Breaking Barriers: A Global Review of Legislative Reform on Women’s Rights Features
Breaking Barriers: A Global Review of Legislative Reform on Women’s Rights

The plight of women’s rights in various countries reflects a complex interplay of legal, cultural and societal norms that significantly disenfranchise women and girls, threatening their human rights and dignity. Countries like Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan, Iran, Yemen, Sudan, Pakistan, Somalia, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Syria, and Nigeria present challenging environments where women’s rights are not only systematically suppressed but also caught in the crosshairs of broader geopolitical, religious and socio-economic issues. Women’s rights issues are a global concern, with violations and disparities found in every region of the world. However, the severity, nature and causes of these issues can vary significantly from one country to another, often deeply intertwined with cultural, political and socio-economic factors.

Here is an overview highlighting countries and regions where women’s rights are particularly at risk, noting that this is an evolving situation, and the state of women’s rights is subject to change due to ongoing advocacy, reform efforts and shifts in political landscapes.

Saudi Arabia, for instance, has made some progress in women’s rights, such as allowing women to drive in 2018 and easing guardianship laws; however, these steps are still within a broader context of a guardianship system that restricts women’s freedoms in various aspects of their lives, from travelling to marriage. Women activists who advocate for their rights often find themselves arrested or silenced. Despite recent reforms, including the lifting of the country’s driving ban for women, significant restrictions on women’s rights remain. Guardianship laws give male relatives control over aspects of women’s lives such as travel and marriage. Since 2019, Saudi Arabia has been implementing several reforms under its Vision 2030 program, relaxing male guardianship laws and enabling women to travel abroad, apply for passports, register births and marriages, and be eligible to apply for official family documents without male permission.

Afghanistan presents a dire situation, especially with the return of Taliban control. The gains made in women’s rights over two decades are rapidly eroding under their regime, with severe restrictions imposed on women’s public presence, work, and education. The Taliban’s interpretation of Islamic law has meant a significant backslide into oppressive practices that isolate women from societal participation and negate their human rights, and there is an ongoing gender apartheid in Afghanistan which has erased women from public life.

In Iran, the compulsory wearing of the hijab symbolizes broader issues of state control over women’s bodies and lives. The death of Mahsa Amini in police custody, allegedly over her hijab not being properly worn, sparked international outrage and drew attention to the systemic oppression faced by women in Iran, where they are subjected to both legal and socio-cultural restrictions. Issues include restrictions on free expression and political participation, unfair trials and the use of capital punishment, including for non-violent crimes. Women face legal and societal discrimination, especially concerning marriage, divorce and child custody. The mandatory hijab law, enforced since the 1979 Islamic Revolution, restricts women’s freedom of expression. Women protesting against these laws face arrest, imprisonment, and harassment.

Yemen, embroiled in a prolonged conflict, showcases how war exacerbates the vulnerability of women. With the collapse of infrastructure, access to healthcare and education has become dramatically limited for everyone but disproportionately affects women and girls. Child marriage rates have risen, and maternal mortality remains a critical concern, underscoring the intersection of gender rights with broader humanitarian crises.

In Sudan, the overthrow of Omar al-Bashir’s regime brought hope for improved human rights. Yet, political instability and economic hardships have disproportionately affected women, who continue to fight for their rights amidst political uncertainty. The legal system, too, contains discriminatory laws against women, particularly regarding personal status and dress code in the 1991 Personal Status for Muslims Act.

Pakistan and Somalia, with their complex tapestries of cultural, tribal, and religious norms, present varied and significant challenges for women. From honour killings in Pakistan to the threat of extremist groups like Al-Shabab in Somalia, women navigate a landscape where their rights are constantly under threat from institutionalized misogyny to terrorism.

The Democratic Republic of the Congo and Nigeria, both rich in resources yet plagued by conflict, face issues like sexual violence used as a weapon of war, the kidnapping of girls by militant groups and systemic barriers to women’s participation in public life. In Nigeria, the Chibok girls’ kidnapping by Boko Haram is a stark reminder of the violent targeting of women and girls in conflict zones. The northeast faces atrocities by Boko Haram and other insurgent groups, including mass killings, abductions and bombings. The government’s security forces have also been accused of significant human rights abuses. In conflict-affected areas, sexual violence against women and girls is used as a weapon of war. Despite legal frameworks aimed at protection, impunity for perpetrators remains high. Women in northeastern regions affected by insurgency face abductions, forced marriages and violence. Across the country, women contend with systemic legal and cultural discrimination.

Syria’s ongoing civil war has resulted in a humanitarian crisis, with women bearing a heavy burden, including the loss of male family members, displacement, and the threat of sexual violence. The long-term civil conflict has resulted in widespread human rights abuses, including unlawful killings, use of chemical weapons, torture, and arbitrary detention. The situation for civilians remains dire, with millions displaced internally and abroad.

The authorities in China have enforced severe restrictions on freedom of speech, religion and movement. Notably, in Xinjiang, Uighur Muslims and other minority groups face mass detentions, surveillance, and forced assimilation, especially for women. While officially promoting gender equality, practical challenges remain, including workplace discrimination and a resurgence in traditional gender roles. In Xinjiang, Uighur women face forced sterilization and sexual abuse as part of broader human rights violations against ethnic minorities.

