Q+A-What is the "world's bill of rights for women"?

by Lisa Anderson | https://twitter.com/LisaAndersonNYC | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Tuesday, 12 November 2013 00:01 GMT

A supporter of the Muslim Brotherhood and ousted Egyptian President Mohamed Mursi takes part in a protest against the military near Rabaa al-Adawiya square in Cairo, Egypt, October 4, 2013. REUTERS/Amr Abdallah Dalsh

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Adopted by the United Nations in 1979, the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), often called the world's "Bill of Rights" for women, is the only international treaty addressing all aspects of women's rights

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By Lisa Anderson

NEW YORK (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Adopted by the United Nations in 1979, the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), often called the world's "Bill of Rights" for women, is the only international treaty addressing all aspects of women's rights.

Thomson Reuters Foundation used CEDAW as a framework to examine a sweep of factors affecting women across the Arab world, including gender violence, reproductive rights, treatment of women within the family, their integration into society and and attitudes towards a woman's role in politics and the economy.

The expert survey of 22 states found Egypt to be the worst country in the Arab world for women, followed closely by Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Syria and Yemen. The best countries were Comoros, Oman, Kuwait, Jordan and Qatar.

But what exactly is CEDAW, and does it have teeth?

CEDAW defines discrimination against women 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."

The convention, also known as the Treaty for Women's Equality, is composed of 30 Articles and is the only human rights treaty that affirms the reproductive rights of women and recognises culture and tradition as important forces influencing gender roles and family relations.

Three Arab League members have not signed or ratified CEDAW - Sudan, Somalia and Palestinian territories. The latter, lacking recognised country status, has endorsed it symbolically.

But many Arab states that have signed the convention have raised reservations to some of its key articles, including those involving equal rights between spouses and the equal ability of women and men to pass nationality on to their children. Some have entered reservations against anything in CEDAW that conflicts with sharia, Islamic law.

Other countries that have not ratified CEDAW are the United States, Iran, South Sudan and the Pacific island nations of Palau and Tonga.

Countries that ratify the convention are legally bound to put its provisions into practice and file a report every four years on their compliance with the treaty.

Their reports are reviewed by the CEDAW Committee, a group of 23 independent experts elected to four-year terms by ratifying countries. While the CEDAW Committee can make recommendations to countries on areas for improvement, it has no enforcement authority.

Ratifying countries are also free to enter reservations to the treaty as long as they are not incompatible with the purpose of the convention. Rights advocates are concerned with the number of countries that have entered reservations concerning Articles 2 and 16, which are considered core provisions of the treaty.

Article 2 relates to adopting legislation ensuring equality between men and women and Article 16 refers to eliminating discrimination against women in marriage and family life.

Part of the mandate of UN Women, the global body's agency for gender equality and the empowerment of women, is to provide support for CEDAW implementation in countries around the world.

Janette Amer, human rights adviser of UN Women, discussed the importance of CEDAW, its achievements and the challenges ahead.

Q: What is the value of CEDAW today?

A: CEDAW is the most comprehensive international instrument to protect the human rights of women. It defines the meaning of discrimination against women and establishes legal obligations for States parties to end such discrimination. Adherence to the convention fosters a climate – both internationally and nationally - where violations of the rights of women will not be tolerated.

CEDAW is often referred to as a bill of rights for women – it is a comprehensive women-specific regime that covers the spectrum of human rights and lifespan of women, from education to employment to health, from political participation to family life, from issues such as trafficking to the situation of rural women, and from laws to policy measures.

The 16 substantive articles of the convention identify the specific areas of discrimination that are of particular concern to women and establish the means to eliminate discrimination in these areas.

Some of the key and significant aspects are:

The Convention requires States parties to eliminate discrimination against women in the public as well as the private sphere, including the family. Article 16 is specifically on equality in marriage and family relations.

The Convention seeks to achieve substantive equality between women and men – not just in laws but in reality on the ground. It thus requires both de jure and de facto equality.

The CEDAW process is a roadmap for transforming gender relations within states, communities and families so that there is equality in real life. For states, it keeps gender equality on their agenda and allows assessment of the status of women in all areas.

Q: UN Women implements CEDAW on the ground. Could you give some examples of how the existence of CEDAW has furthered women's rights in places around the world?

A: Developments include the strengthening of provisions in constitutions of many countries guaranteeing equality between women and men and providing a constitutional basis for the protection of women's human rights.

Legislation prohibiting discrimination in general, and in regard to specific areas such as employment, has become a standard component of legal frameworks. Countries have repealed discriminatory provisions in civil, penal and personal status codes to bring them into conformity with the Convention.

Equal opportunity acts aim at improving women's legal and de facto position, quotas have been established to increase the number of women in elected office, and new laws have been enacted to prevent and address violence against women.

Courts all over the world have become more attuned to the requirements of the convention, and are increasingly developing jurisprudence on gender equality informed and guided by it.

Women and girls around the world have been empowered to claim their rights. Examples include:

    - The South African, Thailand and Ugandan constitutions contain provisions guaranteeing women's equality, based on the Convention principles.

    - CEDAW ratification provided the framework for reform of family laws in Morocco, Tunisia and Turkey to bring equality in the family relationship.

    - In Southeast Asia legal reviews of national laws for compliance with CEDAW have led to the adoption of the gender equality law in Vietnam, the Magna Carta of Women in the Philippines, and amendment of the laws on political parties and general elections in Indonesia and the criminal and civil codes of Thailand.

    - Argentina, Mexico and others passed comprehensive laws on violence against women referencing/using the Convention and its principles.

    - Land and agrarian reforms in Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan provided protections and guarantees for women’s rights to land using CEDAW as a key reference.

Q: What are the greatest challenges to implementing CEDAW?

A: CEDAW has achieved nearly universal ratification. It's unquestionably the globally endorsed standard for achieving gender equality. But progress in implementing that standard at country level has been uneven.

Women's de jure and de facto equality has not been achieved in any country in the world. Discrimination against women continues in law and in practice, with many women suffering multiple forms of discrimination and limited access to rights, resources and opportunities.

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