Reforming Family Law

This campaign was implemented in four countries: Jordan, Palestine, Lebanon and Egypt, and it ran from 2007-2010.

Project Background

The structure of family law in the four target countries discriminates against women and seriously affects their rights within society. The laws are similar in the four countries, as these laws are all based on religion. This common source of jurisprudence is reflected in and reinforced by the socio-cultural tenets of these countries that render family law a crucial turning point for society. Moreover, very often the inequality of women within the society gives way to social pressure and cultural expectations.  For example, early marriages are always a result of extreme socio-cultural pressure.

Current Legislation in the Four Countries

Guardianship Law

This is the most sensitive article about discrimination against women for the following reasons:

  • The right of the father (or closest male relative) to exert guardianship over the daughter until she reaches the age of 30 is not written into the civil code but is instead part of family law.   This situation seriously affects the civil rights of women; for example, the right to live on their own, to travel and to get married.
  • This right of custody affirmed in family law mutually reinforces the cultural tenet that males in the family enjoy a type of “ownership” of the females, eventually diminishing the overall dignity of the women.
  • The socio-cultural tenet goes further than the legal provision: the males retain this right even after the woman marries, when, in theory, the guardianship rule should legally end.

 Custody in the Case of Divorce

According to family law in the four countries, women can have custody of their children but restrictions apply:

  • Women have the right of custody until the child reaches the age of puberty, after which full custody then passes to the father.  (In Jordan, the upper age limit of the child has recently been increased to 18 years.)

  • If the mother remarries, the law immediately gives custody to the maternal grandmother until the child reaches the age of 11. This results in discrimination against both parents and does not take into consideration the best interest of the child.

  • This rule does not apply to the father should he remarry.

  • According to the law, custody awarded to the mother involves childcare only. The authority for major decisions that relate to the child or children still remains with the father.

Custody in the Case of Widowhood

According to family law in the four countries, women can have custody of their children but a restriction applies: the mother retains physical custody of the children, but the paternal grandfather or the paternal uncles still exert guardianship over the children. Therefore they decide on inheritance and the other usual provisions regarding girls.

Age of Marriage

According to Jordanian law, a woman could once get married at the age of 14. Now, however, after a campaign promoted by the JWU, the age limit has been increased to 18 years. (In the other countries, marriage is still permissible at younger ages.) Nevertheless, in Jordan, the law still provides for the right of a judge to evaluate “special” cases and rule differently. The “special cases” are not defined by law and so the paradoxical effect of the reform is that a girl can get married at any age, even less than 14.

Divorce Law

Many articles of this law involve discrimination against women.

  • Divorce without notice: a husband can obtain a divorce without any notification to his wife; a wife cannot.  

  • Married women who want to get divorced without the approval of the husband must first prove abuse or unsustainable common life. This is a time-consuming procedure that affects the personal lives of all the actors involved.

  • In Jordan and Egypt, women recently attained the right to ask for divorce and get it. However, in this case, the woman has to return the money that she received for the marriage to the husband. This provision prevents poor women from exercising their right to ask for divorce because they cannot afford the repayment.

  • The same principle of payment of an endowment for the marriage is also a discriminatory provision of the law. It is linked to the same concept of women as “property” of the males of the family.

  • Divorce based on abandonment: if the wife has had no contact with her husband for one year, she can ask for a divorce due to abandonment. The court then starts a procedure to find the husband, which can last as long as the court deems necessary. If the husband reappears while the procedure is in progress, the claim is automatically cancelled.

Action by the JWU

Accordingly, the JWU implemented its campaign employing the following strategy framework:


  •  The structuring and empowerment of the regional and national networks for the design and implementation of national advocacy campaigns, coordinated and mutually reinforced at the regional level
  • The thorough and participative analysis of family laws through national and regional workshops and a final elaboration of law reform proposals

  • The design and implementation of sound advocacy campaigns for legal reform  through social mobilization, press campaigns, and lobbying actions


Results of the Project

  • A network of women’s associations from Arab countries, as a permanent structure of coordination and struggle for equality, human rights promotion and empowerment of women

  • A comparative survey carried out about the gaps between international conventions, CEDAW in particular, and the legal frameworks in force about family law within the four target countries

  • A common set of recommendations for the reform of family law - also based on the existing draft of the special committee for women of the Arab League

  • Campaigns realized in each of the four target countries, but coordinated in time, methodology and objective;  those objectives being to raise awareness of current family law and to advocate family law reform



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