30th Anniversary of the CEDAW Committee

On July 9, the 52nd session of the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women began at UN headquarters in New York. This year marks the 30th anniversary of the Committee, which was established in 1982 as a means of ensuring compliance with the articles of the Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW). CEDAW was adopted by the UN General Assembly in 1979 and remains one of the most important documents outlining the rights of women around the world.

In her remarks at the opening ceremony of the session, Michelle Bachelet—head of UN Women and former president of Chile—addressed a number of obstacles in the global struggle for gender equality. Among many concerns, she emphasized the importance of gender quotas in national governments and legislatures. The impact on young girls of seeing women in positions of power, she said, was the first step in ensuring greater women’s participation in government and politics for future generations. To illustrate this point, Ms. Bachelet told a story shared with her by the first female president of Finland, Tarja Halonen, who served in the position for 12 year from 2000 to 2012.

President Halonen was speaking to a room of Finnish kindergarten students, all of whom had been born after Ms. Halonen’s election to office. The president began asking the children what they wanted to be when they grew up. She asked a little boy in the group if maybe he would like to be the president of Finland when he got older. The little boy looked confused and replied, “No, because boys can’t be president in Finland.”

Post By: Adrian Lewis

The critical connection between maternal mortality and unsafe abortions

With the 2015 target of the Millennium Development Goals approaching, the United Nations recently issued a report detailing the progress made on each goal.  While some goals have made major gains and will reach their targets by 2015, “Goal 5: Improve maternal health”, is not seeing the gains other goals have made.  The stated target of Goal 5 was to “reduce by three quarters, between 1990 and 2015, the maternal mortality ratio”.  Sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia account for most of the maternal mortality cases.

The report notes that maternal mortality rates could decrease by ensuring that women receive ante-natal care, give birth in the presence of skilled health professionals, and have unobstructed access to family planning and contraceptives.  Though the report mentions access to family planning and contraceptives, it makes no explicit mention of access to safe abortions.  The connection between maternal mortality rates and lack of access to safe abortions is critical, and cannot be ignored.  The CEDAW Committee has repeatedly made the connection between maternal mortality and unsafe abortions, noting the “high rates of maternal mortality due to high numbers of abortions among adolescents, and unsafe, clandestine, and illegal abortions”.

July’s summit on family planning in London raised $2.6 billion dollars to improve access to family planning and contraceptives for an additional 120 million women by 2020.  One article suggests that “[w]hat vaccinations are to infant mortality, contraception is to maternal mortality.”  The organizers of the family planning summit claim that the money raised will result in 200,000 fewer women dying in pregnancy.  While it is important for women to be able to obtain contraceptives wherever they are in the world, it is equally as important that women have access to safe abortions if contraceptives fail, or if a rape victim seeks an abortion to help end the psychological trauma still lingering from her assault.   If women are forced to resort to unsafe abortions because they are illegal, unaffordable, or unobtainable, the maternal mortality rate will stay steady.

When Times Get Tough, Women’s Rights Shouldn’t Suffer

Hard times happen. They can happen anytime and anywhere. They can happen on a scale as small as a community or family or as large as an entire region or country. The causes range from economic crises to armed conflicts and everything in between. In fact, the one thing that seems to be universal about hard times is that they lead to less respect for women’s rights.

In Nepal, girls are essentially sold into slavery when their families are struggling with debt. The ethnic Tharu practice a form of indentured servitude known as “kamlari”. Tharu families struggling with extreme poverty ease their debt burdens by leasing their daughters to higher caste landlords to use as servants for as little as $30 a year. Girls as young as six enter the system and are forced to do menial labor. These girls suffer a wide range of abuses, including beatings and rape, and are not allowed to go to school. Activists have been struggling to free girls from the kamlari system but the system has persisted in isolated parts of Nepal.

In Afghanistan and Pakistan, girls are traded as a form of dispute settlement. Daughters are given to rival parties to settle disputes in a practice known as “swara” or “vani”. Swara is used to settle crimes such as murder, adultery, and kidnapping. A daughter from the family of the perpetrator (usually the girl’s father or brother) is forced to marry into the family of the victim. The girls are often quite young and the men they are forced to marry are often significantly older. Swara brides are treated terribly by their in-laws and husbands. They are treated like servants, constantly taunted, frequently beaten, and sometimes even killed.

In Niger, there is a tradition of marrying girls off at a very young age. Niger has the world’s highest rate of child marriage with approximately 50% of girls marrying before the age of fifteen, with some as young as seven. Girls are married off in exchange for dowries, including livestock and cash, which can be very helpful for families struggling with poverty. The country is currently in the middle of a hunger crisis resulting from a severe drought. Therefore, families that were already poor are now finding it even more difficult to put food on the table and there is a legitimate fear that families will begin marrying off their daughters with greater frequency and at younger ages if the crisis continues. Child brides in Niger lead difficult lives. They are often married to men who are much older, they are unable to attend school, forced to have sexual intercourse, denied freedom, beaten, and often abandoned when their polygamous husbands take younger brides. Additionally, child brides tend to be impregnated long before their bodies are ready to bear children, which often leads to serious health problems and even death.

In Madagascar, girls are frequently forced into prostitution when their families don’t have enough money to survive. In the southern region of the island, they have what is called “tsenan’ampela” (literally girls market). Families send their girls to market towns without money, forcing them to prostitute themselves at the tsenan’ampela until they have enough money to buy food and supplies for the family.

In times of conflict, rape and sexual assault are frequently used against women as weapons of war. This is currently happening in Syria in the conflict between President Bashar al-Assad and anti-government forces. Women Under Siege has documented 81 instances of sexual assault since anti-government demonstrations began in March 2011. There is evidence that forces are targeting victims related to the Free Syrian Army as a way to punish the rebels with reports of soldiers going into houses looking for male members of the rebel forces and then raping the women. Many of the women have been killed after being assaulted, which is a tactic used in conflict zones to show complete control over the enemy.

The situations described above are just a handful of examples of how women and girls suffer disproportionately in times of hardship, and the list could go on and on. The list of excuses for these types of discrimination is equally long and includes explanations blaming culture, tradition, inevitability, and ignorance. However, the truth is that there is no excuse for sacrificing women’s rights in hard times. According to Article 1 of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), “discrimination against women” shall mean any distinction, exclusion or restriction made on the basis of sex which has the effect or purpose of impairing or nullifying the recognition, enjoyment or exercise by women, irrespective of their marital status, on a basis of equality of men and women, of human rights and fundamental freedoms in the political, economic, social, cultural, civil or any other field.” This broad definition of discrimination against women means that for at least the 187 countries that are a party to CEDAW, there is an obligation to ensure that women’s rights are respected and that women do not suffer disproportionately in any circumstance, including times of hardship. As such, women and girls should never be turned into a commodity and sold off when their families need food and money, and they should never brutalized for crimes they have not committed or battles they have not fought. When times get tough, women should be given an equal say in finding a solution.

CEDAW Review Showcases State Parties’ Reluctance to Fully Disclose Shortcomings in Abortion Policies and the Subsequent Repercussions

July 9, 2012 began the 52nd Session of the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women.  This session, which continues for three weeks, includes reviews of the reports submitted by several countries that are up for review.  Each country that is a party to the Convention must submit periodic reports as an accountability measure detailing how they are complying with the requirements of the Convention, along with progress and updates relevant to the Convention.  Upon reviewing each country’s submission, the Committee is then able to question the country regarding its report, and make general recommendations.  While the reports are intended to detail all areas of the country that pertain to the Convention, there are often gaps in information or areas that are not given the same degree of focus as others.  Proposing questions to the country’s delegation allows the Committee to dig deeper to find out that missing information, or reasons as to why it was not included in the first place, as well as to challenge any areas where the country does not appear to be meeting the standards required by the Convention.

On July 17, Mexico was up for review.  The head of the Mexican delegation began by presenting a synopsis of the country report to the Committee.  After about an hour, the question and answer period began where many issues were discussed including women’s access to education, female representation in government, violence against women, and more.  While there seemed to be a heavy focus on addressing the state of violence against women and female missing persons, there was a noticeable lack of attention to the issue of women’s access to abortions and the inconsistent policies throughout the country relating to abortions.  The subject of abortion was not raised during Mexico’s introductory presentation and even in the question period it took a significant amount of time for anyone to even mention it.

The questioning segment of the review is conducted by taking several questions at a time, and then intermittently allowing the delegation up for review to organize a response to all of the questions presented so as to allow for efficient answers and avoid overlap and repetition.  While this method does allow for consolidation of responses, it also presents the opportunity to gloss over certain questions or parts of questions, which is precisely what happened with most of the instances where abortion was included as a part of a question.   CEDAW experts asked about ensuring that federalism would not be used to perpetuate the limiting of women’s human rights and about the impact of failure to universally provide abortions on maternal mortality rates.  In both instances, the delegation attempted to skirt the issue, but when they were finally pressed upon it, they were forced to concede their shortcomings.

