CEDAW is essential to protecting women’s rights but implementation must follow

Guest post by Ariana Rabindranath

On March 5, 2012, the World Bank hosted an event to underscore the critical role that the U.N. Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) has played in promoting women’s rights in developing countries. The event was co-sponsored by the Nordic Trust Fund, The Leadership Conference Education Fund, and the United Nations Foundation.

In her opening remarks, Melanne Verveer, Ambassador-at-Large for Global Women’s Issues in the U.S. State Department, lauded the use of CEDAW to provide legitimacy to women’s rights activists and specifically for use as a lobbying tool for equal rights in a constitution: “Today we have established a red line… Those who emerge from conflict must abide by a constitution and it must include equal rights for women.” CEDAW has provided protection from those who do not support women’s rights.

Verveer then relayed a conversation she had with an Afghan official opposed to a law against violence against women. When Verveer reminded the man that his government had ratified CEDAW, his response was, “I keep telling them not to ratify those international treaties.”

Sima Samar, Chairperson of the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission and Former Minister of Women’s Affairs in Afghanistan, was the keynote speaker. She reviewed obstacles to women’s equality including women’s rights being “a political football” because no one is willing to take them on; lack of educational opportunities for women; negative religious interpretation of women’s rights; unequal value for women’s work; lack of access to basic social services; and culture of impunity for sexual violence.

Samar suggested the way to move forward should include strong political leadership, government promotion of women’s rights, government sanction against harmful traditional practices, more decision-making positions for women, CEDAW ratification, holding governments accountable to CEDAW, and women needing to take charge and stand up for their rights. Finally, she said the U.S. government would have more credibility in the fight against violence against women if it ratified CEDAW.

A panel discussion followed on examples of how CEDAW has been used to advance women’s rights.
Caroline Anstey, Managing Director of the World Bank, made a strong opening statement that “gender equality is a right” and it is time for the World Bank to get involved in fighting corruption, supporting freedom of information, promoting citizen voice, and pushing for women’s rights. These issues “are central to our remit. We have wasted too much time on these political discussions and it’s time to get to work. We have been slow and we have to learn. We want to accelerate and scale up the Bank’s work on rights – access to resources and justice. We are working to fill data gaps and analytics. We are building an evidence base to help design policy.”

Hillary Clinton at the Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing in 1995. The First World Conference on Women in 1975 laid the groundwork for CEDAW. Credit: UN/DPI 051210 Yao Da Wei.

Sameena Nazir, Founder and Executive Director of Potohar Organization for Development Advocacy, said that CEDAW has been used in Pakistan to support recommendations that women should get 10 percent of seats in all government jobs. Several recent bills and laws supporting women’s rights referred to CEDAW, including the 2010 bill against sexual harassment of women, a 2011 law that criminalizes acid throwing, a 2011 law against harmful practices where young girls are given as part of dispute resolution, and a 2011 law to ensure women are not deprived of inheritance rights and are not forced into marriage.

Meaza Ashenafi, Founder, Ethiopian Women’s Lawyers Association, reported that an important bill of rights was developed in Ethiopia using CEDAW. Family law, criminal law, pension law, and citizenship laws have been amended as a result of CEDAW. Litigation used for larger legal and social transformation has been affected by the Convention. CEDAW was used in the 2005 African women’s protocol to embed and elaborate women’s rights in African countries. Ashenafi cited an example from Ethiopia where two articles in CEDAW were used to defend a 14 year-old girl who shot and killed her abductor and rapist.

Dubravka Simonovic, Member of the CEDAW Committee and Chairperson of the CEDAW Optional Protocol Working Group, said CEDAW has accelerated advancement of women where they have lagged behind, for example, in quotas to increase political participation. In Brazil, the Maria da Penha law against violence against women (VAW) clearly references CEDAW. And Europe is for the first time codifying conventions to prevent VAW. But, full implementation is missing from the picture.

Mahnaz Afkhami, Founder and President of the Women’s Learning Partnership, cautioned this is a tenuous time for women in the Middle East. Even though CEDAW has been ratified in the Arab states, women fear the religious conservatives will shun international agreements and limit their rights: “Very conservative religious groups are more organized with more access to media. At the same time there is awareness and consciousness among people and citizen journalism. People are trying hard and fast to build skills for women in decision-making.” While in Morocco women had success in changing the constitution, she said, the Minister of Women’s Affairs (who is a woman) says CEDAW should not be recognized.

While Anstey acknowledges the progress in these laws, she said the real work comes with implementation: “If you want to get a job without your husband’s say-so, will the employer report it to your husband? Can you go to the police if you are beaten? Women are confined to microfinance because they often don’t have collateral to borrow larger sums of money. Just by putting women’s name on the land title means she can get larger loans. World Bank knows that if women are empowered, given rights, the development outcomes will be better. This is now accepted within the institution, we just have to drive it forward with our clients.” She called on the global community to put women’s issues on the international stage at big meetings.

All of the participants acknowledged the irony that the United States, which touts its commitment to human rights around the world, is one of only seven countries that have not ratified CEDAW. This makes international human rights work difficult because critics are quick to point out that if “great” United States doesn’t even support CEDAW, why should they?

Ariana Rabindranath is the Associate Director of the Global Gender Program at GW’s Elliott School of International Affairs. She is also Vice President and co-Founder of The Bindi Project, an NGO with a mission to reduce violence and discrimination against girls and women in India.

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