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Family Law Research Highlights Worldwide Inequality Among Women

Statistics is more than just numbers and charts—it can also impact women’s rights for generations to come.

In an article published in the open access journal Laws, BYU political science professor Donna Lee Bowen, Texas A&M University professor Valerie Hudson, and BYU statistics professor Lynne Nielsen explore the relationship between inequitable family laws for women and explore the consequences of inequitable family laws in various countries.

Family laws include the right for women to own or inherit property, obtain a divorce, and gain custody of their children. Many countries have women with high literacy rates and economic and political participation, but highly inequitable family laws. The study has shown progress in countries where family laws are equitable for women, including Sweden, Denmark, Norway, and Canada.

“If a woman cannot consent to marry, cannot obtain divorce, cannot gain custody of her minor children, or cannot even inherit property, what good is political participation?” Nielsen said. “They can vote, but they don’t have all of these other more important things.”

Examining inequitable family laws throughout the world came out of the BYU WomanStats Project. Hudson and BYU geography professor Chad Emmett started the project to improve women’s lives by gathering data about women’s situations and issues in different countries. The project has data on women in 176 countries with at least 300 variables, including marriage practices, household formation, and cultural practices that focus on women.

Nielsen and her fellow researchers have been looking at the possible reasons that women are subordinate to men in places that are prone to violence, like Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria.

“We hypothesize that wars, interstate conflict, and conflict with neighbors might be explained by clan-based governance systems. How do you determine whether a society is clan-based or not? Our answer is to look at women’s situations in those countries,” Nielsen said. “If women have no voice and have very little say in their economic, political, and social well-being, then they most probably live in a clan-based society that is more prone to conflict and violence.

Nielsen said this study is one attempt to support these claims with empirical evidence or data.

Statistics can help highlight the negative effects of unfair family laws for women so world leaders can enact laws and policies to improve their situation throughout the world. Nielsen mentioned another study that she co-authored that discussed the harmful effects of Muslims being allowed to practice Sharia law in Canada.

Under traditional Sharia law, women are subservient to their husbands or nearest male relatives and need their permission to go to school and have a job, among other things. Breaking Sharia law can sometimes result in violence against the lawbreakers.

“Before we presented that information, they were actually leaning towards allowing Sharia law in Canada, but our research showed that’s a bad idea,” Nielsen said. “Because of the information we published, in addition to the demands of Muslim women, the Canadian parliament voted against it.”

Nielsen noted that this study of the relationship between inequitable family laws for women and state stability and security is just the beginning.

“We have this vision and mission where we’re looking at the subjugation of women in most parts of the world and trying to figure out what causes it,” Nielsen said. “We’re looking at the big picture, because there are still a lot of areas where women live in some really awful situations of extreme subordination to men. Our mission is to help improve their situations by using data that can be used to support more equitable family laws as a start.”

With continuing studies that focus on making family laws for women all over the world more equitable, and with programs such as the BYU WomanStats Project, statistics is proving to be a force that will likely impact women for generations to come.

“Statistics is a guide to the unknown,” Nielsen said. “If there’s something that you don’t know, there’s a lot of variability and uncertainty. Statistics can help illuminate the true situation and help us deal with uncertainty, even if it’s just in a small area.”

By Maureen Elinzano Posted on