Mexico universally allows for abortion in the case of rape.  However in other circumstances, the individual states within Mexico determine their own legislation on the issue, and there are several states that protect life at conception.  This inconsistency and great potential for discrimination precipitated the question on federalism.  The delegation finally admitted that due to the current state of Mexican laws, it is possible that one’s degree of protection against discrimination varies simply depending upon where she is born.  They recognized that they must make headway in terms of equality in this area, especially regarding their CEDAW obligations, and they have not yet achieved this.  The delegation furthermore stated that failure to provide access to safe abortions continues to be one of the leading causes, the 5thleading cause to be exact, of maternal mortality.  While they claim that Mexico is committed to reducing the maternal mortality rate, they simultaneously have disclosed that the 7% of maternal deaths result from abortion related issues, and that figure is not decreasing fast enough despite the programs and measures put in place.

The main point of concern is surprisingly, not only the fact that Mexico has such a long way to go in the realm of guaranteeing universally equal abortion rights and working towards decreasing maternal mortality rates.  The most disconcerting facet of this situation is how easily overlooked the entire topic of abortion almost was.  Not only was Mexico ready to push abortion aside and hope no one would bring it up, but when it was brought up, the delegation was almost completely able to leave those questions unanswered.  Only when the CEDAW experts consistently and adamantly pressed for answers to their questions was the delegation finally sufficiently cornered such that they couldn’t avoid the question any longer.  The purpose of reviewing the parties to the Convention is to ensure that the parties are adhering to the Convention.  The only way to truly ensure this is if all parties cooperate and participate in an honest manner.  It is hardly expected that upon signing a treaty every party will instantly conform to the requirements of that treaty.  Instead, progress and effort must be demonstrated that the parties are moving in the direction of full fulfillment of the requirements.  However, either for fear of sanctions, unwillingness to make the necessary changes, or some other motivator that prevents parties from addressing the areas they need to improve in, parties seem to consistently fail to fully convey an accurate portrayal of what is happening in the country.  Fortunately, NGOs often pick up the slack by filing shadow reports, making sure that Committees has a more complete picture of the state of affairs.  However, the CEDAW review of Mexico highlights the need for countries to be more amenable to complete, true reports, and shows the need for Committee members and any other reviewing body to take a skeptical eye to reports submitted by countries.

Disappointment at Rio+20 for Women

The outcome of the Rio+20 summit failed women everywhere. Language regarding reproductive rights and gender equality was dropped from the draft agreement, representing a significant step backwards from earlier agreements.

Going into the summit, the draft document included specific language ensuring reproductive rights and gender equality. A handful of oppressive regimes opposed this language and the Holy See led the opposition in an influential campaign that insisted on equating women’s reproductive rights with abortion. In reality, reproductive rights are about a great deal more than abortion, but unfortunately, the Holy See was able to assert enough pressure to succeed in getting the language removed from the agreement, leaving behind only vague references to reproductive health.

Ironically, most states are already under obligation to ensure reproductive rights and gender equality. As of today, 187 states have ratified Convention on the Elimination on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), which requires member states to, among other things, take affirmative action to eliminate gender discrimination and to ensure that women have access to affordable, quality health services, including reproductive health. In fact, lack of access to reproductive health services and information is considered discriminatory against women under CEDAW. Unfortunately, due to weak enforcement mechanisms and a substantial number of reservations taken by states in ratifying the convention, performance of state obligations under CEDAW has been relatively poor. Including strong reproductive rights and gender equality commitments in the Rio+20 agreement would have been an excellent way to reinforce the importance of these issues, especially since it would have been from a sustainable development perspective.

Every day, evidence of the importance of reproductive rights and gender equality can be found in the news. For instance, Save the Children just came out with a  report on family planning finding that complications during pregnancy is the number one killer of teenage girls worldwide; babies born to mothers under the age of 18 are 60% more likely to die before their first birthday; and a “major barrier to family planning is that many vulnerable women and girls are unable to exercise their rights to make decisions over their own health care, including family planning.” Additionally, in Uganda, where approximately 16 women die during childbirth every day, women activists are currently taking a case to the Supreme Court in an effort to force the government to provide better maternal health care.

Rio+20 represents a lost opportunity. What could have been a significant step forward for women’s rights turned into yet another instance where women were left out of the picture.

