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Using laws for gender justice

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HealthWiki > Health Actions for Women > Chapter 3: Gender and Health > Using laws for gender justice


The power imbalances that women experience in their families and communities are not only personal or cultural. Government policies and laws support and enforce gender inequality. For example, many communities have laws that deny women the right to choose whom to marry, the right to divorce, the right to own or inherit property, or the right to make contracts or business arrangements. Some women do not even have the right to decide to get or refuse medical treatment. (See Make judicial systems work to stop violence and Appendix A: Advocate for Women's Rights Using International Law.)

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You can begin a discussion about how laws can be used for gender justice by thinking about current laws that do not promote equality. For example, are women paid as much as men for the same kind of work? Are there laws that prevent young women from seeking medical care?

Challenging such laws, introducing new legislation, and raising awareness about how laws and policies can instead promote greater equality is sometimes called gender justice. Many of these efforts build upon a series of international agreements that recognize the equal rights of women.

International agreements on equal rights for women and men

When the United Nations started in 1945, it created a charter that called for "equal rights for men and women." At the time the charter was written, only 30 of the 51 participating countries had laws that allowed women the same voting rights as men. Although the UN charter called for equal gender rights, it took several decades of international organizing for this issue to be addressed. Finally in 1975 women from almost every country in the world met together in Mexico City to discuss women’s rights and propose changes to unfair laws and customs based on gender expectations. This first meeting called for the elimination of gender discrimination and for women’s inclusion in plans for development. Later meetings have created more specific international standards, such as providing universal access to family planning, equal treatment of girl children, and increased participation of women in governments worldwide.

The governments of most countries agreed in principle to the women’s proposals, but local women’s groups, health promoters, and their allies still have to organize and struggle to get rid of harmful laws, put just laws in their place, and change people’s thinking about gender roles and human rights. There is still much work to be done!

The next 2 stories show how groups have organized for just laws in 2 African countries.

Protecting the rights of widows to inherit

In Kenya, Africa, when a woman’s husband dies, his family will often claim the widow’s land and home as theirs, even if the husband left the property to his wife. GROOTS (Grassroots Organizations Operating Together in Sisterhood) works to educate communities about the inheritance rights of women. GROOTS also organizes "watchdog" groups made up of community members who guard against grabbing property from recently widowed women and their children.

GROOTS first started by organizing community-based listening groups, where participants heard recordings of women telling how all their possessions were taken from them when their husbands died, and how much they had suffered. The listening groups grew and became discussion groups that included community leaders and elders. By sharing stories and information about the law, everyone learned about women’s legal rights to inheritance and property, why property grabbing happens, and how it forces many women and children into poverty. Dialogues with local chiefs and other traditional leaders helped them understand how their support for these widows and for the watchdog groups could prevent this from happening. Some community members have also been trained as paralegal advisors who can inform individual women about their legal rights.

In a growing number of communities, the police, traditional leaders, and the community have agreed to work together to watch out for the rights of women who become widowed.

a large group of people listening to a recording.
A campaign to end child marriage in Malawi

In Malawi, the law says a woman can be married with her parents’ permission between the ages of 15 and 18, but there is no law prohibiting marriage at younger ages. Almost half of all women in Malawi marry before age 18. In rural areas, girls as young as 12 are sometimes married, and marrying at age 15 is common. Most of these young women stop going to school and soon get pregnant. But childbirth at such young ages is dangerous for both the girls and their babies. More than half the babies born to these child brides are likely to die, and very young women are more likely to suffer health problems such as obstetric fistula. Their situation is made worse by lack of education and workplace or homemaking skills. After becoming mothers, they are often divorced quickly, and many end up doing sex work to support themselves.

In 2010, the Girls Empowerment Network (GENET) started a campaign to change the law and make 18 the legal age of marriage. Since information about the effects of child marriage on women’s health had not convinced lawmakers, GENET decided to let lawmakers — and all Malawians — hear what young women themselves had to say about the matter. GENET organized a writing contest for girls. They received 1,750 essays from girls as young as 9 and as old as 17. They selected 72 of those girls to participate in organized focus group discussions using questions like these:

"What do you feel about child marriage?" "What do you think is the right age for a girl to get married?" "What is your ideal or dream husband?" "Do educated girls make bad wives?" "Would you like to have the same marriage as your parents?"


a group of girls holding signs.
I am too young to marry
I will marry when I am 25 years old
I will marry when I want
It is my future!
Stop child marriage
I will marry when I finish school and start a job
I have big dreams to pursue


Then, 36 of those girls participated in a photo workshop. They photographed each other and wrote new essays answering the questions they had discussed in the focus groups. Their essays and photographs have now been made into a book, titled I Will Marry When I Want To!! GENET distributed the book to show lawmakers and community leaders that Malawian girls fully support changing the marriage age to 18 and are ready to enforce it in their own lives.

a woman speaking.
There are as many opinions on life, love, and marriage as there are girls, but we did not get a single reaction supporting legal marriage under age 18.

Change takes courage and time

When people have thought about some of the ways gender roles can be unfair and harmful to both women and men, they can begin to think about changes they might choose to work for. For most people, this means working to change some of their own attitudes and expectations, as well as working to change customs, conditions, and laws in their communities.

Gender inequality is the root cause of most of the health problems presented in the rest of the chapters in this book. The activities and stories in each chapter show many different ways of working for gender equality and women’s health.