Family Law Reform and Women’s Rights

Wednesday, September 5, 2018
Krishna, 13, at her house in a village near Baran, in the northwestern state of Rajasthan, July 17, 2012. Krishna married her husband when she was 11 and he was 13. The legal age for marriage in India is 18, but marriages like these are common. REUTERS/Danish Siddiqui
Rangita de Silva de Alwis

Associate Dean of International Affairs, University of Pennsylvania Law School

Farahnaz Ispahani

Global Fellow, Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars


Douglas Dillon Senior Fellow and Director of the Women and Foreign Policy Program, Council on Foreign Relations

Around the world, family law and criminal codes are rife with provisions that undermine women’s rights, safety, and economic opportunity. Rangita de Silva de Alwis, an advisor to the European Union on strategies to combat early and forced marriage, and Farahnaz Ispahani, a former member of the Pakistani parliament who championed legislation to address acid crimes, discuss legal reform for women as it relates to child marriage and acid attacks.



VOGELSTEIN: All right. Good afternoon. Good afternoon, everyone. We’re going to go ahead and formally convene. Welcome to the Council on Foreign Relations. My name is Rachel Vogelstein. I lead the Women and Foreign Policy Program here at CFR, which analyzes how elevating the status of women and girls advances U.S. foreign policy objectives.

Today’s meeting will focus on family law reform and the status of women. As we know, around the world civil and criminal codes are rife with provisions that undermine women’s human rights, their safety, and the economic health of families, communities, and entire nations. Nowhere is this more true than with respect to two of the harmful traditional practices that we will discuss today—the scourge of child marriage, which affects one in six adolescent girls globally and acid crimes against women, which are on the rise in parts of South Asia and today actually take place around the world.

Since the 1995 Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing, we have seen the legal movements to reform civil and criminal does to protect women grow in strength. And today the sustainable development agenda now includes a target to eliminate all discrimination against women, including legal discrimination, by the year 2030. But we know, from the experts who are here today, that progress has not been linear in nations around the world. And there is much to learn by examining where legal reform has succeeded, where it has failed, and which foreign policy approaches are most effective in promote women’s social, cultural, economic, and political participation globally. So we are very privileged this afternoon to host two experts who have really been at the frontlines of legal reform for women, who will help illuminate lessons learned and share perspectives on the path forward.

First, we are very pleased to welcome, to my left, Rangita de Silva de Alwis, who is an advisor to the European Union on strategies to combat early and forced marriage. She is the associate dean of international affairs at the University of Pennsylvania Law School, where she founded the Global Women’s Leadership Project under the auspices of U.N. Women to help map laws that regulate the status of women in the family. She also serves on the U.N. Women high-level group on justice for women and as a global advisor to the U.N. Sustainable Development Goals Fund. Previously, she was the inaugural director of the Global Women’s Leadership Initiative and the Women in Public Service Project. And her work on women’s rights has brought her to more than twenty-five countries around the world.

To her left we are also very fortunate to host Farahnaz Ispahani, a fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center, a senior fellow at the Religious Freedom Institute, and author of Purifying the Land of the Pure: A History of Pakistan’s Religious Minorities. In 2015, she served as a scholar at the National Endowment for Democracy, where she researched women of the self-proclaimed Islamic State. She’s a former Pakistani politician and served as a member of parliament and as an advisor to the president of Pakistan from 2008 to 2012. And with her active support, the Pakistani parliament enacted legislation relating to women’s harassment in the workplace, and also to make acid-throwing attacks illegal.

We’re very fortunate to have both of you here. Welcome to the Council. I will begin with just a few opening questions for each of our speakers, and then we will open the discussion to all of you.

So, Rangita, let’s start by talking about legal reform as it relates to the practice of child marriage, which you’ve worked on quite a bit. You’ve recently published a book of case studies on legal reform, which you look at in particular the approach to child marriage taken in Bangladesh and compare that to the situation in Zimbabwe. Can you tell us more about the lessons that we can learn from those two countries about how to best conclude laws that regulate the practice of child marriage?

ALWIS: Thank you, Rachel, for hosting us. And thank you most of all for being at the forefront of law reform in areas of child marriage and other harmful practices. You’ve really been an inspiration to all of us. So thank you, Rachel. And I want to acknowledge this group of women leaders and experts who are really my tribe. And because I don’t have the time to acknowledge each and every one of you, I’m going to acknowledge Jane McAuliffe, the former president of Bryn Mawr College, who helped to found the women in public service project under the auspices of Secretary Hillary Clinton. So thank you, Jane, for being really one of the role models in everything that we do and being really an inspiration throughout my life. Thank you, Jane.

To go back to your question, I think I would want to take a step back and set the stage for that conversation. In 2000, UNICEF asked me to write a report for them on the laws on the statute books around the world that still enshrine legitimate discrimination against the girl child, including child marriage. And what that opened my eyes to was that although law has an enormously powerful constitutive role to play in addressing discrimination, there are times the law itself can be complicit in legitimizing discrimination against girls and women. And the ways in which the law is manipulated by political leaders in reinforcing discrimination was really one of the most egregious ways in which the hierarchy of was had been misused and misinterpreted.

