The Commonwealth

The modern Commonwealth is an association of 53 states with a population of over 2.4 billion – or 30% of the world’s population. The association works on a consensus model of voluntary membership and has an underlying Charter outlining shared values and principles, shared language and institutions. The Commonwealth vision is to create and sustain a Commonwealth that is mutually respectful, resilient, peaceful and prosperous and that cherishes equality, diversity and shared values.

There are 18 Commonwealth countries that do not criminalise rape in marriage and more than 20 that have no specific legislation against sexual harassment. Many others discriminate against women and girls by excluding them from the formal economy, preventing female inheritance, failing to grant women land rights and subjecting girls to child marriage and female genital mutilation (FGM). 36 Commonwealth States still criminalise same-sex activity.

Many of the laws which discriminate against women and girls, and LGBT individuals are a result of colonial era laws – outdated and in need of reform. The Equality & Justice Alliance works across the Commonwealth to support this legal reform, focusing activities and partnerships in the regions of Africa, Asia, the Caribbean and Americas, and the Pacific.

The modern Commonwealth is an association of 53 states with a population of over 2.4 billion – or 30% of the world’s population. The association works on a consensus model of voluntary membership and has an underlying Charter outlining shared values and principles, shared language and institutions. The Commonwealth vision is to create and sustain a Commonwealth that is mutually respectful, resilient, peaceful and prosperous and that cherishes equality, diversity and shared values.

 

There are 18 Commonwealth countries that do not criminalise rape in marriage and more than 20 that have no specific legislation against sexual harassment. Many others discriminate against women and girls by excluding them from the formal economy, preventing female inheritance, failing to grant women land rights and subjecting girls to child marriage and female genital mutilation (FGM). 36 Commonwealth States still criminalise same-sex activity.

Many of the laws which discriminate against women and girls, and LGBT individuals are a result of colonial era laws – outdated and in need of reform.The Equality & Justice Alliance works across the Commonwealth to support this legal reform, focusing activities and partnerships in the regions of Africa, Asia, the Caribbean and Americas, and the Pacific.

4 Regions
Africa

Commonwealth Africa

There are 19 states in Commonwealth Africa. Of these countries, 15 criminalise same-sex relations between consenting adults, most often focusing on MSM (men who have sex with men). Within Africa 6 states have no legal protection for women against domestic violence (Burkina Faso, Cote d’Ivoire, Egypt, Lesotho, Mali and Niger) – Lesotho is also a Commonwealth country. FGM is present in over half Commonwealth Africa countries, with prevalence rates in The Gambia and Sierra Leone estimated at 76% and 88%. These harmful practices affect a girls’ right to health, education, equality, non-discrimination and to live free from violence and exploitation.

There are also multiple barriers to equal opportunities for women and girls more broadly across Commonwealth Africa. 2 in 5 women (38%) experience physical, and/or sexual partner violence or sexual violence by a non-partner (the third highest rate in the world after South East Asia and the Middle East/Eastern Mediterranean). This violence is exacerbated by intersectional discrimination relating to social status, economic status and education. Women with disabilities, migrant women, women with non-binary gender identity and sexual minorities are particularly vulnerable to violence.

Asia

Commonwealth Asia

Over 70% of Commonwealth citizens live in the 7 countries which comprise Commonwealth Asia.

Despite most South Asian countries having legal provisions which set the minimum age of marriage at 18 or above, this region has the highest prevalence of child, early and forced marriage of anywhere in the world. Bangladesh has the highest rate in the region at approximately 59%, and India has rates of approximately 27%. Women and girls also face other serious violations of their human rights, such as gender-based violence, sexual violence and harassment. They are underrepresented in decision making in both the household, public spheres and political decision making.

Until September 2018, when India repealed section 377 of the Indian Penal Code thereby decriminalising same-sex sexual acts between consenting adults, all Commonwealth Asia countries retained laws which prohibited same-sex intimate relations. Only the Sri Lankan Government had updated their Human Rights Action Plan in 2017 with an addendum prohibiting discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, despite same-sex intimate relations remaining criminalised. India’s Supreme Court ruling is therefore seen as a major signal to other countries in the region.

In addition to the recent ruling on s377, the Supreme Court of India in 2012 recognised the constitutional rights of transgender people, which was followed with the adoption of the Rights of Transgender People bill in 2014. And in Bangladesh in 2013, the government legally recognised the Hijras population as being a ‘third sex’ which gave them right to vote.

Caribbean & Americas

Commonwealth Caribbean & Americas

The Commonwealth countries of the Caribbean and Americas largely comprise small island states. This region has been making significant commitments to women’s rights and are making progress around gender equality. All countries in the region have ratified the United Nations Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW). In addition, the region falls under the Inter-American System for the protection of Human Rights and all countries (with the exception of Canada) have also ratified the Inter-American Convention on the Prevention, Punishment and Eradication of Violence against Women (known as the Belém do Pará Convention).

Despite this there are still high rates of gender-based and sexual violence in this region; 1 in 3 (29.8%) of women will experience physical and/or sexual violence in this region in their lifetime. In addition, of the 13 countries in the Caribbean and Americas within the Commonwealth, 9 criminalise same-sex relations between consenting adults. However, there have been recent encouraging moves in the region, including a 2016 Supreme Court ruling in Belize which declared that the country’s law banning sodomy and a similar ruling in April 2018 by the court in Trinidad and Tobago was unconstitutional.

Pacific

Commonwealth Pacific

Aside from Australia and New Zealand, the Pacific Commonwealth is made up of small island states. Of the 11 Pacific Commonwealth countries, 5 criminalise same-sex activity between consenting adults. However, there have been recent movements towards progressive reform. Fiji’s new constitution, promulgated in 2013, prohibits discrimination based on sexual orientation, gender identity and gender expression (although homosexuality is still criminalised) and Samoa introduced the Labour & Employment Relations Act in 2013 which added both sexual orientation and perceived or actual HIV status as protected grounds against discrimination in employment laws.

Within Pacific Commonwealth countries, most have laws to protect women and girls from discrimination and promote gender equality. However, these legal provisions are not always utilised or enforced. The result is that across East Asia and the Pacific, 1 in 4 (24.6%) women will experience physical and sexual violence in their lifetime and nearly 1 in 6 girls will be married before the age of 18. In some states the figures are even higher – in Fiji, 64% of women have experienced physical or sexual violence by an intimate partner, and in Papua New Guinea 1 in 2 men say they have raped a woman.

In addition, women and girls face unequal access to education and justice systems, as well as health services. Within Papua New Guinea, in particular, which has a dual court system of formal and customary courts, women’s access to justice is extremely limited and results in the systematic discrimination of women. In addition, a widespread belief in ‘sanguma’ (witchcraft), means this is often used as a justification for the rape, torture and murder of women and girls.