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Inter Press Service, August 5, 2004

Women's Discrimination Now a Global Concern - UN

UNITED NATIONS, (IPS) - More time, not a new deadline, is needed for universal ratification of the convention to eliminate discrimination against women, says Feride Acar, chairperson of the U.N. committee on the convention.

The initiative to have the treaty signed by all the world's nations could get a boost from the upcoming 25th anniversary of the Convention on the Elimination of All forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) Acar suggested in an interview Tuesday.

Adopted by the U.N. General Assembly (GA) in 1979, the convention entered into force in September 1981, faster than any other previous U.N. human rights treaty.

The world conference on women in Beijing in 1995 set the year 2000 as the deadline for all U.N. member states to sign the treaty, but so far, only 177 of 191 states have endorsed the convention.

Among others, the United States has not yet ratified the document. The U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee approved it in 2002 but the decision was never voted on by the full Senate. Ratification would require 67 votes in favour out of 100 total Senate votes.

”There will come a time when the U.S. will also ratify the convention because there are many hardworking women's groups pushing for ratification,” said Acar, who predicts that getting every country to sign CEDAW is not an impossible mission.

”Especially since Beijing, states have ratified (passed into domestic law) consistently. Every couple of months you have one or two more countries ratified,” she said. Pressure from non-governmental women's groups is a crucial factor pushing governments to commit to the treaty, added Acar.

The legally binding convention sets out principles on the rights of women and prohibits all forms of discrimination against them. It defines discrimination as any distinction, exclusion or restriction based on sex to impair or nullify the recognition, enjoyment or exercise by women of human rights and fundamental freedoms in the political, economic, social, cultural, civil or any other field.

Those guarantees apply irrespective of women's marital status, and are based on the equality of men and women, adds the treaty.

Despite the absence of some governments' signatures on the convention, important steps forward have been made, said Acar. For example, the CEDAW committee, an international body of 23 independent experts established in 1982, achieved several ”firsts” during its last session at U.N. headquarters in July, she added.

Most important was the first-ever action taken with regard to the optional protocol (OP) to CEDAW, which entered into force in 2000.

The OP, an amendment to the convention, entitles the committee to initiate inquiries into situations of grave or systematic violations of women's rights and allows women to submit complaints about alleged violations of the convention.

OPs are treaties in their own rights thus open to signature, accession and ratification by countries that are also parties to the main treaty. The CEDAW-OP has been ratified by 62 of the 177 signatories.

July's committee session completed the first inquiry and the first individual complaint made under the provisions of the OP.

The inquiry, filed two years ago by the U.S.-based non-governmental organisation (NGO) Equality Now and Mexican-based NGOs, dealt with disappeared and killed women in the city of Juarez, Mexico.

Its results have been forwarded to the Mexican government, which is required to appear before the next session of the CEDAW committee in January to respond to the findings. The inquiry's results will be published in September.

”We thought this case was a suitable possibility for the committee to take action,” said Equality Now President Jessica Neuwirth, who added that her group continues to follow current incidents in the Mexican city.

According to Acar, although NGOs were previously aware of this case, the committee inquiry brought a new angle to the issue because it did not concentrate only on what happened to the women and the killers. ”We went beyond, to explore the climate and the culture that gives rise to this kind of behaviour. Our recommendations not only address this specific case but aim at the root causes.”

The individual complaint addressed by the committee was filed by a woman from Germany. It was not admitted because national remedies to the complaint had not been exhausted -- a requirement of the protocol. But another four complaints are already waiting to be heard by the committee, most of them filed by women from European countries, according to Acar.

Despite these achievements, NGOs give different grades to the CEDAW committee. Equality Now's Neuwirth calls it ”a very productive framework for women's rights on the ground,” but others want it to be more critical.

”If you have been to one of the sessions, you have been to all of them,” said Doris Mpounu from the U.S.-based Women's Environment and Development Organisation. She told IPS that the committee should ask member states more specific questions in some areas, for instance, on the relationship between women and development, an issue only indirectly covered in the convention.

Acar disagreed. ”All we can do is put pressure on countries,” she said.

According to the chairperson, reservations by member states to articles of the treaty are the major problem facing the committee. For instance, most countries in the Middle East, Asia and Africa that have signed the convention have registered such strong reservations -- official disputes that leave them free of a contractual obligation to the United Nations -- that the very purpose of the CEDAW, total elimination of women's discrimination, is nullified.

Virtually all of those nations say they will not implement provisions of the convention that conflict with Islamic law, or Shariah. Most of their reservations are related to provisions that deal with equality in laws of marriage, family, divorce, inheritance and choice of spouse, and also concerning relationships within the family, said Acar.

Thirteen states and dependant territories, among them Bangladesh, Singapore and Morocco, have made reservations to CEDAW's article 2, which deals with policies and measures to eliminate all discrimination against women and is often referred to the heart of the convention. In total, 53 member states have made reservations to one or more articles.

”But even if it is with reservations, it is better to have those states talking to the international community,” Acar said. ”I have never seen a country saying to the committee 'we do not answer questions dealing with a reservation we have made'; they all do engage in discussion.”

Asked the most important achievements of the last 25 years, Acar said it would be that governments have committed to make women's human rights an essential part of their agendas and now use the language of women's human rights, such as ”non-discrimination..”

”Perhaps the greatest impact can be seen in the developing countries, where civil society was not all that developed 25 years ago, in countries that have not necessarily a democratic culture or civil society,” she added.

The challenge now is to make the convention not only known to each and every woman, but also to ensure that women know how to use it, according to Acar.

Doris Mpounu agreed that because many women do not know the CEDAW exists, its effect has been limited. ”Overall, the convention is extremely useful because it has such a great potential but this can only be used if it is going to be domesticated.”

<< Inter Press Service -- 8/5/04 >>

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