So looking back, at the two reformist initiatives that I think are high-water marks of 2017 in terms of child marriage—and look at Bangladesh and Zimbabwe and I compare and contrast the two, because they’ve come to the reform through completely different lenses but using the same—the same philosophy of the best interest of the child. As many of us here who are lawyers and advocates know, the best interest of the child principle is one of the most sacred principles of the Convention on the Rights of the Child and animates the Convention on the Rights of the Child.

So, when I first looked at Zimbabwe’s law reform initiative, I saw that although the constitution itself prohibited child marriage, the children’s law still allowed child marriage. And two major cases, two strategic litigation cases were used to reform the child marriage laws that becomes aligned with the constitutional of equal protection provisions. So although the law was reformed, what I saw was that it was the women’s movements, the women’s groups that really led the search for law reform. And was the force behind the law reform initiative.

And what was interesting was that the two judges of the high court in Zimbabwe, who ruled on this case, used the best interest of the child principle in the way it was meant to be used. In the best interest of the child in the context of the full range of rights that are enshrined in the Convention on the Rights of the Child. So the fact situation of the case was—were ones where two older men in their 60s had raped two young girls, and then taken them as their brides in order to sanctify their crime. When this case was brought to the law court, the judge ruled against the two men and annulled the marriage. But the sentence that was given really trivialized the crime. It was less than six months imprisonment.

So the high court said it is not—these are the words—it is not in the best interest of the child to trivialize the heinous crime of child marriage and that the punishment must fit the crime. So the use of the best interest of the child was employed in the way in which the framers of the Convention of the Rights of the Child meant it to be used. So that is a good-practice example of the usage of the best interest of the child principle.

In Bangladesh, the same year, in 2017, harnessing the promise that Sheikh Hasina, the prime minister of Bangladesh, had made at the girls summit in 2014, where she pledged to end the scourge of child marriage by 2030, kept to her promise by drafting revisions to the child marriage law in Bangladesh. But this is, again, an illustration of the way in which there’s a gap between what is promised and political will. In the revisions, although the severity of the punishment for child marriage was increased—and that was a good step—there was a clause in article two of the child marriage law which allowed for an exception to the age of majority, of age eighteen, where the language of the law says: In the best interest of the child—in the best interest of the child, a guardian or a parent could ask the court for the child to be married, given particular circumstances.

The circumstances are not spelled out. So it’s left to the capricious and arbitrary considerations of the judge, the parent, and the guardian. But what I most critique is the way in which the term “best interest of the child” is manipulated in the interest of political will. So this is one—going one step forward and two steps back and using the language of the Convention on the Rights of the Child to whitewash this complicity in the law that allows and legitimizes, in the name of the law, a crime against the girl child.

Now, general recommendation—general comment fourteen of the Convention on the Rights of the Child forces the ways in which governments and political leaders can misuse the best interest of the child principle, and states in general comment that the best interest of the child cannot be undermined by misinterpretations or misuses of that principle, and must be seen in line with all of the rights enshrined in the convention, including the right to education, the right to health, the right to leisure, the right to agency—which is undermined by article two of the Bangladesh law.

So these are two reformist initiatives that really use the same principle of the best interest of the rights of the child to do—to come to two different positions. And in Bangladesh, the women’s rights movement, the women’s rights groups have been mobilized and galvanized around this to protect this particular provision of the law. But the minister for women—the minister for women says—and I want to read this out to you because I think it important for us to understand the way in which politicians tend to whitewash and window-dress their positions.

“Our rural society is very cruel. They will point their finger at the pregnant girl. She will be an outcast in school and elsewhere. People will say nasty things to the girl’s parents. And that is why we need this exception to the law. And that is why it is in the best interest of the child.” So I understand that there is still a stigma connected to pregnancy, stigma connected to—and there are cultural issues to a girl child’s association with a male member. But to use the law to undermine the Convention on the Rights of the Child, and to violate the rights of the child is not in the best interests of the child.

And I want to end my intervention in response to your question by quoting to you something that I was—I bore witness to when I worked for the Bangladesh National Women Lawyers Association on this bill, when one of the women—a mother said, when the Kazi, who is the Muslim marriage registrar, saw that my daughter’s age on her birth certificate said that she was thirteen, he refused to do the marriage. But then, after my husband spoke to him, he took it to the local government chairman and got it changed to eighteen, and then did the marriage. (Laughter.) My husband paid him 100 taka, $1.30, to the chairman and to the marriage registrar to change the birth certificate. So once this law comes into force, you don’t even have to pay that money because the law allows you—allows you that exception, to marry your child if you can prove that it is in her best interest.

Q: Could I ask a question right up front?


Q: What is defined as a child? And what age are we talking about? Is it a universal age across these countries, or it is quite varied? Who is a child?

ALWIS: Right. So that’s a good question. So the Convention on the Rights of the Child defines age of majority as the age of eighteen.

Q: Eighteen.

ALWIS: As the age of eighteen. Now, there again you see that laws around the world provide different definitions as to the age of eighteen. So Nigeria, for example, the children’s rights law in 2004 prohibited early marriage before the age of majority, but defined majority as the time of puberty.

