Phyu Phyu Sann, far right, the Global Justice Center’s Senior Burma Researcher, is in Geneva, Switzerland for the United Nation’s (UN) review of Myanmar’s implementation of its obligations under the Convention of the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) to ensure gender equality. In Myanmar, the UN’s Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW Committee) will confront a “constitution and laws that explicitly and in effect discriminate against women,” and a country with a “history of patriarchy, negative gender stereotypes,” and marginalization of women in all parts of society, as outlined in a recent press release and shadow report by the Global Justice Center and the Gender Equality Network.
Arriving in Geneva after a long, trans-Atlantic flight, Sann immediately commenced preparations with members of local women’s groups. In an unprecedented show of cooperation, women’s groups agreed to submit a joint oral statement to the CEDAW Committee and GJC helped formulate and draft the statement. In Geneva, Sann helped to finalize the oral statement, prepare answers to “possible questions from [the] committee,” and compare CEDAW’s list of issues with official responses from the government in order to effectively highlight the precarious situation faced by women.
In e-mail correspondence from Geneva, Sann stresses the importance of listening to women working on the ground to effect change. She notes that, “the CEDAW Committee pays attention to these informative quick assessments and opinions of women from the ground.” Topics covered might include structural barriers and discrimination in law, underrepresentation of women at all levels of government and in the peace process and violence against women, including conflict-related sexual violence committed by the military. Between intense preparation sessions, Sann and her activist colleagues found time to celebrate the country’s rich culinary diversity, cooking “rice and Burmese soup and salad,” and “[sharing] food together.”
The women, Sann writes, are now “ready to engage with CEDAW.”
In 2000, the United Nations (UN) Security Council passed a historic resolution as its clarion call for ending sexual violence in conflict. This Resolution, SCR 1325, as well as the succeeding Resolutions, that together form the Women, Peace and Security (WPS) Resolutions recognized the gender-specific impact of conflict and historic gender discrimination in criminal accountability for sexual violence in conflict, and underscored the need for women to participate in post conflict reconstruction. The Global Summit to End Sexual Violence (the Summit) has been convened to create a “sense of irreversible movement to end the use of rape and sexual violence in conflict” and, therefore, is a time to assess how the WPS Resolutions have translated into protections for women during conflict.
Using the current conflict situation in Burma as a test of the WPS Resolutions demonstrates how ineffective they have been in providing protection and remedy for women on the ground during conflict. Despite the mandates of the WPS Resolutions, credible evidence continues to indicate that the military uses sexual violence against ethnic women in Burma as a means to assert its authority and to destroy ethnic communities. The military continues to operate with Constitutionally-sanctioned impunity for its actions. Moreover, current peace negotiations, intended to end decades of ethnic conflict, have almost completely failed to include women, especially ethnic women.
Updating State National Action Plans to Ensure the International Humanitarian Rights of Women and Girls Raped in Armed Conflict
On the occasion of the Global Summit to End Sexual Violence in Conflict, the Global Justice Center encourages States to exercise global leadership on the protection of women and girls raped in armed conflict by updating their National Action Plans (NAPs) to include explicit language accepting their international humanitarian law obligations to provide non-discriminatory medical care, justice, and reparations to war rape victims.
Women and girls raped in war are among the “war wounded,” therefore protected under international humanitarian law (IHL) by the absolute prohibition on adverse distinction, including on the basis of sex. In reality, however, women and girls raped in war are regularly subjected to discrimination in the medical care they receive and in the justice, accountability, and reparations measures available to them. The prohibition against adverse distinction applies to how all IHL rules are implemented, and it is so fundamental that it constitutes customary international law. Adverse distinction is interchangeable with the term “non-discrimination:” in all cases IHL cannot be implemented in ways that are “less favorable” for women than men.
JULY, 2013: 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 a translated version of the letter.
Read GJC's original letter here.
Read the original version of the Chilean Health Minister's response letter (in Spanish) here.
Letter to Jaime Mañalich Muxi, Re: Denial of Life-Saving Abortion to Pregnant Chilean Girl Violates International Human Rights Law
GJC writes a letter to Chilean Minister of Health, Jaime Manalich Muxi, asking him to allow doctors to perform a life saving abortion on an 11-year old girl who was impregnated after being raped repeatedly by her mother's boyfriend.
