Where Do We Stand After 30 Years of CEDAW?

December 4, 2009 posted by Kyla Bender-Baird

Yesterday, three fabulous NCRW interns* and I journeyed down to the concrete maze that is the United Nations to participate in a commemorative event celebrating CEDAW’s 30th birthday. The United Nations Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, often referred to as the international bill of women’s human rights, was adopted by the UN General Assembly in 1979. The Convention defines discrimination as

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.

To date 186 countries have ratified the convention. The U.S. is one of eight states that has not, keeping company with Iran, Sudan and Somalia. Head on over to this nifty site to learn more about CEDAW.

The main thrust of yesterday’s event was to examine how countries around the world have used CEDAW to further women’s rights in their local contexts. And they had quite a line-up!

Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon announced in his opening remarks that women now represent 40% of UN senior posts. Sarah Jones followed up with an updated version of her one-woman show “Women Can’t Wait.” Originally prepared for Equality Now’s Beijing’s +5 Campaign, the performance highlights discriminatory laws around the world. With humor, pizzaz, and more than a pocket-full of characters, Jones gave a snapshot of what has happened in the realm of women’s human rights in the past ten years. Commenting on the continuing challenges and slow rate of progress, Jones joked that perhaps the show should be more aptly named “Women Prefer Not to Wait.” Following this amazing performance, Ghida Fakry from Al Jazeera moderated a discussion on stories of CEDAW’s impact on women’s rights, featuring five countries: Morocco, India, Cameroon, Mexico, and Austria.

Throughout the event, I was struck by the centrality of violence in the stories shared. One person pointed out that the word “violence” appears nowhere in CEDAW. Everyone agreed, however, that violence is a form of discrimination. The panelists advocated examining violence in a greater context. As Maria Regina Tavares da Silva, a former CEDAW Committee member from Mexico, stated, when women are killed just because they are women, it sends the message that women’s lives are worth nothing. An act of violence clearly violates women’s human rights.

Mariana Novais, one of our communications interns, was particularly impacted by the discussion of femicides in Mexico:

Being from Brazil, I was able to identify with the kind of cultural violence that exists in Mexico. Latin cultures are very “macho,” often wanting their women to be submissive and work in the home. This causes women to be financially and emotionally dependent on their husbands, fathers, and brothers. The work of CEDAW committees to end “femicide”—gender based violence that leads to death—is essential. Maria Regina Tavares da Silva urgently called for the investigation of the disappearing women and girls in Ciudad Juaraz and an end to impunity. We can no longer stand for states using cultures as an excuse for the violence women face around the world, especially in “macho” cultures.

Priyanka Mukerjea, another one of our amazing communications interns, found the case study of India particularly intriguing:

Justice Sujata Manohar, a former judge of the Supreme Court of India, spoke about her experience on a landmark case—the first court case of workplace sexual harassment. A young social worker dispatched to Rajasthan to discourage people from child marriages faced intense community resistance and was gang raped as “punishment” for the work she was doing. Although India had a strong Constitutional guarantee of equality, there was no precedent for ruling specifically on sexual harassment. The court, therefore, turned to the principles of CEDAW—which India ratified in 1993—and subsequently issues the first court decision deeming sexual harassment illegal.

Research and programs intern, Tracy Steele, found the excerpt of Sisters in Law: Stories from a Cameroon Court, particularly powerful:

The documentary film follows two women as they prosecute crimes against women and girls, often fighting deeply entrenched attitudes and gender bias within Cameroon’s justice system. While viewing the 10-minute excerpt in which a young woman fights for release from an unlawful arranged marriage, I was struck by the pervasiveness of the attitude that women are little more than commodities to be bought and sold. The film highlights the unique position of female judges to advance the rights of women through the judicial system, as well as the critical role of the International Association of Women Judges (IAWJ) in guiding and supporting their efforts. I came away from the event realizing that successful implementation of CEDAW principles is critical for the Convention to be an effective tool to combat discrimination against women around the world. As Sisters in Law illustrates, providing networks of support and guidance to change agents in member countries can make significant inroads toward this goal.

Even after thirty years of CEDAW and intense international advocacy that goes much further back, we still have a long way to go. For instance, even though Morocco reformed its family law in 2003 to reflect a greater equality in families, women in Morocco still don’t have right to sole custody unless the husband is fully incapacitated. The story shared from Austria also demonstrated that it’s not enough to have good law. In Austria, two women were murdered by their husbands despite their prior requests for protection and strong Austrian domestic violence. We walked away reminded of one important fact. Laws send a message and are one step in transformative change. But people need to do the work. And that means all of us.

* Mariana Novais is an international student from Brazil, who will be majoring in Sociology at Brooklyn College. Priyanka Mukerjea is a senior at NYU, majoring in English Literature. Tracy Steele is a graduate student at NYU's Robert F. Wagner School of Public Service, specializing in public finance and policy.

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