Q: Wow.

ALWIS: So you can see these loopholes in the law really undermine the intention and the spirit of the law, if there ever was an intention.

VOGELSTEIN: And I would commend to all of you the work of my colleague, Dr. Jody Heymann who was at the Council not too long ago talking about this very issue, who has put together a comprehensive catalogue of not only laws related to child marriage—minimum age of marriage around the world—but has actually gone the additional step to look at the exceptions that Rangita was talking about, which in many cases undermine the role, whether it’s an exception for parental or judicial consent, an exception under religious or customary law. And when one looks at that constellation of laws with those exceptions included, the number of countries that permit marriage under the age of eighteen grows substantially.

ALWIS: Including the United States because, you know, we are under the illusion that this happens only in the global south. Thirty-seven states in the United States still allow exceptions to child marriage. Delaware was the first state to take out all exceptions, followed by New Jersey. But thirty-five other states still allow for exceptions. And that is why, you know, although I admire and respect the work of IFC on women, business and the law, and it’s such an important piece of work, I look at the seven indicators that they use and look at—look at the absence of child marriage in their indicators.

So, you know, the seven indicators, the last indicator has violence against women. But it does not articulate child marriage as a form of violence against women. The first indicator cause for adopting measures to be adopted by states to modify social and cultural patterns and stereotypes but, again, it doesn’t cause the child marriage. And we know that child marriage had enormous both human as well as economic consequences. And the economic consequences are great. IFC’s work itself, the World Bank’s work itself, calculates up to $4 trillion saved in the global south if child marriage can be addressed.

So given the fact that it’s not only human cost but economic cost, and the Sustainable Development Goals, in Goal 5.3, you talked about the goals—the goal calling for addressing discrimination against women. But Goal 5.3 calls for addressing cultural and social practices that undermine women’s rights and girls’ rights, including child marriage. So it is really one of the ways in which we can advance sustainable development and sustainable growth. And so addressing child marriage is about human agency. It is a public health issue. It is a women’s rights issue. It is a way in which we address violence against women. But it’s also an important economic issue.

VOGELSTEIN: Rangita, you talked about reform efforts at the national level—Bangladesh and Zimbabwe, and you mentioned some other countries as well. You’ve also served as an advisor to the European Union and thought a lot about how to best deploy foreign policy and development cooperation in order to improve the law on this issue—including through the creation of an EU policy directive. So I wonder if you could tell us a little more about that directive. What does it require? And what steps do you recommend that governments take through their foreign policy apparatus to address gender inequalities in the law, including in the area of child marriage?

ALWIS: Thank you, Rachel. One of the reasons why I think CFR is such a great forum and platform to have this conversation is because of your own work on foreign policy. And women’s rights is integral to foreign policy. So when I was asked by the EU to revise their draft directive and speak to them about some of the recommendations with the draft directive, I was just so thrilled to see the ways in which the EU saw foreign policy and its development cooperation policy as a powerful tool to address child marriage, and the ways in which child marriage—and issues that are so powerfully integral to women’s lives—are such important policy tools for the EU.

So Article 8 of the directive calls on the European Union, in the context of its foreign policy and its development cooperation policy, to offer a strategic path to its partners. And to that end, to require that—and it goes on—all its partner countries prohibit early and forced marriage. This prohibition is respected in practice once the law has entered into force. It also acknowledges the fact that in times of crisis—political crisis, in times of migration—that child marriage tends to be exacerbated, that there’s a spike in child marriage. So there is that context within which the EU directive operates.

And I like the way in which it balances families that have engaged in child marriage, and the protection that needs to be given to those families while preventing and prohibiting child marriage. So this is not in any way punitive. It’s not a directive meant to punish families or the girls who have been victimized or survived child marriage. But I found that they have a couple of issues that were absent from this directive. And that was where I intervened with the European Parliament’s—the committee that was charged with developing this directive, was that a directive alone cannot create change unless this directive connects with the local and the national and the grassroots groups that are deeply engaged in addressing child marriage. This cannot be simply imposed as a foreign policy directive. It can do more harm than good if it is seen as a Western project that is being somehow used for an end that is not deeply organic to the community. So that engagement with groups that are already working domestically is very important.

Secondly, it has to be connected to other preventative methods. This is not a punitive element. It is about preventing child marriage. And as we all know here, that one of the most powerful vaccines against child marriage is mandatory education for the girl child. So we need to see—so we cannot have these abstract, you know, prevention of child marriage laws without making sure that all of the other provisions that help to prevent child marriage are also put in place.

Then there are other creative ways where women have been used and employed in this—in this war against child marriage. And that is the ways in which, you know, food for education policies—the Bolsa Familia programs in Latin America and other regions have been very, very powerful to—in combatting child marriage. And at a time where there is a war against the girl child’s education, there has to be a war that is waged on behalf of the girl child’s access to education. And that has to go hand-in-hand with child marriage. And we also have to see this as part of some of the CBE and PBE strategies.

Q: Can I ask you about the education piece?