In North Korea, the regime imposes totalitarian control, with reports of executions, forced labour camps, torture and severe restrictions on freedom of movement, expression and access to information. The repressive regime severely limits all citizens’ rights, but women are especially vulnerable to abuses, including forced labour in prisons and sexual violence by the military.

Women in India face numerous challenges, including high rates of domestic violence, sexual assault and discrimination. Female foeticide and infanticide have skewed the gender ratio in some regions. Although laws exist to protect women’s rights, enforcement is inconsistent. During 2018-2019, India’s Supreme Court made landmark judgments to uphold women’s rights, including declaring the practice of “triple talaq” (instant divorce) unconstitutional and allowing women of all ages to enter Sabarimala Temple in Kerala, ending a longstanding ban on women of menstruating age.

El Salvador, Honduras and Nicaragua have some of the world’s most restrictive abortion laws, with consequences for women’s health and freedom. Women who seek an abortion face imprisonment. Further, in Brazil, women face high rates of domestic violence and femicide, with inadequate responses from the legal system. The rights of indigenous women and those of African descent are particularly precarious.

In Turkey, there has been a rollback on women’s rights, exemplified by withdrawing from the Istanbul Convention, a landmark treaty to combat violence against women. Domestic violence remains a significant issue.

Russia has seen “Traditional family values” often cited against protections for women from domestic violence, which remains a pervasive issue. Russian legislation decriminalising some forms of domestic violence has been criticised by international human rights groups.

Reforms and changing landscapes

New laws in Nepal were introduced in 2020 to grant women equal rights in the workplace and to protect against workplace sexual harassment. Tunisia passed the landmark Law on Eliminating Violence Against Women in 2017, “Law 58” offers greater protections for women against domestic violence, and removes the clause that allowed rapists to escape punishment by marrying their victims. Ethiopia appointed its first female president, Sahle-Work Zewde, in 2019, a landmark for women’s leadership in the country. The same year saw a cabinet reshuffle resulting in gender parity in ministerial positions.

Chile approved a gender parity rule for its constitutional convention in 2020, aimed at drafting the country’s new constitution, becoming the first country in the world to have a constitution written by an equally represented gender assembly. Argentina’s 2020 reforms legalising abortion up to the 14th week of pregnancy marked a significant shift in a predominantly Catholic region and a victory for the women’s rights movement.

In 2018, Ireland voted overwhelmingly to repeal the Eighth Amendment to its Constitution, which had severely restricted access to abortion, demonstrating a significant shift in societal attitudes toward women’s reproductive. Further,  a dual referendum in Ireland on redefining family and women’s roles in the constitution was defeated last week after a proposal was set to remove mention of women and mothers’ domestic roles from the Irish constitution

In 2021, South Korea introduced new legislation aimed at combating digital sex crimes, such as the illegal filming and distribution of videos depicting intimate scenes without consent, which disproportionately affect women. The law imposes heavier penalties on perpetrators.

In 2020, Japan updated its laws to ban employers from requiring women to wear high heels at work. This move was part of broader efforts to address workplace gender discrimination and promote gender equality.

In 2016, Rwanda passed a law criminalising domestic violence, including physical, sexual, psychological and economic abuse. Kenya also enacted the Protection Against Domestic Violence Act in 2019, which provides avenues for survivors of domestic violence to seek protection orders and access support services.

Spain approved a new law on comprehensive protection against gender violence, emphasising prevention, protection, and assistance to victims in 2021. The law recognizes gender violence as a social and systemic problem requiring a coordinated response. In 2018, Sweden introduced a consent-based definition of rape in its criminal code, requiring clear voluntary agreement for sexual activity. This legal change aimed to address shortcomings in the previous law and provide better protection for victims.

Canada passed legislation to ensure equal pay for equal work in 2019, aiming to reduce the gender pay gap. The Pay Equity Act requires federally regulated employers to proactively identify and correct wage gaps between men and women.

Mexico introduced legal reforms to criminalise the sharing of intimate images without consent, known as “revenge porn” and to increase penalties for online harassment.

Observations and Trends

While these snapshots provide a glimpse into the serious women’s rights challenges around the world, the reality is that human rights are at risk in numerous other contexts, often exacerbated by factors like economic instability, environmental disasters and pandemics. International and local human rights organizations continually monitor and report on these situations, advocating for the protection and promotion of human rights globally.

Globally, women’s rights are threatened by a combination of factors, including entrenched patriarchal attitudes, conflict, socioeconomic disparities and legal systems that fail to adequately protect women. Progress is being made in many areas through the efforts of local and international women’s rights organizations, but challenges remain significant.

The fight for gender equality and women’s rights is ongoing, with cultural shifts, policy reforms, and grassroots activism playing pivotal roles in advocating for change. It’s important to continue supporting and uplifting the voices of women worldwide to ensure their rights, safety and equality.

Recent years have seen significant legal reforms and shifts in various countries aimed at enshrining women’s rights more firmly in law. These changes represent progress in the ongoing global struggle for gender equality, although the pace and extent of reforms vary widely by region. These legal reforms, while significant, are steps in the ongoing journey towards achieving full gender equality worldwide. Continued vigilance and advocacy are necessary to ensure these laws are effectively implemented and to address both new and enduring challenges facing women’s rights.