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