Q: You mentioned a key part of combatting this is educating girls on the issue, writ large. I guess it’s a two-part question. Has there ever been an instance of two children being forced to marry each other—a boy and a girl, both under the age of eighteen? And I ask that question because I would think a key part of that education is also educating boys, right? Hey, as you grow up, this is not OK, and here’s why. Is that—I imagine that’s part of the strategy too? Or—and if it’s not, can you talk to that?

ALWIS: So that’s—yes. So that is a very good question. So I’ve done a mapping for Girls not Brides. It’s a very powerful organization that has a website with a map of all of the laws that still have child marriage in their statute books. And you look at—what you see is that most of these laws operate on a term of what I call, you know, gender duality. There is almost, like, a hypocrisy in these laws. So that a girl—a girl’s age of marriage is lower than the boy’s age of marriage. And to some extent, that is also the duality that renders—but that is shaped by the devaluation of the girl child, that somehow a girl’s value lies in her marriage, right? So that is one part of it.

Second, it’s a way of protecting the girl from alleged or imagined harmful threats of sexual abuse, of honor crimes. And I think, you know, you’re going to be touching upon that too. This is all part of that continuum of a girl’s honor is owned by her family. And therefore, at the earliest instance she needs to be given in marriage, in order to protect her as well as to protect the family. And thirdly, she’s a commodity. You know, there’s a commodification of a girl. By giving her in marriage and being either—you know, getting a bride price or getting rid of her—you know, giving her away to another family. And then finally, in times of war, we see, whether it is with Al-Shabaab or with Boko Haram, girls’ bodies become the sites of violence. So that, again—so these—so there are these four, five reasons that really need to be addressed as root causes of child marriage.

VOGELSTEIN: Rangita, thank you. I want to turn from child marriage to the horrific crime of acid attacks, which particularly affects women in countries across South Asia, including Pakistan, India, Bangladesh, Burma. Some reports suggest that incidents is actually increasing in this part of the world. Why is that?

ISPAHANI: Well, the first reason is—and only Bangladesh has addressed it in their law which was earlier in the 2002s and has been the most effective. The Indian law and the two Pakistani laws that have come since have not had the teeth. They have not addressed the purchase and sale of acid. Now, acid is something which is very, very, very cheap in South Asia. It’s used in jewelry production. It’s used all over for agricultural purposes, for cotton seed. And it’s used for rubber production, et cetera. So any farmer, any farm hand, anyone who works in a factory making any kind of jewelry, can get their hands on acid. And a whole gallon of acid will cost less than a dollar.

Now, what—part of what Rangita was talking about, right, about child marriage, for me why acid violence is so important and why it has—does not interest enough people, I feel, in the West, is because it has not really hit any of your lives in any way that you can see it. Like child marriage, you talk about from Massachusetts to, you know, Delaware, et cetera. It’s something in your lives. It’s something you see across the globe. Acid violence is if a child is not given in marriage, that child could be dosed in acid and destroyed for life. They always go for the face and the neck, which means blindness and disfiguration. People who can afford it can have ten to thirty surgeries, and still never, ever be seen to be employable again. They never have the confidence to leave the home again. They’re destroyed.

So this happens if you don’t give your girl in marriage to a more powerful person, or an older person. This happens in Pakistan with forced conversion, when an older Muslim man wants to marry a young Christian girl or Hindu girl working in fields close by. If the families or the girl refuse, acid is used on her. And I don’t know if any of you have seen this movie called Saving Face, which won an Oscar, by one of my fellow seven sisters, five sister graduate, Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy, which shows this—it documents the fate of the life of this one particular acid victim. And it also shows the Pakistani parliament, including myself, passing the first law.

But when you start seeing, as you said, conversion rape, child marriage, all of these things in all of these cases throughout South Asia, you see the use of acid going up exponentially. And that is terrifying. People are feeling that their values are being attacked. You see, even if something is not Islamic or Hindu or Christian, in today’s age religion has become something I know a lot of liberals feel uncomfortable talking about. But I work on freedom of religion and belief, because it’s a major, major human rights topic—whether it’s today in America or anywhere in the world.

So acid violence is used in all of these kinds of cases. As I said right in the beginning, because the Bangladesh law in 2002 was drafted so cleverly, they put in the condition—the law, basically. They wrote in that you had to—the people who purchased acid without any license, the people who sold acid without any particular acid, those people too—not just the person, the perpetrator of the attack. And neither India nor Pakistan did that, even though the laws are much more recent. And because of that, no matter what your official figures tell you, acid violence is probably the fastest growing attack on girls and women. It also happens to little boys and sometimes to men in blood feuds. But primarily it’s girls and women.

So my role and why I came to work on this was I was one of four political advisors to President Zardari in Pakistan. I worked for his wife, Benazir Bhutto. She was killed in the run-up to the elections. And largely because of a public stand against the terrorists, the culture, their thoughts on women, society—a whole range of things, including education. And so, from my seat in the presidency and then from my seat on parliament, there was a big movement because for the first time we created a women’s caucus, which was very, very, very significant. Melanne Verveer and people like that who were aware, who traveled with Secretary Clinton or worked with her on these issues, knows that the women’s caucus in Pakistan worked across all party lines, which means from the women in full niqab, from the Jamiat, or the JUI, to the most liberal, you know, which would be probably me and a couple of my colleagues—(laughter)—we’re the most progressive.

