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Equality in the Family

According to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the family is the basic unit of society. According to the experience of millions of women, however, the family is the basic site of oppression. Inequality in the family underlies all other aspects of discrimination and disadvantage and is sheltered by ideology and culture. It is a primary cause of women's continuing poverty and is a key factor in family violence. The family is the last frontier—and the first.

Religious, customary, and even some civil laws allow women to enter marriage too young and against their will, ending their education and starting their childbearing long before their bodies are ready; provide wives with limited property rights or none at all during marriage and upon divorce or widowhood; prevent daughters from inheriting property; and reinforce the privilege of husbands and fathers to control women's mobility, employment and family decision-making. So long as inequality is tolerated—or promoted-—as a cultural value, women will remain poor, undereducated, underrepresented in political and state institutions, underserved by state and community, and therefore particularly vulnerable to poverty and violence.

Equality in the family is an international standard.
It's time to make it work for women.

As of 2013, one hundred eighty-seven states have ratified or acceded to the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women. The Convention offers in its Article 16 a far-reaching standard of equality in the family, including specific reference to economic equality.

In February 2013, the CEDAW Committee adopted General Recommendation No. 29, on economic equality in the family. It provides a detailed standard and a source of renewed energy for pursuing the issues related to women's status in the family.  Family laws will not change without a concerted effort by civil society, policy makers, and international human rights bodies to create a global atmosphere in which discrimination against women in the family becomes an embarrassment and equality becomes the accepted standard for all societies.

A number of states have adopted family codes or specific statutes that provide for equality as to some aspects of family relations. However, many efforts to reform family codes have been met with objections nominally based on culture, tradition, or religion. Political will to move forward on equality in the family is scarce in many states, and progress frequently is piecemeal, the results incomplete.

This resource list is offered as support and encouragement for continuing efforts everywhere. The family codes and statutes are provided with the understanding that they may be incomplete or imperfect, but represent forward movement.

Please send additional material—statutes, success stories, and advocacy approaches—to share: mfreeman@umn.edu.

Resources on Equality in the Family

UN Documents
Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), particularly Articles 2, 5, 14, 15 and 16

CEDAW General Recommendation No 21 (1994) Equality in marriage and family relations

CEDAW General Recommendation No 29 (2013) Economic consequences of marriage, family relations and their dissolution

CEDAW General Recommendation No. 29:  Concept paper


International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, Articles 2, 3, 10

Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights General Comment No. 16, on the equal right of men and women to the enjoyment of all economic, social and cultural rights (particularly para. 27)

Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, General Comment No. 20, on non-discrimination in economic, social and cultural rights


International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, Articles 2, 3, 23, 26

Human Rights Committee General Comment No. 18, non-discrimination

Human Rights Committee General Comment No. 19, Protection of the family, the right to marriage and equality of the spouses

Human Rights Committee General Comment No. 28, equality of rights between men and women (particularly paras. 23-27)


Books and Articles - some basics

Freeman, M.A., Chinkin, C., Rudlof, B., The Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women: A Commentary. Oxford University Press, 2012.  Available in hard cover, paperback, and e-book.

Banda, Fareda, Women, Law, and Human Rights: An African Perspective. Hart Publishing, 2005.

Balchin, Cassandra, When Legal Worlds Overlap: Human Rights, State and Non-State Law. International Council on Human Rights Policy, 2009. 

Shaheed, Fareda, Report of the Special Rapporteur on the enjoyment of cultural rights by women on an equal basis with men (A/67/287), 2012.  (all UN languages)

Musawah, Wanted:  Equality and Justice in the Muslim Family, 2009.
English and French


Agencies and NGOs

End Child Marriage - UNFPA

Girls not Brides:  The Global Partnership to End Child Marriage

Landwise (online library), Rural Development Institute, Center for Women's Land Rights

Musawah, a global movement for justice and equality in the Muslim family.

Women Living Under Muslim Laws

Human Rights Watch Women's Rights Division


Family Codes and Relevant Statutes: Examples of Change - (in progress)

Morocco: Moudawana

Advocacy:  How Change Happened