European Court of Human Rights rejects “traditional roles” justification of sex discrimination

London, 27 October 2015

On 13 October 2015, the European Court of Human Rights held in Vrountou v Cyprus that Cyprus’s refugee card scheme, which restricted access to benefits based on sex violated Article 14 of the European Convention on Human Rights. The Court found that the scheme, which allowed children with displaced fathers to receive a refugee card and so access a range of benefits but not children of displaced mothers, had no objective and reasonable justification. The Court reiterated that states cannot impose traditions that derive from the man’s primordial role and the woman’s secondary role in the family to justify sex discrimination but that was precisely what the government’s argument sought to do. The unequivocal decision of the Court is welcome. The case is an important reminder that directly gender discriminatory laws and policies are still a reality in many states, a fact which the Equal Rights Trust’s recent research brings to the fore.

The case related to Cyprus’s rules for issuing refugee cards. The cards were introduced in 1974 as part of scheme to provide aid to displaced persons. Under the scheme, displaced persons were entitled to refugee cards, which in turn entitled their holders to benefits, including housing assistance. The scheme allowed children of displaced fathers to be registered as displaced persons but expressly excluded the children of displaced mothers from being registered. In 2003, the applicant in the case, Ms Vrountou, applied for a refugee card on the basis of her mother’s status as a displaced person, in order to seek housing assistance. Her application was refused, with the reason given that whilst her mother was a displaced person, her father was not. After her challenge of the decision was unsuccessful before the national courts, Ms Vrountou made an application to the European Court of Human Rights, arguing that her right to non-discrimination in the enjoyment of property and her right to an effective remedy had been violated.

The Court upheld her claims. On the question of the differential treatment of the children of displaced mothers as opposed to displaced fathers, the Court rejected any notion that the scheme could be justified by reference to the role of men as breadwinners. The Court reiterated that very weighty reasons must be put forward to justify differential treatment based on sex. References to general assumptions, traditions or social attitudes in a country did not provide sufficient justification for differential treatment on the basis of sex. Further, the Court made it clear that budgetary constraints alone could not provide sufficient justification for such differential treatment. The fact that the scheme carried on for 40 years after its inception based on “traditional roles” meant that the state had exceeded any margin of appreciation that it enjoyed.

The Trust is pleased that Cyprus’s attempts to justify a discriminatory scheme have been subjected to the scrutiny of the European Court and firmly rejected. The fact that many countries continue to have laws and policies which directly discriminate against women and their children is a source of universal shame. The Trust, through its research on gender discrimination in nationality laws, has found that such laws not only represent inherent inequality but can also cause significant consequential damage to women and their families. The Trust urges states to repeal all gender discriminatory laws and policies and to ensure benefits are available to those most in need, regardless of their protected characteristics and those of their parents.

To read the Trust’s case summary click here.

To read the Court’s full judgment click here.

Click here to read more about the Trust’s work on gender discriminatory nationality laws.


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