updated 3/3/2005 10:56:43 AM ET 2005-03-03T15:56:43

A new U.N. report strongly criticizes countries around the world — from Japan, Kuwait and Nigeria to Britain and Chile — for failing to meet their pledge to revoke laws that discriminate against women by 2005.

The extent of violence and discrimination against women condoned by governments “is staggering” despite commitments made at the 1995 U.N. women’s conference in Beijing to amend or revoke laws that discriminate on the basis of gender, said actress Meryl Streep, who launched the report on Wednesday.

Speaking as a board member of the international human rights group Equality Now, the two-time Oscar winner said the message being conveyed by these countries “is that women are officially considered second-class citizens.”

Equality Now marked the 10th anniversary of Beijing’s landmark platform of action to achieve equality for women by examining discriminatory laws in 45 countries that it highlighted five years ago. It found that only 13 countries had repealed or amended these laws.

Taina Bien-Aime, executive director of Equality Now, said the great majority of discriminatory laws highlighted in the report, and many more around the world remain in force, and she demanded an immediate end to this discrimination against women.

“The amendment and repeal of laws that discriminate against women has no financial cost to governments,” Bien-Aime said. “It is only a question of political will.”

Impact on women's lives
Streep stressed the impact of such laws on women’s lives.

“A woman cannot vote in Kuwait. She cannot drive in Saudi Arabia. She is barred from working on military submarines in Britain, and she is not allowed to work at night in Bolivia except as a nurse or public servant. In Pakistan, if a woman is raped she must have four Muslim adult male witnesses to secure justice, failing which she may herself be considered guilty of fornication,” Streep said.

In Haiti and Syria, men can still kill their wives with legal impunity to avenge so-called family “honor,” and in Japan women are barred from remarrying for six months after divorce, unlike their husbands, she said.

Maha Abu-Dayyeh Shamas, founder and director of the Women’s Center for Legal Aid and Counseling in East Jerusalem, said in many countries “women are still regarded as legal minors irrespective of age, social status or level of education.”

In Chile, the law requires marriages to be headed by the husband, she said.

Susana Chiarotti, regional coordinator of the Latin American and Caribbean Committee for the Defense of Women’s Rights, said there are also laws in many countries that condone violence against women and protect the perpetrators.

In India, Malaysia and Tonga, marital rape is excluded from the penal codes, and in northern Nigeria, “the penal code actually allows husbands to beat their wives for the purpose of correction so long as the violence does not inflict grievous harm,” she said.

Many countries still allow men to escape rape charges if they marry the victim, including Guatemala, Lebanon, Uruguay, Bolivia, Nicaragua, Panama and Venezuela, Chiarotti said.

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