Sarah McCook presenting at the Regional conference on the role of Parliaments in the fight against gender-based violence 

Sarah McCook presenting at the Regional conference on the role of Parliaments in the fight against gender-based violence 

The Equality Institute was recently invited to present at the Regional conference on the role of Parliaments in the fight against gender-based violence, held in Tunis. I attended along with other representatives from Victim Support Europe, RAW in War (Reach All Women in War), the European Parliament, members of regional UNDP and other UN agencies, and importantly a number of parliamentarians from each of the participating countries: Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Libya, and Egypt. My presentation, on the global situation of violence against women and key international protection frameworks, was intended to situate the ensuing discussions on gender-based violence in the Maghreb, within the broader context of global action.

The aim of the conference was to discuss the findings of an ongoing gender justice program by UNDP, a study that has examined the current state of penal codes, labour law and family law from 20 Arab States. This program is both innovative and vital, as it makes explicit the links between different domains of national law, and the ways in which legal barriers across these domains can effectively prevent women from accessing and exercising their rights. For example, for women to be both protected and supported in accessing justice, they need punitive mechanisms for perpetrators of domestic violence, non-discriminatory labour laws that do not maintain their financial dependence on abusive partners, and equal rights to divorce and custody of children.

The conference was opened with an important question, and one that came up again during following panel discussions: Why another conference? Why do we need another conference on gender-based violence, and what difference will it make? To me, there seemed two clear answers to this question.

First, gender-based violence continues to be a pressing and prevalent issue both in the Middle East and globally. According to WHO estimates, approximately 37% of women in the Eastern Mediterranean Region have experienced some form of intimate partner violence in their lifetime.[1] Harmful and rigid gender norms continue to perpetuate other forms of gender-based violence, including sexual assault, child and forced marriage, trafficking and sexual slavery, and honour killings.

These unequal gender norms are reflected in the structures that should be working to protect women from violence and discrimination. Globally, 119 countries have domestic violence laws, 125 have laws on sexual harassment, and only 52 countries have laws on marital rape.[2] The UNDP study on gender justice showed that of the 20 Arab States under review, none had laws explicitly criminalising marital rape. Most penal codes contain provisions with mitigating circumstances for perpetrators of honour killings, and that exonerate perpetrators of rape if they marry their victims. Under family law, polygamy is often permitted for men, while women possess little or no rights to divorce or inheritance, and ‘obedience clauses’ provide justifications for wife beating. Clearly, then, there is a need for ongoing debate about the current situation of gender-based violence, and our attempts to address it, both globally and within the region.

Second, the conference demonstrated that we can have open conversations about gender inequality and gender-based violence in the region, including participation from men, in a constructive and positive way. It showed the incredible strength of feminist activists in the region, and the potential for shared learning and collaboration between diverse actors working to end violence. Women in the region are working to challenge the patriarchal structures of their societies, and to strategically question the rigid interpretation of religious doctrine to maintain women’s subjugation under the status quo. Moreover, through the active participation of parliamentary members from across the Maghreb, it showed the importance of demonstrating leadership and political will, of capturing the spirit of debate to infuse national legal and policy reform, and the power of dialogue in creating space for change.

In this way, words give us calls to action for gender justice. Through calls for legal and policy reform, we can articulate our values and beliefs in legislation. We establish avenues of accountability for States to meet their obligation to end violence and nequality. By creating opportunities for discourse between diverse government and non-government actors, and from different parts of the world, we open up spaces for feminist collaboration. Collaboration to keep pushing against harmful gender norms, stereotypes and rigid interpretations of religious doctrine, to drive the change we want to see in the world, and most importantly to dig up together.[3]



[1] This WHO region includes Egypt, Iran, Iraq, Jordan and Palestine, from which data was available for the regional analysis. See WHO (2013) Global and regional estimates of violence against women: Prevalence and health effects of intimate partner violence and non-partner sexual violence, available online at:

[2] UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs (2015) ‘Chapter 6, Violence against women’, The World’s Women 2015, Trends and Statistics, available online at:

[3] Get mad and get even, Meanjin Quaterly, available online at: