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Emerging issues, trends and new approaches to issues affecting women or equality between women and men

Challenges to the implementation of the Convention

Charlotte Abaka CEDAW Expert

1. Introduction

The Convention on the Elimination of All forms of Discrimination Against Women celebrated the 20th anniversary of its adoption by the UN General Assembly on the 18th of December 1999. On The 10th of December 1999 the Optional Protocol to the Convention was opened for signature by State Parties to the Convention. This is a unique and global anniversaries present to humankind in general and to women in particular.

As at January 2000, 165 countries have signed, acceded to or ratified the Convention, and 24 States parties have already signed the Optional Protocol. This is a commendable achievement. Governments, the entire United nations Family, the whole Civil society, particularly Non-Governmental Organisations (NGOs) and all Women human rights activists deserve to be commended. I wish to commend in particular the CEDAW Committee, its Expert Consultant to the CSW Working Group, Dame Sylvia Cartright of New Zealand and the very effective Chairperson of the Working Group, Ms. Aloisa Worgeter of Austria for outstanding roles played in making this remarkable achievement a reality

The Fourth World Conference on Women (FWCW) was a major human rights accomplishment for women. On a global scale, FWCW underscored the centrality of human rights to the struggle for equality between women and men. The Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action is built on a rights framework. It reaffirms the substance and the language of human rights throughout the document, and refers specifically to the Convention on the Elimination of All forms of Discrimination Against Women as well as to the other human rights treaties.

The Beijing + 5 review provides an opportunity for Governments, UN agencies, bodies and funds as well as NGOs, and indeed the entire Civil Society to re-commit themselves to the implementation of the Platform. The CEDAW Convention provides a clear framework for pursuing and monitoring implementation of the Platform for many years to come.

  1. The CEDAW Convention and the Beijing Platform for Action
  2. The Platform for Action is the first global political agreement in which the CEDAW Convention is clearly reflected, thanks to a massive international NGOs effort in defining the rights issues and their participation in the UN and the regional preparatory processes. Governments in Beijing called for restraint from violating women’s human rights and placed new emphasis on "promotion " and "protection" of rights. The Platform for Action "upholds" the CEDAW Convention (paragraph 7) and notes that since 1985, there had been many "violations of and failure to protect all human rights and fundamental freedoms of all women and their civil, cultural, economic, political and social rights including the right to develop" (paragraph 42). From a rights perspective, the Platform moves beyond the Convention in some areas and even adds breadth to others. For example, the Platform includes a whole section on Violence against women, which is not specifically mentioned in the Convention because in the 1970’s when the Convention was drafted, the issue had not yet received international attention. Also very little data and evidence had been collected. The Platform states clearly that violence against women violates and impairs or nullifies women’s enjoyment of their human rights (paragraph 112). As mentioned earlier on, the Convention is silent on this. However, in 1991, in accordance with Article 21 of the Convention, the Committee adopted General Recommendation No. 19, which indicates the manner in which each Article of the Convention should be invoked to deal with the issue. The section of the Platform on conflict also reflects a new level of attention, and the same can be said of the section on the girl child.

    The effect of the media on women’s lives and women’s roles as portrayed in the media is only indirectly dealt with under Article 5 of the Convention. It is however extensively covered in the Platform for Action.

  3. The Work of CEDAW after Beijing

The Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) has the primary mandate for monitoring the implementation of the Platform for Action. However the Platform makes it clear that the CEDAW Committee also has an important role in this regard. Accordingly, the Platform specifically invites States parties to the Convention to include information on measures taken to implement the Platform when reporting under Article 18 of the Convention (paragraphs 322, 323) in order to facilitate the Committee’s effective monitoring of women’s ability to enjoy the rights guaranteed by the Convention. The Committee is also tasked with taking the Platform into account when considering these reports. Subsequently, at its fifteenth session the Committee invited States parties to take into account the 12 critical areas of concern in preparing their reports or in supplementary oral and/or written materials supplied in connection with reports already submitted. The Committee also noted in its new guidelines that the 12 critical areas of concern are compatible with the Articles of the Convention and therefore within the mandate of the Committee.

Since the adoption of the Platform for Action, the CEDAW Committee has considered the reports of over 50 State parties. Although the majority of the reports had been prepared and submitted prior to the FWCW, measures to implement the Platform have been addressed by State parties in their oral presentations before the Committee during the constructive dialog phase of the State parties presentation. Since the Committee’s eighteenth session, each of the Committee’s concluding comments has included a recommendation to disseminate the Platform for Action, particularly to women’s and human rights organisations. Commitments made by individual States at the Conference have also been highlighted. Where State parties have failed to address the Platform, the Committee has noted this with concern and sometimes suggested that their plans for the implementation are inadequate.