But across the aisle, the women in that caucus worked on this bill and the women’s harassment in the workplace. And it was not a treasury bill either. It was someone from the opposition who brought the acid violence—anti-acid violence bill to the floor. And all of us from the treasury benches, the orthodox religious Muslim parties—all of us fought for it, which is the only way both these laws passed. My role was not as the writer of a law. Because I serve the president, I couldn’t write law. But my—what I used to do primarily was try to dodge. In Pakistan, we have a saying, someone can be—a man can be clean-shaved, but he has a beard in his stomach. (Laughter.) So we figured out very quickly that our law minister was one of those men. (Laughter.) He was educating his daughters at the best private schools, and all of that.

And when I went to him to talk about these two bills, he said to me: What is the need for this? The Koran and Sharia give you all the rights you need. Do you think God’s law needs to be amended? All women’s rights are spelled out. So I said, yes, sir, but this is a democratic government. And the people’s voice needs to be heard. And X percentage of women voted. And this is the people’s party of Benazir Bhutto. And this was on her agenda. Nothing. He would not lay the bill in the house. So the ways you got about this are—this is politics. Not the politics, you know, in Wolf Blitzer’s studio—(laughter)—but, I mean, as all of you know, it’s always behind the scenes politics. So I had to go to the chairman’s senate and get him to get some of his members on board and, you know, bring the law in a different way. Get the president to quietly win over members who were in alliance with us in the coalition.

And no one talked about it publicly. But we got it laid in the house. And then we had the votes. So it was a—this was a moment of great celebration. Of course, that law as not perfect. There’s been a subsequent law—which Rangita knows as much about as I do. And I’m not a lawyer, so I don’t speak in legal terms. But still, the point is at first there’s a euphoria because some law, even if it’s partially good, is better than no law, right? But what we’re finding now is that if the police are not trained or sympathetic to hear these cases, if the hospitals are not trained to take photographs and write down in detail what has been done to the woman, the child, the boy, the man, if the justice system leaves these cases pending for ten and fifteen and twenty years, the amount of women who have been attacked with acid, the suicide rate is the highest—absolute highest.

They are women, as I said earlier, who have had five, ten, fifteen, twenty, thirty surgeries. And they’ll never look the way they did. And what it is, is every day when they look at themselves they realized they have no power. See, it burns you down. Your bones melt away. You are not who you were. And yet, you’re not dead. So it’s like being—it’s like being part of the living dead. I mean, you talk to these women and you work with them. And it—so, for me, this is a very, very integral conversation, which I don’t think is happening. From foreign policy—from a foreign policy point of view, today in countries like the United Kingdom—England, as it soon will be—you are seeing acid crimes more and more every year.

Why is that? Because immigrants from countries in South Asia who knew this crime, when their daughters want to marry outside of their choice—now, these young women are born in the U.K., educated in the U.K. But if they’re trying to marry against the choice of the family, they try to get a job and move away from home, if, God forbid, they have a boyfriend, these same acid crimes are taking place in the United Kingdom. So wherever these populations may go—and it’s not just South Asia today. In fact, now besides Pakistan and the U.K., Colombia—this is how far afield it is—Italy, Uganda, Cambodia, Nepal, India and Bangladesh. So in every continent basically now you have a country where this is widespread.

So I’m just going to read you one tiny amount. I mean, people talk about these—you know, India had 1,000 acid attacks in 2016. Pakistan had 400. Bangladesh had 300. But I’m going to read you a quote from an incredible admirable woman talking about just the area of Islamabad and Rawalpindi, the federal capital area—imagine D.C., without too many of its suburbs. Women’s rights activists warn against depending on official statistics in the matter. Shahnaz Bokhari, chief coordinator and clinical psychologist of the Progressive Women’s Association in Rawalpindi, points out that her organization has counted 8,000 victims burnt by acid as well as kerosene and stoves since 1994 just from the 200-mile radius around Pakistan’s capital. Now, this a much more significant number, and this is all she has from that very small and limited space. So that’s just to give you a little bit of an idea.

Now, my ideas on foreign policy may not always agree with everyone else’s, but having worked for a foreign government and then, obviously, living in the States for many, many years, at this point with this administration I honestly see less than zero interest to do with women unless they’re white Evangelical women who voted for Trump. So when you see someone like Kavanaugh, I mean, the assault on women in this country today is so targeted an appeal that I know it’s very hard to think about women acid survivors in another part of the world. But it’s extremely important, and a way to get to it is this government, and therefore the State Department and DRL, et cetera—

VOGELSTEIN: (To be ?). (Laughter.)


VOGELSTEIN: The former.


VOGELSTEIN: (To be or something, as we are ?).

ISPAHANI: Is now working on a lot of freedom of religion and belief projects, and they’re funding a great deal of them across the world. So on crimes against women, if you bring in, for example, something like the forced coercion of marriage into another religion, OK, converting Christians to Islam or—that is a very—to me, a very good way to then get into—on crimes. And I sort of have been around these people a little bit because I have very funny and interesting people I work with. I mean, I’m probably the funniest, but—(laughter). So these are the ways that I see where we have to look at a hopeless situation and find what they’re doing where, even though it seems like it’s serving their self-interest actually we can use it to (serve ?), you know.

