Contradictory laws and policy loopholes are perpetuating lifelong discrimination against girls and women in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region, as found by Plan International’s new regional analysis.
The report focuses on five countries: Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, Sudan, and Egypt, and it found that “despite significant progress” across the region as a whole, gender equality before the law is “precarious” and remains a persistent challenge, according to a Plan International statement.
While national constitutions provide for equality of all citizens, in four of these countries, legislative loopholes are stopping young women and adolescent girls from exercising the full extension of their rights, including laws exonerating and mitigating punishment of perpetrators of sexual violence and “honour killings”.
Although Egypt, Jordan, Sudan and Syria have set the legal age of marriage at 18, it still is effectively nullified by laws allowing children to marry if deemed in their best interest, while in Lebanon there is no minimum age for marriage.
According to the report, titled “The Protection of Young Women and Girls in the Middle East and Northern Africa”, the region ranks lowest on the Global Gender Index, scoring the bare minimum on fundamental indicators such as health, education, economic and political participation, said the statement.
Gender-based violence is the most common violation of rights, with one in three women in MENA having experienced or being at risk of experiencing physical or sexual abuse in their lifetime.
Previous research by Plan International — a leading girls’ rights organisation — from April 2020 found that violence against girls and young women in Jordan spiked since the start of the lockdown measures to contain COVID-19.
All five countries were found to have legislations sustaining different forms of gender-based violence. For example, undermining a woman or girls’ testimony to be considered inferior to that of a man’s in court, in addition to laws, which do not prohibit marital rape.
Muna Abbas, country director of Plan International Jordan said in the statement: “Women do not enjoy the same rights as men in the Middle East and North Africa. In Jordan for example, Article Six of the Constitution states that all Jordanians are equal yet women are legally restrained from giving their children their nationality.
“In Syria, the law allows a rapist to marry a victim and escape punishment under its penal code, whereas in Lebanon, the country has 17 different status laws drawn in accordance to different sects addressing vital issues such as marriage, divorce, property rights and children with no unified civil code”.
Nadia, from Jordan, said in the statement: “I didn’t know what was going on at first because I was only nine years old…. Today, I look back and realise how much it damaged me”.
Just like Nadia, one-third of women in the Middle East and North Africa region have experienced physical or sexual abuse, the statement said.
This comes despite “a few significant strides” towards gender equality, including the adoption in 2015 of a national strategy to combat violence against women in Egypt, and abolishing Article 308 of the Jordanian Penal Code which pardoned rapists if they marry their victims.
“It is critically urgent that the legislative lacking is addressed, including the introduction of clear and agreed upon definitions of what constitutes gender-based violence, sexual harassment and rape,” Abbas said.
“More needs to be done and we hope this report will ignite a regional dialogue towards advocating for the rights of women and girls”, Abbas concluded.