Discriminatory laws continue to blight the lives of many Commonwealth citizens. These laws are at odds with international and regional human rights norms and domestic constitutional law. They undermine human rights and perpetuate violence and discrimination. They particularly affect women and girls and LGBT people and undermine the health and prosperity of entire societies.

Discriminatory laws are apparent in the sexual offences provisions in many Commonwealth criminal codes as well as in the absence of protective legislation. For example, many Commonwealth countries have different ages of consent for sexual relations and marriage for males and females. Rape provisions are often gender-specific, and marital rape remains lawful in half of Commonwealth countries. 73 jurisdictions criminalise same-sex activity. Almost half of them are Commonwealth countries.

In two thirds of Commonwealth member states, consensual same-sex sexual activity in private between adults is criminalised. Many countries have laws that are used to discriminate against transgender people including cross-dressing, impersonation and vagrancy laws. Very few Commonwealth countries have legislation to recognise, prevent and punish hate crimes including those committed on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity.

Since 2015, the Trust has been analysing the need and options for legislative reform of sexual offences and related laws that discriminate against LGBT people, women, children and other marginalised groups. We provide technical assistance upon request to governments seeking to reform such laws.

During the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in London in April 2018, UK Prime Minister Theresa May announced that as Chair-in-Office of the Commonwealth, the UK would support Commonwealth governments that want to reform their laws that discriminate against women and girls and lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people, many of which are a colonial legacy. Mrs May acknowledged such laws were wrong then and are wrong now.

These laws were . . . wrong then, and they are wrong now . . . I deeply regret both the fact that such laws were introduced, and the legacy of discrimination, violence and even death that persists today.

Prime Minister Theresa May

As part of our work in support of legislative reform, we co-founded the Equality & Justice Alliance, a two-year programme (April 2018 – March 2020) funded by the UK’s Foreign and Commonwealth Office aimed at responding to requests for technical assistance from Commonwealth governments seeking to reform their laws. The Alliance is made up of international organisations with expertise in advancing equality, addressing the structural causes of discrimination and violence, and increasing protection to enable strong and fair societies for all Commonwealth citizens, regardless of sex, gender, sexual orientation or gender identity.

Members of the Alliance:

The law plays a central role in ensuring equality and human dignity for all, regardless of sex, gender, sexual orientation or gender identity. The Equality & Justice Alliance is delighted to be able to help leverage global legal expertise and experience to support Commonwealth governments to pursue vital law reform to end discrimination and violence.

Téa Braun, Director, Human Dignity Trust

What is the Human Dignity Trust’s role in the Equality & Justice Alliance?

The Trust provides technical expertise and resources to successfully deliver law reform, for example through:

  • Legal research, guidance and international best practice;
  • Country and thematic policy papers;
  • Technical assistance with consultation mechanisms, legislative drafting and related legal processes.

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