So I won’t go into anything too much more. If anyone—


ISPAHANI: Of course.

VOGELSTEIN: Please. Please, Farahnaz, thank you for that. Rangita, please weigh in. And then, of course, we will open to a discussion with all of you. Please raise your placards and we’ll get to as many comments as we can. Rangita.

DE ALWIS: So very quickly, to respond to your comment on the part of foreign policy, one of the provisions that I want to share with you from the EU foreign policy directive is this. So the language of the provision states the level of public development aid is made dependent on the recipient country’s commitment to complying with the requirements in the fight against early and forced marriage. So tying this to development aid and cooperation is a genius stroke, right? So you are—it’s a carrot-and-stick approach. But my fear is that this might have a backlash unless it’s used in very sensitive ways in connection, in partnership with women’s groups, and the right women’s groups.

And with that in mind, I want to share with you a story from Indonesia, which is like—which is the juxtaposition of the Zimbabwe and the Bangladesh case study. So, in 2017, the same year as the Bangladesh and Zimbabwe case study, female Islamic clerics in Indonesia met together with their counterparts, female clerics from other countries, including from Kenya, Pakistan, and Saudi Arabia, and they issued a fatwa—a fatwa against child marriage. This is the first instance where I’ve seen a positive fatwa—(laughter)—where a fatwa has been used as a positive tool. And although this fatwa is not legally binding, it is groundbreaking and it was issued after a three-day congress of high-level female clerics.

And this did have impact, because in 2018, just two months ago, the Indonesian leadership came up with a new draft outlawing child marriage. So this fatwa did have an impact. So knowing with whom to work with, what groups to work with, what women’s groups are the important partners, is an important part of that foreign policy provisions.

And then, finally, about the law. And as a lawyer who is deeply engaged in the part of the law to advance in really mining the constitutive tool, it is—it has enormous normative value. Everything starts with the law. And so forgive me if I am making—if I’m an apologist for the law. And despite the law’s potential to do harm, it can do good.

ISPAHANI: Oh, of course.

DE ALWIS: As you said, you know, a law is the kind of founding principles.

ISPAHANI: Without a law you can’t—no, there’s no moving forward without that. That’s—yeah, absolutely. Yes.

DE ALWIS: And it is standard-setting principles. But what is problematic is when there are loopholes in the laws, which then keep getting, you know, broadened and the frontiers are being pushed, and then that undermines the law. But what we have to remember is that it does also, unfortunately, have the power to construct standards of honor, shame, and even what I would say obedience in the law. And child marriage is really about the power and the control to control of women’s agency and her position in society. It is about obedience. It is about ensuring a girl child’s and a woman’s obedience to patriarchy.

ISPAHANI: Rangita, I’m just going to jump in there if you don’t mind, Rachel.


ISPAHANI: You know, the EU is fantastic. It’s positive. It believes in all the right things. They have, you know, more or less a common standard of principles which they hold to. We are sitting in a very different place. So if you’re talking about U.S. foreign policy, we have to think of how we’re going to survive till the next election, how we’re going to win the next election, and still not—we can’t stop doing this work. So we have to find partners within the administration or State or DOD, and there are a lot of professional people, to still find little bits of funding and still use these opportunities to work, because you can’t just give up.

So I believe—maybe I am—

Q: Well, I don’t want to interrupt you, but I totally hear your point about how to work within this climate. And you mentioned Evangelical women. Now, they were very high on human trafficking issues. The whole Evangelical movement was very excited about human trafficking. I can’t imagine they wouldn’t also—and you mentioned your coalition in Pakistan. The same kind of support might be found among the Evangelical community here.

ISPAHANI: Absolutely. And I am—

Q: I don’t know who’s going to make that outreach, but it’s very ripe, I think.

ISPAHANI: This is—this is, in fact a conversation that we have been having right now.

Q: Right, exactly.

ISPAHANI: Because anywhere that—what Evangelicals have learned globally is where there’s Christian persecution, right, there are other women or other people also being persecuted. For example, ISIS. I did some work on the women of ISIS: the subjugation, the rape, the absolute—I mean, the conditions that women were in, especially the slave women, under the caliphate. So you had Christians, you had Shia Muslims, you had animists like Yazidis. So, you know, there ended up being commonality, which then you could go and find partners to work with. So that’s why I say you can never give up.

And you’re absolutely right, you just have to find the right person, the right people, the right vehicle, the right work, basically, something that speaks to the other side. So that’s really the distinction because it’s so much more complicated here than Europe in terms of these laws.

Q: Plural marriage might not be so appealing to them. They may like that. (Laughs.) But the—but the acid thing is.


VOGELSTEIN: A lot of strategic considerations.

So why don’t we come here to Manhaz (ph), please?

Q: Thank you, Rachel. And thank you so much, Farahnaz and Rangita.