How Women in Power Can Help Change Society

“Sisters in Law”, a documentary following State Prosecutor Vera Ngassa and Court President Beatrice Ntuba in the small Muslim village of Kumba in Cameroon, is a wonderful example of how women in government can help transform the lives of women.  These women used their positions to help eliminate injustice towards women and to fight against Cameroon’s patriarchal society, where traditional attitudes ignored violence against women and even silenced them.  The documentary follows Ngassa and Ntuba as they prosecute a man for beating his wife and successfully convict him (the first time a man has been successfully convicted for spousal abuse in Kumba in over 17 years), in addition to helping a young girl get justice after being raped by an adult neighbor.

This documentary is a shining example of how women in positions of power can truly help achieve social change and improve situations for women.  Women in the small village of Kumba began to feel more confident and secure under Ngassa and Ntuba’s lead, and began to stand up against their abusers and against the male-dominated structure of their society to enforce their rights.  Women are severely underrepresented in the political world, despite making up about half of the population in any given country.  Currently, women only make up 19.6 percent of the membership of parliaments around the world.  In the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women’s General Recommendation No. 23, it is suggested that countries implement gender neutral quotas requiring that neither sex constitute less than 40% of a public body, quotas for women in public office, and rules giving preference to women nominees.  The Committee also noted that “research demonstrates that if women’s participation reaches 30 to 35 percent (generally termed a ‘critical mass’), there is a real impact on political style and the content of decisions, and political life is revitalized.”  Gender quotas do not have to apply only to the public sphere, as shown by Norway’s gender quota for “market-listed companies to fill 40 percent of the seats on their corporate supervisory boards with women.”

In order to boost political participation, and improve basic human rights and women’s rights, countries should consider implementing gender quotas for both legislative and judicial bodies.  If more women like Vera Ngassa and Beatrice Ntuba were put into positions of power, whether by being elected or being placed through a quota, it is almost certain that the situation for women around the world would improve greatly.

New York Review of Law and Social Change, “U.S. Ratification of CEDAW: An Opportunity to Radically Reframe the Right to Equality Accorded Women Under the U.S. Constitution”

The NYU Review of Law & Social Change publishes an article titled "U.S. Ratification of CEDAW: an Opportunity to Radically Reframe the Right to Equality Accorded Women Under the U.S. Constitution" by Janet Benshoof (GJC's Founder and President).

Subheadings in this article include "Women's Rights Advocated Shaped the Development of the Supreme Court's Scheme of Women's Rights", "The Tripartite Scheme Used by the Supreme Court to Adjudicate Women's Rights to Equality", and "The U.S. Ratification of CEDAW: an Opportunity for Change."

Download PDF

Global Justice Center’s Suggestions and Comments Regarding the Integration of Gender Equality and International Law for the Draft Transitional Constitution of the Republic of South Sudan

The GJC publishes suggestions and comments regarding the integration of gender equality and international law for the draft transitional constitution of the Republic of South Sudan.

These suggestions are formatted in a list of the topic, constitutional article and the GJC's issues/comments with it. The topics include Gender Equality, International Law, Prevention of Underage Marriages, Right to Litigation, Public Health Care, Family, Defence of the Republic of South Sudan, Establishment and Composition of the Council of Ministers, and Appointment of Justices and Judges. There are 18 entries in the list.

Download PDF

Chilean Health Minister Reply - Original

 Chilean Health Minister Dr. Jaime Menalich Muxi responds to a letter from the GJC requesting that he allow an 11-year-old rape victim to have a life-saving abortion. This letter states that though the pregnancy is risky, he cannot grant her an abortion because it is against the law. This is the original, untranslated copy of the letter the Chilean Health Minister sent in reply to the GJC.

Read GJC's original letter here.

Read a translated version of this letter here.

Download PDF

Historic Opportunity for Women of South Sudan

GJC provides Critical Expertise to Ensure South Sudan’s New Constitution Embeds Internationally Guaranteed Equality Rights.

The Republic of South Sudan is in the process of drafting a new constitution and democracy advocates and women’s groups are hoping to create a new paradigm of democracy, justice, and equality in Africa that will be adopted when the region declares independence on July 9, 2011.

The Global Justice Center, due to its extensive experience in constitution analyes in Iraq, Kurdistan, Burma, and Northern Ireland, was asked by one of South Sudan’s leading women’s organizations for its expertise on implementing women’s rights in the Draft Transitional Constitution.  Because the GJC is dedicated to forging and enforcing international law grounded on gender equality, the recommendations that were made on the South Sudanese draft constitution naturally reflected these principals, ensuring primacy for International Humanitarian Law (IHL) and equality guarantees.  With the ratification of this new constitution, South Sudan has the historic opportunity to remodel their government on a foundation of parity and power that promotes equality and peace.

