law, and their human rights are often violated by their very own constitutions. In honor of Human Rights Day, I’ve made a list of some of the most ludicrous laws that keep women down. Believe it or not, these actually exist. Here we go:

1. Russia: Labor of females on hard, dangerous and/or unhealthy trades as well as underground working excluding non-physical work or sanitary and domestic services is forbidden.

The right to work, to free choice of employment, and to protection against unemployment is a human right. By law, Russian women are neglected that right.

2. Democratic Republic of Congo: If the management and administration of property [acquired independently] by the woman affects the harmony and the pecuniary interests of the household, the husband can undertake them.

It is literally written into law that if a husband claims that his wife’s assets are “affecting the harmony” of the household, he can take them. This deprives women of the human right to own property independently. And since when is stealing from your wife okay?

3. Nicaragua: She [the wife] is to live with her husband and follow him to wherever he changes his residence.

Wives are mandated by law to live wherever their husband decides to live. The Declaration of Human Rights grants everyone the right to freedom of movement and residence.

human rights - flickr - david denis - body1.jpgPlaya Coco, Nicaragua
Image: David Dennis

4. In Mali, Sudan and Yemen, it is illegal for a woman to disobey her husband.

This is pretty self-explanatory...

5. Iran: Women who appear in public without prescribed Islamic dress shall be sentenced to either imprisonment of between 10 days and 2 months, or a fine of between 50,000 and 500,000 rials.

Women forbidden from making personal clothing choices? This violates the universal human right to freedom of expression and opinion. Also, need I reiterate that a woman (and not a man) can be imprisoned for how she is dressed.

human rights - flickr - amir farshad ebrahimi.jpgImage: Amir Farshad Ebrahimi

6. Marital rape is legal or not a punishable offense in six different countries. See below:

Sexual intercourse or sexual acts by a man with his own wife, the wife not being under fifteen years of age, is not rape.

Yemen: She must permit him to have legitimate intercourse with her when she is fit to do so.

Singapore: No man shall be guilty of [rape] against his wife, who is not under 13 years of age.

Women are mandated by law to have sex with their husbands whenever their husbands want.

7. Egypt: Article 237 of the Egyptian Penal Code allows for a lesser punishment for men who kill their wives than for other forms of murder.

According to this law, the lives of women are literally worth less than those of men.

The fact that so many laws exist depriving women (and not men) of their universally recognized human rights is upsetting and appalling.

The good news? Laws are not permanent; they can be changed. Since 2000, more than 40 countries have repealed laws that discriminate against women, and hopefully that number will continue to grow.

human rights - flickr - UN - body2.jpgMaouloud Festival in Mali
Image: United Nations

The movement to end discrimination in the law depends on global citizens who demand more from the world’s justice systems. It means calling on governments and courts to take responsibility for unfair laws that keep half the population in chains. Beyond that, it requires cultural shifts. In many places, the existence of laws that I might consider oppressive and abhorrent (allowing marital rape, for example) is just the norm.

If we continue to live in a world that values women less than men, we will continue to have laws that violate the rights of women and discriminate against them.

In honor of Human Rights Day, I challenge you to consider women all over the world who are deemed less than human by their very own constitutions. I challenge you to imagine a world in which women are not only granted equal rights, but are protected under their country’s laws. A world in which women are respected and celebrated for their contributions and can thrive in a culture where violence against them is not tolerated.

It’s not just a matter of equality -- it’s a matter of human rights.

You can go to TAKE ACTION NOW to call on leaders everywhere to end violence against women.


Demand Equity

7 laws you won't believe actually exist

By Olivia Howell