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How Public Pressure Led to a Great Leap to #LeveltheLaw

CHIME FOR CHANGE Co-Founder Salma Hayek Pinault and CHIME FOR CHANGE Advisory Board Member and Academy Award-winning filmmaker Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy on stage at Global Citizen Festival 2016 campaigning to #LeveltheLaw.

Back in 1995, 189 governments signed up to end the widespread sex-based discrimination in the law. Two decades later and an estimated 90% of countries worldwide still have laws on the books that discriminate against girls and women.   

These laws restrict women’s ability to own property, open bank accounts or have legal protections from abusive practices like child marriage and honor killings. Legislative change will not happen or be initiated overnight. But without adequate public pressure on world leaders to end these injustices, crucial first steps to achieve gender equality under the law will be hampered. 

Enter the #LeveltheLaw campaign, which has thus far seen the support of 80,000 actions by global citizens. On International Women’s Day this year in partnership with CHIME FOR CHANGE, Global Citizen launched #LeveltheLaw to tackle the laws (and the absence of laws) that discriminate against women in countries like Pakistan.  

Six months later, and the first major legal amendment has been made in Pakistan to protect the lives of thousands of women each year. On Oct. 6, the Pakistani government stepped up to the plate and decided to take a stand against honor killings once and for all.

This brutal practice was technically outlawed in Pakistan in 2004, but a loophole in the law allowed perpetrators to be forgiven by a victim’s family, who are often involved in the killing themselves. So daily, murderers were walking free. Which is why Global Citizen, CHIME FOR CHANGE, Equality Now, and the Academy Award-winning filmmaker Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy advocated for passage of the Anti-Honor Killings Bill to close this loophole.

The movement picked up momentum after the “honor killing” of social media star Qandeel Baloch, whose brother strangled her for posting selfies he found objectionable. Baloch, wedded to a much older man at 17, escaped the abusive relationship and went on to become, in her own words, “a modern day feminist,” and a world-renowned one at that. Baloch bravely stood up to fierce criticism, fighting the harsh restrictions placed on her fellow countrywomen with provocative and playful protests.  

The news of Baloch’s murder shocked Pakistan and spread globally, provoking international outrage and a national debate over honor killings. Over 31,000 Global Citizens joined the collective cry, petitioning the Pakistani government in solidarity with Obaid-Chinoy and all Pakistani advocates campaigning to end honor killings for good. A week after Baloch’s death, Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif said that he would work to fix the law to see an end to the yearly death toll of 3,000 women in his country. Three months later, he came true on his promise.

Short film on Qandeel Baloch from Academy Award-winning filmmaker and CHIME FOR CHANGE Advisory Board member Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy which debuted at the 2016 Global Citizen Festival.

Today, thanks to the new law, all perpetrators will receive a mandatory sentence of 25 years for those convicted of honor killings. Families can only pardon the murderer if he is facing a death sentence, but the pardon will not affect the prison sentence.

Elsewhere in the world, the #LeveltheLaw campaign has been gaining ground for women’s rights. 

In front of 60,000 cheering Global Citizens at the 2016 Festival in NYC, the Commonwealth Secretary-General Patricia Scotland committed to work with all 53 Commonwealth countries to reform gender discriminatory laws through the newly established Commonwealth Office of Civil and Criminal Justice Reform. 

This is a critical part of leveling the law globally, considering that 89% of Commonwealth countries have at least one law that hinders women’s ability to work or to set up and operate a business. 

In her announcement, Scotland acknowledged the volume of voices that had fueled the commitment. “Global Citizens, over 83,000 of you have called on me,” she said, “and Commonwealth countries to level the law for girls and women, and I hear you loud and clear!”  

In the same month, official delegations from countries across the Commonwealth at the 11th high-level Commonwealth Women’s Affairs Ministerial Meeting in Samoa added their support to Global Citizen’s #LeveltheLaw campaign to end discrimination against women and girls. 

In a landmark event, representatives from Samoa, Fiji, Kenya, and the Seychelles pledged their commitment to #LeveltheLaw, joining Malta and Australia who have already signed the declaration, and adding their names to the 55,131 existing signatories.

The Minister for Women in Samoa, Faimalotoa Kika Ah – Kau Stowers, also acknowledged the impact of Global Citizens’ actions.“I highly commend Global Citizen on their campaign to shine a spotlight on the laws that discriminate on the basis of gender,” said Stowers.

We need to ensure these declarations come to fruition. The inertia that occurred after the 1995 declaration must not be repeated. We must place pressure on Commonwealth delegates who have put their name to the importance of women’s rights in their countries to follow through for women and to ensure that women are truly seen as equals in the eyes of the law.

Laws are, of course, just one part of the puzzle; progress also comes through addressing the entrenched cultural barriers that implicitly enable the subjugation of women.

Qandeel Baloch.jpgImage: Facebook / Qandeel Baloch

Yet, laws are the vital first step toward achieving gender equality. Sexism in the law represents condonement from the highest levels of power that women are lesser humans than men.  It also means that men can restrict the social and economic freedoms of women or, as in the case of the courageous Qandeel Baloch, they can inflict fatal violence, with total impunity.

The Anti-Honor Killings Bill is clear proof that, if we make enough noise, we can and will level the law.

Take action: Sign this petition to #LeveltheLaw and empower girls and women around the world