We partnered together at the beginning of this conversation that ended up so efficiently (in a book ?) in such a short time. But I wanted to say that even though it’s fascinating what you’ve been presenting and it’s lovely to have, you know, you eyes on these issues, which are so vital, our conversation I have hoped—and, unfortunately, we don’t have time—to be broader about family law reform, which these are the most egregious aspects. But the overview, basically, the status of women in the family, is to our thinking—and actually, that will be my organization and Jen’s (sp) organization here—is doing 11 case studies that are coming up in an anthology next month. And what we are hoping to do, with your support and everyone here’s support, is to bring out the idea that the status of women in the family is where it all starts; that is, the hierarchy of patriarchy, which reflects itself in education, in schools, in politics, in economics, in everything that concerns our lives starts in the family. And it starts not just with men oppressing women—in fact, with men and women together having created that particular structure, but at one point it made sense: when women were pregnant most of their lives; when they needed eight kids, four of whom would survive who would help them with the economy; et cetera; et cetera. And everything else supported that. But now it’s been a long time since that has not been reality, it has not worked. But if we want to change all of the things that trouble us—creation of a democracy, which we have failed in; creation of understanding between religions; of inclusiveness; all of that—we need to begin in the family, to restructure the architecture of human relationships right there.

And Rangita and Farahnaz both have a lot to say to that. And I’m hoping that we will talk about that, because just as this is the worst of times for us as women and as democrats, it is also the best of times, because for the first time the global consciousness has raised so high that although it reflects itself in extremism and reaction, it also reflects itself in the passion to change. So I think I would love to have more comments from everybody, and especially from the two speakers on the idea of the family and family laws, which concerns everybody, you know, and the status of women in the family more generally. Thank you.

VOGELSTEIN: Manhaz (ph), thank you for that.

To make sure we get as many voices as possible, I’m going to come down—Beverly, please chime in—and then we’ll give our speakers an opportunity to respond.

Q: Thank you for your comments. And the comment and question is for both of you, and I’ll be very succinct.

But particularly, Rangita, because you’re at the University of Pennsylvania, one of the major Ivy League and public school universities in the country, and you’ve worked, of course, in parliament and elsewhere.

There is a need for outreach. So what other kind of roles in universities do you see, because people need to have the knowledge, the skills, et cetera? And universities, particularly doctoral universities, not community colleges, emphasize research. So what other kind of practical roles do you see universities playing?

And is there some way to, Farahnaz, that the kind of endeavors she’s mentioning can link more with universities, because universities also have the resources?

DE ALWIS: Do you want to—

VOGELSTEIN: Why don’t we—why don’t we take—

Q: Jill.

VOGELSTEIN: Jill, please chime in, and then we’ll come down to one more just so we get as many as possible in the interest of time.

Q: Sure. I was curious as to how the media is portraying both of these issues, acid attacks and child marriage locally, whether or not there is a sympathetic spin to the victims or whether more it’s like women are—women need to stay in their place and this wouldn’t happen to them. So I was just curious as to how that’s—what the narrative is.

VOGELSTEIN: Thank you for that.

Darin (ph), please.

Q: Just a comment and then a question. I spent this morning with a State Department visitor group from mostly Muslim-majority countries, but some of them were Christian, and just was struck that they had almost no idea about the issue. The two that really fired them were corruption and child marriage. But they have this argument, which I’ve heard in four places now, that women used to mature more quickly; and therefore, it was—and no concept of maternal mortality. So I have a sense of a huge information challenge, which brings me to my question.

One of the efforts is the antislavery movement at the moment. And this year, a lot of the data now includes forced and child marriage. So I’m curious as to what was the background of that. It’s counted as fifteen million out of forty, I think. And is that significant? And is having this be part of modern slavery and that particular group of advocates confuses it a bit with sex trafficking which is also part of it? What is the significance there?

VOGELSTEIN: Why don’t we finish here and then we’ll give an opportunity to respond.


Q: My name is Adeola Olagunju. I work at Facebook.

And I was just curious if there was any technological aspects to these issues that you guys see as challenges.

VOGELSTEIN: Thank you for that question.


Q: Just a general comment. I know I’ve asked one question already. So I love what Manhaz (ph) has said.

My comment—and I’ll frame it as a comment—is the broader issues at play here. You talked about the best-interest factors. And certainly acid throwing, those are all very serious issues. For me, I run a nonprofit in Virginia that focuses on family law reform domestically here. We come across a lot of the same challenges that you mentioned internationally: best-interest factors, a legal interpretation of them, judicial accountability issues, of which there are—there is none. Right? Judges have broad authority in how he or she interprets the law. And a lot of that is tied to what we call this 1950s Mad Men mentality that no, you know, you are a woman, you clearly don’t want a career, you just want to stay home and raise kids and have more of them. That’s it. And as a man, you don’t want to have anything to do with your kids, you just want to work all the time and smoke cigars and drink bourbon on Friday nights because that’s what you do.

None of that is true. None of that applies to modern realities and modern families. So that’s what we’re trying to change. We have brought men and women together around this issue. And so I’d really, for subsequent conversations, I want to emphasize the need to talk about, again, judicial accountability and requiring judges to explain their rulings in writing so that they see the light of day, and for men and women to work together on this. Because that’s the only way we’ve been able to succeed in Virginia. Our national executive director is a woman, actually. So it’s really groundbreaking.