On behalf of the Global Justice Center, I am writing to urge you to immediately permit doctors to perform a therapeutic abortion to save the life and prevent further cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment of a young Chilean girl, “Belén,” who faces a life-threatening pregnancy resulting from rape.
Belén, an 11-year old girl, was impregnated after being raped repeatedly for more than two weeks by her mother’s boyfriend. According to Belén’s doctors, the pregnancy has placed her life at risk. If, however, her doctors were to provide her a life-saving abortion, they and Belén would both be found in criminal violation of Chile’s absolute ban on abortion, which allows no exceptions for rape, incest or life of the mother. As Chilean law now stands, an 11-year old girl will be forced to endure a life-threatening pregnancy that will either kill her or compel her, a child herself, to give birth to and raise the child of her rapist. This forced pregnancy will continue the violation of her bodily integrity and sovereignty, extending the pain and abuse she has already experienced.
We call on your government to permit a therapeutic abortion as the only humane response to Belén’s predicament, and to reform your restrictive ban on abortion so that future girls and women are not subjected to the physical and psychological dangers of unwanted and life-threatening pregnancies.
Girls and women in Kenya recently made history when the High Court of Kenya delivered a favorable outcome to a constitutional challenge in which 160 girls between the ages of 3 and 17 sued the Kenyan government for failing to protect them from being raped.
The girls brought the action under Section 22(1) of the Kenyan constitution, which provides that “Every person has the right to institute court proceedings claiming that a right or fundamental freedom in the Bill of Rights has been denied, violated or infringed, or is threatened.” The Kenyan criminal code contains laws that protect against rape, however they are not enforced and as a result rape has been on the rise. The petitioners accused the police of “neglect, omission, refusal and/or failure…to conduct prompt, effective, proper and professional investigations” into sexual violence complaints.
The High Court agreed with the petitioners, saying that the police had “unlawfully, inexcusably and unjustifiably” failed to respond to reports of sexual abuse in Kenya. It said police inaction and lack of enforcement has created a “climate of impunity” that shows perpetrators they can commit crimes of sexual violence and not be punished. The Court found that the petitioners’ fundamental rights and freedoms had been violated, not only under the Kenyan Constitution but also according to international law. The Court found police inaction to violate fundamental rights that are protected by the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, the Convention on the Rights of the Child, and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The Court also considered international cases that demonstrate a consensus that states may be held accountable for failing to properly respond to sexual violence because they have a duty “to protect all citizens from violence and ensure their security of person.”
Two days after the victory, several people contacted Fiona Sampson, the Toronto attorney who worked on the case. They wanted to use the case as a model in other countries for fighting impunity in the context of sexual violence, a problem that is hardly limited to Kenya.
For the women in Burma, for example, the problem of impunity in the face of widespread sexual violence is dire. The prevalence of abuse, documented by Burmese women’s groups, UN special rapporteurs, and even the Security Council, is extensive. These violations are not anecdotal incidences of crime. Rather, the Burmese military uses rape as a weapon of war against the civilian population.
Although this problem has been reported at length, the Burmese government refuses to take any action to punish such acts. In fact, the current 2008 Constitution provides complete impunity for sexual violence perpetrated by the military by including an amnesty provision that precludes the prosecution of military perpetrators of crimes. What’s more, current law requires that any amendment to the Constitution be supported by more than 75% of parliament. Because 25% of parliamentary seats are reserved for the military, all nonmilitary members plus at least one military member must support any proposed amendment. It is therefore unlikely that the amnesty provision will be overturned any time soon.Because of this, the International Center for Transitional Justice has said that Burma presents “one of the most difficult challenges in the world in relation to making progress toward combating impunity”.
As a signatory to the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, Burma has an affirmative duty to ensure women are protected from sexual violence, which includes not affording immunity to its perpetrators. Like Kenya, Burma is bound under the Convention on the Rights of the Child and should be guided by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in developing policies and practices that protect Burmese citizens from sexual violence. Burma is violating these international obligations when it relies on its 2008 Constitution to justify inaction.
