When we talk about “the law,” it can feel like we’re talking about something distant, impenetrable, something that’s separate from us.
But it governs our lives. It decides what we’re able to do, who we’re able to be, where and when we can expect to feel safe — and, vitally, when and how we can expect justice to be delivered.
Take Action: Tell World Leaders to Redouble Their Efforts by Amending Laws to Prevent Sexual Violence
In our world, 90% of countries still hold laws that restrict women’s opportunities. This discrimination has real-life consequences, meaning that it’s just as important as ever for us not to sit back and accept the status quo.
So, because a little inspiration can go a very long way, here's a collection of some amazing women and girls who took their experiences, refused to accept them as “normal," and took action to drive change.
1. In Australia
Grace, a transgender woman in Australia, was refused the right to change her gender on her birth certificate after transitioning from male to female.
That’s because she was married to a woman, and Australian laws then required married transgender people to get a divorce before they could change their sex on their birth certificate.
Grace was told that she wouldn’t be allowed to change her birth certificate unless she divorced her wife — because same-sex marriage wasn’t permitted in Australia at the time.
So Grace decided to fight for her rights and, in June 2017, she won. The UN Human Rights Committee ruled in her favor, labelling the laws a violation of international human rights law.
2. In Spain
International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women: Women shout slogans during a protest against violence against women to commemorate the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women in Madrid, Saturday, Nov. 25, 2017. The sign at centre reads in Spanish: "Always together".
Thousands of people took to the streets in Spain in April 2018, after five men accused of raping an 18-year-old woman in Pamplona were convicted of sexual abuse instead — a less severe offense.
It became a huge news story, in part due to the WhatsApp messages exchanged by the men reportedly bragging about the incident, as well as videos of the assault, which were used in evidence.
But the outrage and protests, largely led by women, actually made a difference. In July 2018, Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez announced a law change meaning that sex without explicit consent would be considered rape.
3. In Lebanon
For decades, rapists in Lebanon were able to escape prosecution if they married their victims, in a loophole that allowed criminals to get away with shocking crimes and no kind of justice.
Campaigners spent years calling for the harmful statute, known as Article 522, to be overturned.
It sparked some eye-catching campaigns and publicity stunts to draw international attention to the issue. In December 2016, a dozen Lebanese women dressed in bridal gowns covered in fake blood; and in April 2017, activists hung wedding dresses from nooses strung between palm trees on Beirut’s beach front.
activists use an installation by Lebanese artist Mireille Honein to scrap #Article522 which allows rapists escape punishement @AbaadMENApic.twitter.com/wOwhpoBy2m— Nabil Narch (@NabilNarch) April 22, 2017
Then, in August 2017, the campaign was successful. Lebanon’s parliament scrapped the law in what was described by women’s rights group Abaad as a “triumph for the dignity of women.”
Tunisia and Jordan also scrapped similar laws in 2017 in a massive win for women and girls everywhere — but the work isn’t over yet. Laws just like this still exist, despite progress, in countries including Algeria, the Philippines, and Tajikistan, among others.
4. In Morocco
In the space of just a few months in 2017, two videos of women being harassed and sexually assaulted in Morocco went viral — sparking fierce debate over the state of sexual harassment laws in the country.
The anger and frustration of campaigners over the issue got the government “considering how to deal with this kind of phenomenon so that such acts do not happen any more.”
Then, in September 2018, Morocco announced a new law that criminalizes violence against women — imposing tougher penalties on perpetrators of violence in both public and private, including rape, sexual harassment, and domestic abuse.
It’s reportedly known informally as the Hakkaoui law — after family affairs and women’s issues minister Bassima Hakkaoui — and it’s also explicit in its definition of sexual harassment as including acts in person, online, or over the phone.
Critics still feel it doesn't go all the way in solving the issue, but is a good step in the right direction.
5. In India
Activists of the Nationalist Congress Party hold lighted candles during a protest in Mumbai, India, Monday, Dec. 21, 2015. Scores of people protested the release of a juvenile convicted in the 2012 fatal gang rape of a young woman aboard a moving bus.
In April 2018, a woman called Swati Maliwal, the head of Delhi’s Commission for Women, went on hunger strike — saying she wouldn’t eat again until India’s rape laws had been amended.
Her defiant act came as thousands of people across the country marched in protest against sexual violence, and calling for stricter rape laws — with outrage sparked by two shocking cases, the gang rape of a 16-year-old girl in Uttar Pradesh, and the gang rape and murder of an 8-year-old girl in a temple in Kashmir.
