#Reform53: The Commonwealth Day’s Pledge to Reform Discriminatory Laws for a Prosperous and Inclusive Future

March 9, 2020 was the Commonwealth Day, an annual celebration that took place across the 54 Commonwealth nation states. This year’s Commonwealth day is significant in various ways as this year the United Kingdom departed from the European Union and wished to focus its business ties with the Commonwealth nations more. We will also witness the 26th Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) 2020 in Kigali, the capital of Rwanda in June as well. This year, the theme for the 2020 Commonwealth Day, the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM), and for the work of the Commonwealth more generally is ‘Delivering a Common Future: Connecting, Innovating, Transforming’.

The secretary general of the Commonwealth The Rt Hon Patricia Scotland, in her Commonwealth day message said that, on Commonwealth Day we come together to acknowledge publicly and collectively the continuing aspiration of the Commonwealth to build on common traditions and uphold our shared values of democracy, inclusive development and respect for diversity.

When the conversation comes about building common traditions, inclusive development and respect for diversity;the division between the nation states based on religion, ideological belief and identity, that we inherit from the colonial rules, show us how rigged we are to get rid of those ideological belief through the social norms and legal procedures of Bangladesh.

The Commonwealth has its mandate to empower youths through their engagement in different social development sectors and as such, various youth networks were established. The Commonwealth Youth Gender & Equality Network (CYGEN) is one of the key youth network that engages youths of 54 Commonwealth states to ensure equality of every human being regardless of gender, race, sexual orientation and nationality. To achieve this year’s Commonwealth thematic goal, CYGEN has started a campaign “#Reform53-Together for Legal Equality”, a six-month advocacy campaign, calling for the leaders of all 54 Commonwealth countries to reform laws that discriminate against women and girls and sexually diverse people, many of which are a colonial legacy.

#Reform53 campaign aims to compel Commonwealth countries to commit to reforming laws that discriminate against women and girls and sexually diverse people. To be very precise, the campaign will ask the Commonwealth Heads of Governments to decriminalize same-sex relationships, reform consent laws on forced marriage and removing clauses that defer to customary laws, ensure provisions in law for abortion by choice, ending workplace discrimination for women & girls and sexually diverse people and increased political participation for women and sexually diverse people.

While going through the typical facebook post last week, a woman posted a write-up showing her bitter experience in making her 5 year old son’s passport. She felt harassed and powerless while the passport office asked her to bring written consent of her husband who already divorced her. She was furious and mentioned that she would slap those who will say that gender equality has already ensured and there is no need of women’s day anymore. This is one tiny example that can be mentioned from the past couple of days. If we go through each and everyday woman or sexually diverse people’s story, we might end up losing our eyesight seeing the level of discrimination against women and sexually diverse community.

These discrimination are being institutionalized as there are laws that reserve the freedom of women and in some cases make the girls, women and sexually diverse community vulnerable in certain degrees.

In many Commonwealth countries it is a crime to have an abortion. This denies women the autonomy to make their own informed decisions and access a safe abortion. Instead, these laws jeopardize the health and lives of millions of women and girls who may then risk an unsafe abortion. According to Bangladesh penal code (ACT XLV, 1860), abortion is only permitted to save the life of the women and through the section 312–316, abortion by choice has been made a punishable offence and depending on the act, it that can take someone into prison up to ten years, with or without fine.Though these sections prohibit abortion by choice, what can be the impact of country where such laws are present or absent?

According to the world health organization’s 2017 report, in countries where women have a legal right to abortion 90% of abortions are safe and in countries where abortions are banned or restricted, only 25% of abortions are safe. As a result, an estimated of 25 million unsafe abortions take place every year, with approximately 47,000 women dying annually which the World Health Organization and Guttmacher Institute reported in 2017.

Across the Commonwealth, laws criminalizing abortion are overwhelmingly a British colonial law and many developed countries are still carrying it.There are currently only 4 countries in the Commonwealth that legally allow women to have an abortion on request: Canada, Australia, South Africa and Mozambique.Abortion is heavily regulated in New Zealand under a number of laws including the Crimes Act 1961. However, a bill has been proposed to decriminalize abortion and make it a health issue instead.

Malta is the only Commonwealth country that prohibits abortion entirely. Abortion is prohibited even if a woman’s life is threatened, making the country’s abortion laws among the strictest in the world.Following these trends, can Bangladesh be another Commonwealth country to reform the existing customary law to ensure women’s rights on their own body?

The summit statement of the 25th Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting, held in 2018, included that, the Heads were encouraged by Continuing action…to prevent and eliminate…child, early and forced marriage…heads were also encouraged support for already married girls, adolescents and women who have been affected by such practices. Despite this declaration, the scenario of forced marriages due to the customary laws, are not satisfactory. The Commonwealth biannual report 2018 says, across the Commonwealth where forced marriages commonly occur, are due to customary laws and practices. In all of these countries, there are high numbers of women and girls who married under the national legal age.

In Bangladesh, although Muslim family law has attempted to prevent the practice of forced marriages by making consent mandatory, no minimum age limit for marriage is established. 59% of the girls marry before the age of 18, with 22% are marrying before the age of 15 according to the Girls not Bride Campaign report of 2018.In 2017, Bangladesh government passed a law allowing marriages of underage girls and boys in ‘special cases’. Section 19 of this Act delivers that, in special circumstances, the Court can give marriage to children, for protecting the best interests of them, with the consent of their parents. There is no provision for having any consent from those children while they are getting married as they are not adult. Till now, there is no example of any special circumstances under which such marriages are permissible in this law as well as there is no explanation as to what constitutes the best interests of any child while s/he is getting married. The activists and rights defenders had to go for a long run to ensure girls’ women’s and sexually diverse population’s rights by reforming colonial laws. Now, if the government brings back the laws without any logical explanation, the demand of reforming those laws is essential. Hence, Bangladesh became a focus country for the #Reform53 campaign and the whole youth population of the Commonwealth countries are now looking forward to Bangladesh government’s commitment to reform this customary law.

The Commonwealth is the home of 2.4 billion people and 60% of its population is under 30 years of age. Each of those youths is a potential figure for change and together we are an unbeatable force for reforming the discriminatory laws and are ready take the charge of delivering a common future by connecting, innovating and transforming new ideas for a better world. This is the youth spirit of this year’s Commonwealth Day.


Tushar is an educator and human rights activist from Bangladesh

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