The international community should look to the recent case in Kenya as a model and call for Burma to put an end to impunity if it wants to establish viable democracy in the country. Given the Burmese military’s reliance on aid, international pressure could be highly effective. While the government continues to fail to act to combat impunity, the international community must demand a change in the constitution so that girls and women in Burma, just as in Kenya, receive the protections their government owes them.
On May 29, 2013, the United Nations Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL) called for the active participation of women in the drafting of Libya’s constitution-drafting. The statement stresses the significant role Libyan women played in the February Revolution and the continued role they play in public life. The impact women had on the revolution is certainly true, but, we are missing a decisive point – that the participation of women in the drafting process (as well as in the political process in general) is a legal obligation under international law.
The United Nations Security Council (UNSC) Resolutions on Women, Peace and Security, along with CEDAW, stipulate that women should be included in the drafting of national constitutions. As applied to Libya, the Security Council resolutions, which pertain to enhanced gender roles and protections, and CEDAW, a treaty that encompasses recommendations for advancing women’s rights, are relevant in two ways. First, the laws demand women’s participation because of Libya’s post-conflict status. Security Council Resolution 1889 states that nations should ensure women’s participation during all stages of peace processes, especially post-conflict planning and peace building, by enhancing female engagement in decision making from the early stages of the recovery process. Similarly, CEDAW’s General Recommendation 23 states that women must participate in the formulation and implementation of government policy, as well as hold public office. Following the “Declaration of liberation,” Libya is currently a post-conflict state and thus falls within the scope of SCR 1889. Furthermore, the constitution-drafting process appears to be the very type of early-stage planning in which women must be involved. A constitution is a primary source of policy and law; women must be included in its drafting process.
The second way CEDAW and the Security Council resolutions pertain to the Libyan constitution-drafting process is that they call for heightened gender perspectives in decision making processes. The special needs of women are better protected by female point of view in the lawmaking process. Thus, special measures should be taken to ensure women’s political participation. Both UNSC Resolution 1325 and CEDAW directly call for increased gender perspective; however, the latter legal entity goes one step further. In its fifth General Recommendation, CEDAW emphasizes the use of temporary special measures, such as preferential treatment or quota systems, to ensure the inclusion of a critical mass of women in governing bodies. The 23rd General Recommendation further explains that this mere removal ofde jure barriers is necessary but not sufficient, and that states must also work to address cultural barriers and stereotypes, facilitate the recruitment of female candidates, provide financial assistance and training and amend electoral procedures to ensure critical mass.
The optimal means to ensure that a gender perspective manifests in Libyan society is to entrench these values into the constitution. Such steps are legally stipulated by international law, and the appropriate means to attain gender equality, according to CEDAW, are expected to be taken without delay. To reach gender equality, CEDAW recommends temporary measures that per se favor women. A state’s social and cultural practices that are contrary to the equality goal are not accepted reasons to violate its obligations. Libya is no exception. It is the responsibility of the State to provide avenues for women to ascend to office, by reserving public office opportunities for women, as well as actively working to overcome the stigma that may preclude women from becoming candidates.
Democratic practice is also subject to international law on gender equality. In other words, a lack of female representation is not permitted merely as a failure of the population to vote for female candidates. CEDAW recommends that states use electoral instruments to ensure that at least a minimum number of women – that goes beyond mere “tokenism” and is estimated to be between 30 and 35 percent of legislative seats – in order to receive a “critical mass.”
Libya admittedly took steps towards increasing female representation by using a quota (ten percent of seats) in the first democratic election after the fall of the Gaddafi regime. However, this figure is well short of the thirty to thirty-five percent that CEDAW’s General Recommendation 23 provides is necessary for adequate representation. Furthermore, the ten percent quota utilized in Libya is ambiguous and may actually serve as a ceiling for female representation. Finally, the quota only applies to a narrow category of politicians that make up a small proportion of the government assembly.