The reports considered by the Committee since the adoption of the Platform have provided a detailed picture of the situation of women world-wide. This has made it possible for the Committee to assess progress in the implementation of the Platform and also identify areas that require further action.

  1. Challenges to the implementation of the Convention

As stated above, consideration of State parties reports has made it possible for the Committee to identify challenges to the implementation of the Convention and the Platform. New and emerging issues such as the adverse economic impact on women as a result of transition to a market economy, particularly with regard to employment, health, education, economic recession, the negative impact of structural adjustment, economic restructuring and privatisation, trade liberalisation and globalisation. These have often resulted in deepening poverty among women, particularly women heads of households and also change in lifestyles such as drug and substance abuse, e.g. tobacco consumption, and the perception of good national values.

Persistence of stereotypical attitudes towards the gender roles of women and men is a concern and a critical challenge to the implementation. Stereotypical attitudes perpetuate traditional practices and customs prejudicial to women, such as violence against women, polygamy, forced marriage, son-preference and "honour" killings. These attitudes additionally create a pervasive environment of discrimination concerning the role of women in the family and their participation in public life.

In several State parties, economic, social and cultural changes have deepened stereotypical attitudes and in some cases have led to the introduction of legal measures, which are overprotective and place women in a disadvantage in a market economy.

Discriminatory laws, particularly those governing marriage, administration of marital property, divorce and the family also do persist. A number of State parties continue to have laws discriminating against women in relation to nationality and penal law, particularly with regard to rape, or penalties with regard to "honour" killings.

Human rights principles, particularly the Convention ,are often not incorporated into domestic law. This will be more serious when the Optional Protocol enters into force since all domestic remedies must have been exhausted.

Some State parties still have reservations on Articles that are at the core of the Convention, thereby negatively affecting the implementation of the Convention and also of the Platform .

Measures to sensitise the law-enforcement agencies, judiciary, health professionals and the public about violence against women and the girl child have not been adopted by some State parties.

In the area of health, challenges persist particularly in reproductive health, sometimes as a result of financial constraints. Maternal and infant mortality rates are high in several State parties . Lack of provision of adequate family planning information particularly to rural women, as well as costs related to contraceptives, sometimes as a result of privatisation of health care services, have led to high levels of abortion. In some State parties abortion is resorted to as a method of family planning.

The prevalence of the human immuno-deficiency Virus / acquired Immuno-deficiency Syndrome (HIV/AIDS) is a serious concern not only in the area of health but also the economic development of States. The Committee has noted the high rate of HIV infection among young women. According to "Global Summary of the HIV/AIDS epidemic of December 1999", a World Health Organisation (WHO) publication, the overwhelming majority of people with HIV – some 95% of the global total – live in the developing world which is already overburdened with debt servicing.

The proportion is set to grow even further as infection rates continue to rise in countries where poverty, poor health systems and limited resources for prevention and care, fuel the spread of the virus

Due to the enormity of the challenges in the implementation of the Convention and the Platform, I have limited myself to just a few.

Recommendations towards accelerated implementation of the Platform for Action

A There is the need for temporary special measures aimed at accelerating defacto equality between women and men as provided for under Article 4.1 of the Convention. The introduction of such measures in the area of political and public life with numeric goals and quantitative targets and timetables is necessary in order to ensure defacto equality with regard to political participation and decision making positions. Additionally affirmative Action such as quotas with respect to all governmental appointments may be introduced.

B Law reform is a critical element of implementing the Convention and the Platform. Review of customary and other laws to determine compatibility with international Conventions and national legislation, and the incorporation of the principles of equality and non-discrimination between women and man are necessary ingredients

C The importance of human rights education including the Convention should be part of educational curriculum and also to professional groups such as the judiciary, judges, lawyers, health professionals, journalists, teachers and the general public.

D In order to achieve equality in the area of health, there must be a close monitoring of the impact of privatisation of social services on health care for women .

E Intensive programmes to combat the spread of HIV/AIDS, including information particularly aimed at young girls and boys and women in prostitution are indeed critical. Sub-Saharan Africa’s tragedy concerning HIV/AIDS must be seen and handled as a global tragedy since we are living in a global village.

F Governments are being urged to design, implement and strengthen prevention programmes aimed at eliminating or at least reducing drug and substance abuse including tobacco, by women and girls.

G Finally, the CSW, acting as the preparatory body for the Beijing + 5, and the CEDAW Committee may consider developing a method of appraising progress under the Platform for Action that takes into account achievements and shortfalls in each individual country.