In the U.S. we’re fortunate in that we don’t have some of the other issues that international women face. But that kind of cohesion is critical.


VOGELSTEIN: So a full agenda.

DE ALWIS: Yes. So I’m going to answer just two of the questions posed, Manhaz (ph) and yours, because I think it brings together the aspect of this within the broader context of family law reform and then the role that academic institutions can play in that endeavor.

So I came to family law reform as a young academic coming of age in Sri Lanka over twenty-five years ago when Radhika Coomaraswamy, who at that time was the U.N. special rapporteur on violence against women, gave me a copy of the case of Shah Bano in India. And this is such a pivotal case. It was an inflection point in personal laws in India.

Shah Bano was a sixty-five-year-old woman who was divorced by her husband, who had been married to her for over forty-five years, through the talaq divorce, by clapping his hand three times. And she was rendered destitute in this byzantine town of Maharashtra. And she sued. She went to the supreme court using the vagrancy law, asking for support.

And the Indian supreme court asked her wealthy lawyer husband to provide her a $5 support that would allow her to have the most meager, but above the poverty line, existence twenty-five years ago.

And this completely divided not only the Hindu and the Muslim communities, but the Muslim community itself and said this is against the Muslim law—the Muslim law allows the talaq divorce and does not allow for maintenance of either widows or divorcees—and called upon the then Rajiv Gandhi government to overturn the supreme court ruling that called for a $5 support system for Shah Bano. And so Radhika gave me this case and said your generation needs to work on this case, on the reform of personal laws, the reform of family laws.

And then a couple of months later, I came as a graduate student, a twenty-three-year-old graduate student to Harvard Law School where my supervisor, who then went on to become the dean of the law school, Martha Minow, gave me her article on Forming Underneath Everything That Grows—family law—Towards a History of Family Law. And in that, she argues that family law grows underneath every legal field. And she says it is about rules, about the roles and duties between men and women, parents and children, families and strangers, historically and conceptually, that underly other rules about employment and commerce, education and welfare and perhaps the very governance of the state.

So, Manhaz (ph), you are absolutely right. Family law shapes and informs the very governance of the state because it is about the way in which it regulates the status of women in their private lives in the family laws and that impacts the status of their public role. So family law is really at the heart of gender equality. And it is a litmus test to measure the gender equality in any state.

So as for your question about what do—what can academic institutions—what is the role that academic institutions play, so, you know, women like Martha Minow, who is now the three-hundredth anniversary professor at Harvard University, she really is looking at family law reform from that kind of good-governance lens, that it is not only about family law reform, but it has enormous implications to the way in which a state governs itself.

And then at Penn Law, we have started in partnership with Phumzile at U.N. Women the family law mapping.

And, Manhaz (ph), it is at a modest stage yet. But we have—we are looking at it not only from the lens of family laws, but all laws that regulate the status of women in their family. So it’s not just that narrow understanding of what is family laws, but property laws, inheritance laws, custody laws, guardianship laws, banking laws, financial laws, all of which impact a woman’s role in their families, and mapping that in terms of, you know, what are the gaps in the laws and what are the loopholes in the laws.

VOGELSTEIN: Farahnaz, the last word.

ISPAHANI: OK. I’m just going to respond to the media question because I was a journalist for a great many years.

What you see on the ground mostly throughout South Asia is the English-speaking English press, whether it’s television or print or work-based, et cetera. We tend to have more coverage on issues like, you know, crimes against women, children and all of the—the whole gamut of human rights issues basically.

What you see in the vernacular press is something very different. It’s either completely silent, ignores these things because they’re not even important enough to be mentioned, or if there’s a case where a woman has been lucky enough to get a good attorney, who’s holding press conferences, who’s getting some attention to the case, it’s usually derogatory towards a woman in some way. So you see this marked difference between the elite English-language press and the vernacular.

Now, the mediums are also different. Television, like television everywhere, impacts some. For example, with rape victims, they—over and over again, we show photographs or video of the face of the woman and violating her in every single day, including her security and protection.

So these conversations keep going on between rights activists and lawmakers and, you know, women’s groups and media houses that, you know, you must not show the face. But, you know, it’s that one second of a little spike of showing a crying woman, a distraught woman, a victim or whatever it is. So over and over again, they break these rules of giving these women the only time they pay attention on television is in a way which is harmful to women who’ve already been hurt badly. So that’s in a nutshell.

DE ALWIS: One very quickly to say that thirty-seven years after Shah Bano went before the Indian supreme court and the Rajiv Gandhi government annulled that ruling, overturned that ruling—just last year, the Indian supreme court held that talaq divorce was illegal. So change happens. It takes time, but it’s because of advocates and leaders like Rachel and all of you here in the U.S. as well as on the ground, in the field, in the grassroots working on these issues relentlessly that change happens, slowly but surely.

VOGELSTEIN: Well, on that incredibly optimistic note and after a tremendous insight into the ways in which we can make progress, please join me in thanking both of our speakers for an incredibly important—(applause). Thank you all so much.


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