With these concerns in mind, GJC welcomes UNMSIL’s announcement, but seeks to ensure that Libya goes further to guarantee women the political power and voice they are due according to international law. The new Libyan Constitution is an opportunity to realize gender equality and protect women’s international human rights, as enumerated by the UNSC and CEDAW. Not only do women deserve a seat at the table in drafting Libya’s constitution, as UNMSIL notes, from their participation in the February Revolution, but also as a matter of international law. All efforts must be taken to ensure women’s participation in the constitution-drafting process, and in electoral politics. Such measures will enable the country’s further democratization as it develops in the wake of the revolution.
The GJC welcomes the Committee’s Concept Note and looks forward to the general discussion on “Access to Justice” in preparation for a General Recommendation on the subject.
In general, access to justice for women is essential to the advancement of women’s rights, including the prevention of any form of discrimination against women, including gender based violence, and the full implementation of the rights in the UN Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination against Women.2 In this context, it is essential that women are able to assert their rights in a judicial system, have access to redress and reparation, including compensation, and have perpetrators of crimes against women held accountable.
This written submission focuses on one particular area of access to justice: the necessity to ensure equal participation in the judiciary by women, in particular through the use of quota systems. Gender parity in the judiciary is essential in order to ensure the advancement of the rule of law, and high quality, non-discriminatory decisions.
This document outlines some of Myanmar/Burma’s (hereinafter “Burma”) obligations under international law, and demonstrates the ramifications of these obligations. Burma’s obligations under international law have greatly increased due to the advances in international law and the enforcement of states obligations over the last fifteen years.
International law mandates that states either act or refrain from acting in certain ways, and provides remedies for state breaches. The framework of Burma’s obligations arise from four interrelated bodies of international law: international human rights and other treaty law, including the United Nations (UN) Charter; customary international law, including the laws of state responsibility; international humanitarian law; and international criminal law.
Domestic Criminal Laws That Conflict with International Law: Burma's Abortion and Rape Laws - A Case Study
International law provides a model to improve often outdated domestic laws.
Burma is party to many treaties, including the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, the Convention on the Rights of the Child, the Genocide Convention and the Geneva Conventions. International law requires states to comply with their treaty obligations in “good faith” regardless of whether domestic laws conflict with the treaty. These obligations often include requirements that states modify their domestic laws to ensure compliance with international human rights and humanitarian standards and obligations. For example, the Genocide and Geneva Conventions, ratified by Burma, both require as a part of their fundamental mandates that states pass domestic laws to comply with their treaty obligations. Burma currently has no domestic laws implementing any of its human rights treaty obligations, with the possible exception of its laws against human trafficking.
This document examines Burma’s domestic criminal laws addressing abortion and rape and compares them with the international law standards binding on Burma. These case studies are examples of how international law can be used to reform of Burma’s domestic law to comport with international human rights and humanitarian standards.
The 2008 Constitution Breaches Myanmar/Burma’s Binding Obligations under International Law Including the United Nation’s Charter
The 2008 Constitution Establishes a Civilian Government Without Full Sovereign Powers
Under the 1947 Constitution, in place when Burma applied for United Nation (UN) membership in 1948, Burma was a sovereign state. The Union of the Republic of Myanmar, as established under the 2008 Constitution (the “Constitution”), is not a sovereign state as defined by international law. A “sovereign” state must have supreme power to make laws that are applicable to all institutions and citizens of the state “without accountability” to any other body. To be considered a sovereign state, the civilian government must have “paramount control of the constitution and frame of government and its administration” as well as be the person or body of persons which has no political superior.
The Constitution is unlike any in the world in that it grants the Defense Forces complete autonomy and supremacy over the civilian government.No branch of the “sovereign” state (consisting of the legislative, executive and judicial branches) may exercise oversight over the military. The Constitution reserves 25% of Parliamentary seats for the military and Constitutional amendments require more than 75% majority for passage. This essentially reserves a veto over Constitutional amendments for the military. The civilian government under these limitations does not have full sovereign powers as defined by international law.
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
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.
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.
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.
Letter sent to President Obama by the Egyptian Center for Women's Rights as a part of the GJC's "August 12th Campaign" asking that he issue an Executive Order lifting US abortion restrictions on humanitarian aid.