The Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) and some other principles associated with human rights have gained particular attention in the recent past. At a time of a public reckoning spawned by the Black Lives Matter (BLM) and #MeToo Movements, the Convention is being recognised as representing an important vehicle to address institutional and structural sexism through an intersectional lens.
CEDAW is an international treaty that was adopted in 1979 by the United Nations General Assembly. At the time of adoption it was described as an international bill of rights for women. It was subsequently instituted on September 03, 1981. Till now, it has been ratified by 189 states.
However, over fifty countries that have ratified the Convention have done so subject to certain declarations, reservations, and objections, including 38 countries that have rejected the enforcement of Article 29, which addresses means of settlement for disputes concerning the interpretation or application of the Convention. Interestingly, the United States and Palau have signed, but not ratified the treaty. It may also be added that the Holy See, Iran, Somalia and Tonga are not signatories to CEDAW.
Such a situation has drawn particular attention in the United States where for four decades the US Congress has failed to rally enough votes to ratify the CEDAW. Now, social justice movements are building new momentum like never before. Some are suggesting that the recent fall of Afghanistan in the hands of the Taliban have ignited this added momentum. Many are also referring in this context to the comment made by Harold Koh in 2002, "a country's ratification of the CEDAW is one of the surest indicators of the strength of its commitment to internalise the universal norm of gender equality into its domestic laws."
Currently, the potential for the CEDAW to inspire necessary change in the US appears to be directly related to some of the United States' current policy objectives. The National Strategy for the COVID-19 Response and Pandemic Preparedness (2021) has illustrated the US Administration's commitment to place women and girls at the centre of global recovery. The US Rescue Plan also recognises that COVID-19 has exacerbated domestic violence and sexual assault, thereby creating a "shadow pandemic." Consequently, analysts and social strategists are reiterating that while the Biden Administration looks toward the reauthorisation of the Violence against Women Act (VAWA), it must also look to the ratification of the CEDAW. Ratifying the Convention will give the Biden Administration significantly more legitimacy in its effort to end violence against women and would demonstrate the solidarity needed to achieve this goal.
It may be recalled in this regard that President Biden himself has stated that the renewal of the VAWA "should not be a Democratic or Republican issue-it's about standing up against the abuse of power and preventing violence."
Analysts have also pointed out that this Convention has a similar format when compared with the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination-- "both with regard to the scope of its substantive obligations and its international monitoring mechanisms".
Recent developments in various parts of the world regarding alleged violation of women's rights and sexual discrimination have led many to discuss this issue. It would therefore be pertinent to highlight some of the aspects contained in Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW).
The Convention is structured in six parts with 30 articles in all. They deal with following dimensions in this manner- Part I (Articles 1-6) focuses on non-discrimination, sex stereotypes, and sex trafficking; Part II (Articles 7-9) outlines women's rights in the public sphere with an emphasis on political life, representation, and rights to nationality; Part III (Articles 10-14) describes the economic and social rights of women, particularly focusing on education, employment, and health. Part III also includes special protections for rural women and the problems they face; Part IV (Article 15 and 16) outlines women's right to equality in marriage and family life along with the right to equality before the law; Part V (Articles 17-22) establishes the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women as well as the states parties' reporting procedure, and Part VI (Articles 23-30) describes the effects of the Convention on other treaties, the commitment of the state parties and the administration of the Convention.
It may be noted here that the provisions contained in Article 3, Article 13 and Article 16 have specially drawn intense attention after what has evolved in Afghanistan and also allegations of gender related racial discrimination in different parts of the world. Article 3 requires state parties to guarantee basic human rights and fundamental freedom to women "on a basis of equality with men" through the "political, social, economic, and cultural fields." Article 13 guarantees equality to women "in economic and social life," especially with respect to "the right to family benefits, the right to bank loans, mortgages and other forms of financial credit, and the right to participate in recreational activities, sports and all aspects of cultural life." Article 16 similarly outlines that irrespective of gender both parties have "the same rights and responsibilities as parents," "the same rights to decide freely and responsibly on the number and spacing of their children," "the same personal rights as husband and wife, including the right to choose a family name, a profession and an occupation" and "the same rights for both spouses in respect of the ownership, acquisition, management, administration, enjoyment and disposition of property, whether free of charge or for a valuable consideration."
These are very significant areas which need to be held up by everyone.
In response to global challenges, CEDAW continues to be one of the standard-setting policy tools to advance gender and intersectional equality and needs to be used as a framework for drafting domestic legislation, national constitutions, judicial decision making and in changing the national conversations and public discourse in some countries in North Africa and also in the Middle East. In this regard one needs to recall what Ambassador Melanne Verveer, one of the authors of CEDAW said when she testified before the US Congress in 2010-- "it is true many countries do not live up to that Treaty, but we know how effectively that lever is used by rights advocates when they emphasise its application."
Many analysts believe in the fact that the Women, Peace, and Security ("WPS") agenda is one gender issue that has linkages to CEDAW and also enjoys near total bipartisan support, as demonstrated by over a decade of concerted legislative efforts by both Democrats and Republicans within the US Congress. This commitment needs to be taken forward now.
The United States has emerged as a global leader in WPS, both by spearheading U.N. Security Council Resolutions to condemn sexual violence against women and girls in armed conflict, and also by codifying its commitment to pursuing the WPS agenda in domestic law. Former U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice introduced what later became Security Council Resolution 1820 (2008). In proposing this Resolution, Secretary Rice confirmed that sexual violence against women in conflict was an imperative which the U.N. Security Council was charged to address. A year later, Security Council Resolution (SCR) 1888, introduced by then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, reaffirmed Secretary Rice's premise and also acknowledged that the CEDAW is inextricably connected to women's security.
In 2020, during the 75th Anniversary of the U.N., the CEDAW Concluding Observations for Afghanistan, the Congo, and Zimbabwe had sections dedicated specifically to WPS, providing substantial suggestions for improvement in state action in this issue area. For instance, the CEDAW Committee observed in detail that "Afghan women are systematically excluded from formal peace negotiations, such as the 2018 Kabul Process and the negotiations that followed the conference held in Geneva in 2018." Now after the fall of Afghanistan, history will judge the world as to how it protected the rights of women and girls in Afghanistan. It will be an important factor as the world fights the forces of the pandemic. The global and domestic recovery will be measured by the other side of the coin--whether it created greater gender and racial equity.
This scenario has persuaded many civil society activists in the USA, Canada, the UK and the EU to suggest that the American engagement, both in foreign and domestic policy, must bend toward ratifying the CEDAW by the USA. After decades of lawmakers failing to muster the political will for ratification, the demand for change has now reached a fever pitch both nationally and globally. The Biden administration must rally bipartisan support to ratify the CEDAW as a tool for advancing the rights of women around the world. It would be wise to remember what Senator Biden said in 2002, "Time is a Wasting" for the U.S. ratification of the CEDAW.
This should not continue. While CEDAW and UN Security Council Resolutions 1325 and 1820 on Women, Peace and Security are important international instruments on their own, there is also an intersection among the three standards that can be used to enhance their implementation and impact.
Muhammad Zamir, a former Ambassador, is an analyst specialized in foreign affairs, right to information and good governance. [email protected]