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Discrimination strikes at the very heart of being human.  It is treating someone differently simply because of who they are or what they believe.

We all have the right to be treated equally, regardless of our race, ethnicity, nationality, class, caste, religion, belief, sex, language, sexual orientation, gender identity, age,health or other status. Yet all too often we hear heart-breaking stories of people who suffer cruelty simply for belonging to a “different” group from those in power.

Amnesty’s work is rooted in the principle of non-discrimination. Working with disadvantaged communities across the world we work to change discriminatory laws and protect people. Sometimes these victories are bittersweet, such as when the Moroccan parliament changed its discriminatory rape law in 2014, meaning rapists can no longer escape punishment by forcing their victims to marry them. This was two years too late for Amina Filali and her grieving family. She killed herself in 2012 after being forced to marry the man she said had raped her. 

Protest in support of Amina Filali, outside the Moroccan parliament in Rabat, Morocco. 17 March, 2012. © AP Photo/Abdeljalil Bounhar

The Problem

What drives discrimination?

It is all too easy to deny a person’s human rights if you consider them as “less than” you. But how does this happen? At the heart of all forms of discrimination is prejudice based on concepts of identity, and the need to identify with a certain group. This can lead to ignorance and even hate.

Some governments reinforce their power and the status quo by openly justifying discrimination in the name of “morality”, religion or ideology. It can be cemented in national law – such as by restricting women’s freedom – despite breaking international law. Certain groups can even be viewed by the authorities as more likely to be criminal simply for who they are, such as being poor, indigenous or black. 

Sometimes people are criminalized directly for who and what they are - such as being gay. Sometimes it happens indirectly – for example employers asking for a high-level of proficiency in a native language when the tasks involved do not actually require it.

In many countries racism is nourished by increasingly xenophobic responses to immigration.

Amnesty is calling for

Governments to…

  • Get rid of discriminatory laws and release anyone who is in prison because of them.
  • Protect everyone - whoever they are - from violence.
  • Draw up new laws and build institutions that tackle the root causes of discrimination.
  • Lead from the front - never exploit or use people’s discriminatory beliefs for political ends.

The issue in detail

In some situations, discrimination means laws don’t protect people from racist violence, domestic violence or attacks because of their religion or sexual orientation.

Women and girls

The experience of women and girls illustrates the nature of discrimination.

In far more places than you might imagine, laws exist making women second-class citizens. They cannot dress as they like, drive (Saudi Arabia) or work at night (China, Latvia, Madagascar). Discriminatory laws relate to family life, including limiting a woman’s right to marry, or the right not to marry, divorce and remarry (Afghanistan, Malaysia, Niger and Sudan to just name a few).

Discrimination doesn’t only mean a lack of equality, it actually perpetuates harm. When the state dismisses violence against women as a private or domestic matter, it sends a clear message that violence against women is condoned.

Discrimination against women is often made worse when they belong to more than one disadvantaged group because of their income, race, ethnicity, sexual identity, caste, religion, class or age. Human Rights Defender Bhanwari Devi was raped by five men of a so-called higher caste in India. In the acquittal of her attackers two years later, the court noted that the incident could not possibly have happened because upper caste men would not rape a woman of a lower caste. 




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Key Facts


76 countries criminalise sexual acts between adults of the same sex.


In 10 countries the maximum sentence for sexual acts between same sex adults is the death penalty.


In Canada, Indigenous women are x4 more likely to be murdered than other women.


Over one million people worldwide campaigned successfully for the release of Meriam Yehya Ibrahim in 2014. A Sudanese Christian sentenced to death by hanging for abandoning her religion.