In particular, the GJC’s analysis carefully scrutinized every article in order to ensure compliance with international treaties such as the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR).

GJC believes that the structure and inherent permanence of constitutions to be a critical component in efforts to create justice and equality, by establishing a concrete basis upon which all law and policy will be developed going forward.  Amongst many crucial suggestions, the GJC recommended that:

1.  Equality for women must be explicitly defined to ensure that women have gender parity in positions of power.

2.  The government has an obligation to take permanent steps to ensure that all treaty guarantee laws are implemented.

3.  In accordance with the ICCPR and the African Protocol, which are both applicable to South Sudan as a successor state, there exist quotas for a starting point of 30% women in the legislative and executive branches as well as gender parity in the judiciary branch and new constitutional court.

4.  Adding an article modeled after the South African Constitution explicit on reproductive rights.

The Republic of South Sudan’s new constitution has the ability to address the suffering caused by Sudan’s civil war and mark a crucial turning point in women’s ability to access equality.

The GJC advocates for the enforcement of law over the creation of policy as the strongest avenue to effectively implement human rights.  As GJC President Janet Benshoof states, “The constitution is the most important legal instrument, for it is the single time for women to influence peace and justice as well as place equality over conflict and peace over security.”

CEDAW Hearing Encouraging, U.S. Ratification Long Overdue

Great press release by The National Organization For Women evaluating Thursday’s Senate Judiciary, Subcommittee on Human Rights and the Law hearing on the U.N. Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW). The Global Justice Center especially commends NOW’s stance on the need for the ratification of CEDAW without any Reservations, Declarations and Understandings (RDUs).

November 19, 2010

NOW applauds Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) for chairing a first-ever Judiciary Committee hearing Thursday on ratification of the U.N. Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW). Eight years have lagged since the last hearing for the human rights treaty signed by President Jimmy Carter in 1979.

“Women around the world have waited more than 30 years for the U.S. to ratify this treaty. In an age when women can be stoned to death for surviving rape, and women are 70 percent of the 1.3 billion people living in poverty worldwide, it is unconscionable for a vocal reactionary minority to keep our country sitting on the sidelines. This hearing can be a significant step forward with very much deserved pressure on the Senate,” said NOW Action Vice President Erin Matson, who attended the Nov. 18 hearing on Capitol Hill.

To date, 185 countries have ratified CEDAW, and even though the United States helped draft the treaty, it is the only industrialized country that has yet to ratify. The other six countries that have refused to ratify CEDAW are Iran, Sudan, Somalia, Nauru, Palau and Tonga.

CEDAW is the most comprehensive international agreement on the basic human rights of women and girls. U.S. ratification would lend weight to the treaty and the principle that women’s human rights are universal across all cultures, nations and religions, and worthy of being guaranteed through international standards.

Matson noted: “Until the U.S. ratifies CEDAW, it can neither credibly demand that other countries live up to their obligations under the treaty, nor claim that it is a leader in the global human rights community.”

The next step toward ratification is for Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) to hold a vote in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. If the treaty is approved by the committee, it must then be brought to a full vote on the Senate floor. Women in the U.S. and around the world stand to benefit greatly under CEDAW ratification, so NOW is using its RATIFY WOMEN! national action campaign to call on the committee chair to: “Hurry, Kerry!”

“Women around the world want to know: Are Senators for women’s human rights, or are they against them? It’s well past time for a floor vote,” said Matson.

NOW’s call comes with an additional appeal — that CEDAW be ratified without the Reservations, Declarations and Understandings (RDUs) that prior administrations and conservative senators attached to the treaty. These RDUs, in essence, are loopholes that would undermine key provisions, and their presence creates a watered-down U.S. version of the treaty. The RDUs convey a lack of commitment to ending discrimination against women and specifically claim no responsibility for the U.S. to undertake efforts to expand maternity leave, improve access to health care services for women, or take more effective efforts to address sex-based pay discrimination, among other objectives designed to promote women’s equality.

“Ratifying CEDAW with debilitating RDUs attached would hurt the cause of women’s rights worldwide,” said Matson. “NOW urges ratification of a strong, clean CEDAW to display this nation’s commitment to improving human rights for women in all areas covered by this important treaty.”

###

For Immediate Release
Contact: Mai Shiozaki w. 202-628-8669, ext. 116, c. 202-595-4473