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Bangladesh urged to reform personal laws discriminating against women

Bangladesh's personal laws governing marriage, separation and divorce overtly discriminate against women, according to a 109-page report [text, PDF] published Monday by Human Rights Watch (HRW) [advocacy website]. "Will I Get My Dues ... Before I Die?": Harm to Women from Bangladesh's Discriminatory Laws on Marriage, Separation, and Divorce" documents how the country's personal laws leave many women in poverty after separation or divorce and trap women in violent marriages for fear of such destitution. The report is based on interviews conducted last year with 255 people, including lawyers, experts, officials and 120 women who were personally affected by Bangladeshi personal laws. Bangladesh is about 90 percent Muslim, with Hindus constituting most of the rest of the population and Buddhists and Christians making up fractions of a percent each, all of whom are governed by separate mixes of both codified and uncodified (but official) laws on marriage, separation and divorce. HRW argues that all the personal laws discriminate against women with respect to marriage, separation and divorce by discounting women's household contributions and by failing to recognize marital property and its division on an equal basis. The report also details dysfunction in the family courts responsible for enforcing the laws, with lawyers, judges and activists informing HRW that the courts are often riddled with problems around summons and notice procedures and processes for executing court decrees, which can take years. Other problems include inconsistent practices among judges related to evidence, unpredictable awards, failure to award interim maintenance and lack of clear criteria for awarding maintenance. The report also notes that men are able to argue against alimony and maintenance claims "by asserting their wives were 'unchaste,' not 'dutiful,' or of bad 'character.'" To file claims women frequently have difficulty passing the threshold requirement of even establishing they are married due to unavailable or patchy recordkeeping, especially in the case of Hindus, for whom there is usually no marriage registry at all. Women also must often defend against frivolous and harassing countersuits or criminal complaints lodged by husbands, including petitions for "restitution of conjugal rights" that continue be granted and enforced by the courts. In the report HRW "calls for personal law reform, procedural reform, better implementation of the limited protections currently available for women, and stronger state assistance for divorced or separated women, and women faced with domestic violence."

Last week HRW released a report detailing the plights of Kazakh oil workers who face mistreatment and repression [JURIST report] at the hands of the government and oil companies. The report accuses authorities and three companies operating in the oil and gas sector in western Kazakhstan of restricting workers' rights to freedom of assembly, association and expression. A week earlier HRW called on the government of Pakistan [JURIST report] to ensure that minority Shia Muslims [Islam Awareness backgrounder] in Pakistan are protected from attacks by Sunni militant groups, noting that attacks against Shia communities have increased recently and that 320 Shia have been killed in targeted attacks in 2012.

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