Constitutions, Customary and Religious Law and Gender Equality: Third Annual Women...


PeaceRep and International IDEA hosted the third annual Women Constitution-Makers’ Dialogue on 18 and 19 November, with a focus on examining comparative experiences with constitutions, customary and religious law and gender equality. 

For women peacebuilders and constitution-makers, the balancing act between cultural and religious rights and gender equality is often complex and involves intersecting identities and interests. Moreover, the process of forging consensus among women, among political decision-makers and within society more broadly can be challenging. How should women constitution-makers and their allies approach reconciling these rights within a constitutional framework? 

This two-day event brought together 30 participants from diverse backgrounds and experiences, including experts from Bolivia, Botswana, Chile, Kenya, South Africa, South Sudan, Syria, and Tunisia, along with senior international advisors and academics in the fields of constitution-building, peace processes, and gender and democracy. 

The agenda was organized into five sessions, including panellist presentations and open discussions: 

  1. Conceptualizing the theme of the event, framing the issues, and exploring trends in constitutional design and legal and policy approaches globally
  2. Examining how demands for cultural and religious rights and gender equality arise in the constitution-making process and how intersecting identities shape coalition building amongst women
  3. Comparing constitutional design approaches to legal pluralism and reconciling tensions between customary/religious systems and guarantees of gender equality and non-discrimination 
  4. Examining successes and challenges with implementing the constitutional balancing act and the extent to which constitutional frameworks and institutions have been able to transform the discriminatory aspects of custom or religion to further empower women. 
  5. Discussing how the constitutional architecture can be reimagined and identifying innovative approaches to harmonization, transformation, and empowerment. 

Overall, participants emphasized that the issue of discrimination in customary and religious conventions is a global problem that precedes state-based constitutions. However, constitutions have an important role to play in transforming deeply held societal beliefs, attitudes and behaviours that contribute to the systemic and global marginalization of women. 

Key to addressing this is recognizing that customary law – and to some extent religious law – are living systems, and that their ability to change over time is foundational to transformation. Advocates, traditional and ‘formal’/civil leaders and institutions can be empowered and capacitated to support necessary change over time. As one participant noted, “Law is man-made, but can be woman-infused’. 

The 2021 dialogue was the third in an annual Women Constitution-Makers series that was initiated in 2019 by International IDEA and PeaceRep. The dialogue series aims to foster a global network of women constitution-makers and peacebuilders centred on peer-to-peer exchanges and comparative experience sharing, elevating women’s voices and roles in constitution-building and broadening understanding of women’s experiences, interests and needs. 

Publications on the outcomes for this latest event are forthcoming in 2022.

Read a full summary of the event on the International IDEA website.

Image credit: International IDEA