The Palestinian Authority’s repeal of certain discriminatory provisions against women in March 2018 is a good first step toward what should be the repeal of a series of such measures, Human Rights Watch said today.
Other forms of discrimination include birth registration, personal status laws, and gaps in accountability for domestic violence. Palestine should make such reforms ahead of the first review of its record on women’s rights before the UN Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women – the body that monitors the international women’s rights treaty – in Geneva in July.
On March 14, 2018, the Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, signed Law no. 5 of 2018, which repealed article 308 of the 1960 Penal Code enforced in the West Bank. Based on an assessment by the head of a women’s shelter, the law had allowed alleged rapists to escape prosecution and could allow convicted rapists to avoid imprisonment if they married their victims. The new law also amended article 99 to prohibit judges from reducing sentences for serious crimes, such as the murder of women and children.
“The Palestinian Authority has finally closed disturbing colonial-era and other loopholes that could allow rapists to escape punishment if they married their victims, and to treat murders of women as a lesser crime than murders of men,” said Rothna Begum, Middle East women’s rights researcher at Human Rights Watch. “Other countries in the region that still have provisions that could allow rapists to go free by marrying victims, including Algeria, Bahrain, Iraq, Kuwait, Libya, and Syria, also should repeal them.”
Human Rights Watch in April discussed the status of women with members of the Palestinian Ministry of Women’s Affairs and the Public Prosecution Office. Human Rights Watch also met with 18 representatives of various women’s rights groups, human rights organizations, and international organizations in the West Bank and East Jerusalem.
Systematic abuses associated with Israel’s 50-year occupation including institutionalized discrimination, home demolitions and restrictions on movement fundamentally undermine the rights of Palestinian women in the West Bank and Gaza. Human Rights Watch has documented the impact of these practices in a submission for Israel’s review of its record under the UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) in October 2017.
The new amendments do not apply to pending court cases. It is not clear how many alleged or convicted rapists have been able to escape prosecution or conviction under article 308. Ikhlas Sufan who directs a shelter for victims of violence in Nablus, told Human Rights Watch that between 2011 and 2017 prosecution for rape has been halted in 60 cases – in which the shelter was helping the women – after the alleged rapist agreed to marry the victim. In 15 of these cases the women later divorced these men.
Both Sufan and the Women’s Centre for Legal Aid and Counselling (WCLAC) warned that families may still coerce women and girls who become pregnant to marry the men because of barriers to getting birth certificates for children born out of wedlock and the criminalization of abortion.
The Public Prosecution’s 2017 annual report says that 11 out of 14 murders of women in 2016 and 2017 in the West Bank – excluding Area C and East Jerusalem, where the Palestinian Authority has no oversight – were committed by a relative. It is unclear whether any of the alleged killers claimed the need to protect their family “honor” as a defense.
Dareen Salhieh, chief prosecutor of the Family Protection Unit in the Public Prosecution, said that they conducted gender-sensitive training for the police and prosecutors in the West Bank, who then investigated and referred cases of killings of women by their husbands or families to courts. The judges, however, often reduced the sentences of defendants who had been found guilty. The 2014 Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights study found that judges in first instance courts reduced sentences on claims of “honor” killings in 29 out of 37 rulings, in a random sample of cases between 1993 and 2013.
Training judges and closely monitoring convicting and sentencing of gender-based violence cases will be important to end impunity, Human Rights Watch said.
In another key reform on March 5, Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah announced the cabinet’s decision to allow women who have custody of their children, to open bank accounts for them, transfer their children to different schools, and apply for their passports.
However, the two laws that apply to Muslims, the Jordanian Personal Status Law No. (16) of 1976 enforced in the West Bank, and the Egyptian Family Rights Law No. (303) of 1954 enforced in Gaza, do not make the best interests of the child the primary concern when determining which parent the child should live with and which guardianship rights each parent should have. Under these laws, fathers retain guardianship rights even when the child is officially living with the mother, and the child can be automatically removed if the mother remarries, but not the father.
As guardians, fathers can withdraw money from a child’s bank account opened by the mother even if the child lives with the mother, but mothers cannot do the same if the child lives with the father. A woman also needs the father’s permission to travel abroad with her child. Both family laws also discriminate against women in marriage, divorce, and inheritance.
Palestine also does not have a domestic violence law, which makes it difficult to adequately protect survivors of domestic violence or prosecute abusers. The Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics (PCBS) 2011 national survey of 5,811 households on gender-based violence found that 37 percent of married women who responded had been exposed to at least one form of violence by their husbands.
Since 2006, when Human Rights Watch reported on the inadequate response to domestic violence in Palestine, the Palestinian Authority has taken some positive steps in the West Bank by creating specialized Family Protection Units in police stations and family protection prosecutorial units. But the lack of a legal framework to address domestic violence has hampered the work of such units. “We don’t have protection orders or prevention procedures” to help protect women, said Dareen Salhieh, the chief prosecutor.
Palestinian authorities are considering a draft Family Protection Law that would remedy this if amended in line with international standards. Such a law should set out the government’s key obligations to prevent violence, protect survivors, and prosecute abusers, Human Rights Watch said. It should criminalize marital rape, revise the definition of the “family” to include non-marital partners, and provide funding to enforce the law.
“Palestinian authorities have a critical window to pass needed reforms before international experts scrutinize their record on women’s rights in July,” Begum said. “A comprehensive domestic violence law and reforms to personal status laws are essential for demonstrating a commitment to women’s equality and protection.”