Global Justice Center Blog

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.

Will the UN Conference on the Arms Trade Treaty Actually Result in a Treaty?

The UN Conference on the Arms Trade Treaty (July 2-27) will conclude this week in New York, and member states and NGOs are scrambling to include last-minute changes and amendments to the document before the final is submitted to a vote by member states. The Treaty itself has taken years to draft and includes input from civil society groups as well as governments and intergovernmental organizations. The push for such an agreement was initiated by NGO’s and civil society groups concerned with the proliferation of weapons and the role that arms producers play in perpetuating armed conflicts in some of the poorest nations in the world. The fact that the Conference is taking place at all is a testament to the hard work and dedication not of governments or politicians, but of groups representing individuals and civilians who suffer most from the unmitigated international weapons trade.

Proponents of a strong ATT face significant obstacles in their quest to limit the international arms trade. The monetary value of the global arms market is estimated at $60 billion per year and many powerful states run highly lucrative arms industries that serve to enrich governments and elite officials both financially and in terms of political power and influence. Originally, the United States and other large countries expressed support for a strong treaty that included clear language prohibiting the export of arms to countries or governments with a history of using such weapons against their own populations or in the face of evidence that the weapons may be used for non-defensive purposes. Over the past two weeks, however, many states have begun to pull back their support for strong language and meaningful regulations.

While many were confident of the treaty language early in the Conference proceedings, there have been growing attempts to weaken the treaty’s language to a degree many find unacceptable. This is a troubling trend as it suggests that states may not be able to ultimately agree on treaty conditions and that members may ultimately fail to pass the treaty at all. States and NGOs that are proponents of a strong ATT argue that no treaty would be better than a weak treaty that fails to address the real concerns and dangers implicit in the international weapons trade. Further increasing the likelihood that member states will fail to pass an ATT is the fact that the United States ensured early in the process that any vote on an ATT must be voted for unanimously by all member states in order to take effect. Given these difficult circumstances, it looks to be increasingly unlikely that the UN will be able to agree on any meaningful ATT before the Conference comes to a close on Friday.

Post by: Adrian Lewis