Maliwal eventually ended her hunger strike after nine days, and only after an executive order was approved by Prime Minister Narendra Modi that would introduce the death penalty for people convicted of raping a child under the age of 12.
The change of law also means police have to complete rape investigations within two months; as well as increasing the maximum possible prison sentence for the rape of girls under 16 and women — although there was no mention of assaults on boys or men.
6. In El Salvador
In El Salvador, the legal age for marriage is 18.
Up until August 2017, however, men were still able to marry underage girls if they had impregnated the girl and had her parents’ approval.
The law was highly criticized by activists and campaigners, who argued that it was often being abused to allow sex offenders to escape jail by marrying their victims, and left girls and their babies vulnerable to violence. Campaigners also argued that the law was being misused, particularly in rural areas, as a loophole for allowing girls who were underage to still get married.
There’s a happy ending, however, that brings the world one step closer to eliminating child marriage. In August 2017, thanks to the efforts of gender equality activists across the country, lawmakers scrapped the controversial law.
7. In England and Wales
Just 18 months ago, Gina Martin, 26, was upskirted by a man at a festival in London’s Hyde Park. Essentially, upskirting is taking an unsolicited photograph up someone's skirt — and Martin, understandably, was horrified when she noticed the picture on the man’s phone.
But, after reporting what she assumed was a crime to the police, she was told that no crime had actually been committed — because upskirting was, in some circumstances, legal.
Now, after a year-and-a-half of relentless and very social media-savvy campaigning, Martin has successfully made sure that that’s no longer the case.
18ontha ago I decided I wasn't going to ignore sexual assault.— Gina Martin (@ginamartin_uk) January 15, 2019
Now? Our bill has passed the last stage.
Upskirting is going to be illegal. https://t.co/yFMl5Fu20B
On Jan. 15, 2019, a bill to see upskirting officially become a crime in England and Wales was approved in its third and final reading in the House of Lords. Now upskirting will be punishable by up to two years in jail — and it’s all thanks to Gina Martin.
Incidentally, the decision brings England and Wales in line with Scotland — where upskirting has been a crime since 2010.
8. In Zimbabwe
Ruvimbo Tsopodzi was just 15 when she was forced into marrying a man she hadn’t chosen.
Within four months she was pregnant, and her new husband was abusing drugs and alcohol and was behaving abusively towards her.
The abusive relationship continued until Tsopodzi was able to persuade her father to let her continue her education, pursue her dream of becoming a nurse, and escape her husband.
As part of her new life, Tsopodzi joined an organization called Roots in 2013, which is also a member of the global network of anti-child marriage organizations Girls Not Brides.
Roots partnered with a legal think tank called Veritas, an organization campaigning against child marriage that was looking for girls to take their cases of child marriage to court — and in 2016, Tsopodzi and another woman named Loveness Mudzuru launched their fight to end child marriage.
In Zimbabwe, before Tsopodzi’s campaigning efforts, children could still get married at 16 as long as they had their parents’ permission.
But Tsopodzi and Mudzuru appealed to their country’s Constitutional Court to amend the Marriage Act — and they won. Their appeal was granted and the court declared existing legislation unconstitutional, recognizing 18 as the minimum age of marriage.
9. In Scotland
Even though she’s technically part of the lawmaking system, we’re still a big fan of Monica Lennon’s efforts to help end period poverty in Scotland.
Lennon, a member of the Scottish parliament (MSP), launched a campaign in 2017 to make period products available for free in schools, colleges, and universities for anyone who needed them.
#Scottish Labour MSP Monica Lennon, who has brought forward a Member's Bill calling for the Scottish government to provide free female sanitary products "for anyone who needs them", welcomed the move. "This is another great step forward in the campaign against period poverty.” pic.twitter.com/DVxWJcyzmb— Mona Eltahawy (@monaeltahawy) August 24, 2018
Her campaign followed national shock after a series of reports found that women and girls were — and still are across the UK — having to improvise sanitary products because they couldn’t afford to buy them. Women and girls were instead trying to stem their flow with toilet paper, newspaper, and even socks.
Then, in August 2018, her efforts paid off when Scotland announced a landmark policy change to help eradicate period poverty, by becoming the first country in the world to provide students at schools, colleges, and universities with free period products.