GENDER AND HUMAN RIGHTS IN THE CONTEXT OF THE DEMOCRATIC TRANSITION
STATEMENT BY KRISZTINA MORVAI
I am pleased to be invited to participate, as an expert, in the substantive debate at the meeting of the Preparatory Committee for the Special Session of the General Assembly "Women 2000: gender, equality, development and peace in the 21st century" at the United Nations.
I was asked to present a paper on "Gender and human rights in the context of the democratic transition".
According to the Guidelines for CSW Panellists: "The Commission, along with many other committees and bodies of the United Nations, responded to the general call for greater efficiency and focus over the last few years? According to this approach, the Commission indicates in very concrete terms how Governments, the UN system and civil society may implement agreements made in the global fora such as the Forth World Conference on Women held in Beijing (1995), and in particular, in the Platform for Action adopted by that Conference?"
The aim of our panel (the second panel) is to "take a forward looking approach so as to assist the Preparatory Committee in gathering ideas for further strategies for implementation of the Platform for Action."
Moreover the Guidelines pointed out that "both the statements and the presentations should be focused, concise, and action-oriented. They should be placed in the framework of the Platform for Action? and make a contribution to the elaboration of concrete measures, which could facilitate implementation of the Platform?"
Panelists are requested to make their presentations on the basis of their own experience and knowledge, rather that on the basis of official positions of their organization or Government. They should aim at being "intellectually provocative and analytically critical in order to stimulate discussion."
It follows that this is a unique opportunity to contribute to the more effective and efficient realization of the aims of the Beijing Platform for Action. I took the Guidelines for Panelist seriously and therefore I shall be honest, provocative and straight forward. I see this also as an opportunity to challenge the skeptical view - so widespread in Central and Eastern Europe - that UN documents are generally only political declarations without much practical use. Because I was asked to share my personal views with the audience I believe that I should first say who I am, so that I make it clear whose views am I going to present. I am a 36 years old Hungarian woman, an academic, teaching and doing research work at the Department of Criminal Law at the Law School of Eötvös Loránd University, one of the biggest academic institutions of my country. My main field of research is women's rights in general and violence against women in particular. I did the first major research on domestic violence (and the law) in Hungary and published a book on the basis of the research. I am also the head of a non-governmental institution, the Women's Rights and Children's Rights Research and Training Center Foundation. Moreover I am a member of the Council for the Representation of Women, a consultative body of the Hungarian Government. It follows that I am a feminist academic, activist, "NGO-person" and I am also involved in the legislative, policy making and other "women-related" work of the Government. In addition to my work in the public sphere I am a married woman with three (girl) children. My professional and personal background obviously largely influences my views on the issues raised in this paper and I am very pleased that this is exactly what is expected from me, according to the invitation to participate at this important meeting.
In order to try to best fulfill the expectations of the organizers and to contribute effectively to the success of the preparatory work in the shortest possible time I chose the following working method. I shall take the text of the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action, select the part of it which is closest to my expertise (violence against women) and try to point out some concrete elements of it which a) illustrate certain questions, issues and problems with "Gender and human rights in the context of the democratic transition"; b) illustrate some of the difficulties with the concrete and effective implementation of the Platform for Action more generally and specifically in the context of Central and Eastern European countries in democratic transition; c) allow me to make some concrete recommendations for the more effective implementation of the Platform for Action.
III. A critical analysis of the Platform for Action, the obstacles to its effective implementation, concrete recommendations
A. Confronting expectations and realities
Most of the "actions to be taken" in the framework of the Platform are expected from Governments. The United Nations should be aware of the fact that most Central and Eastern European Governments and politicians have limited information on women's issues, women's rights and women's interests.
There is a certain gap between the language, the expectations of the major international documents on women's rights (including the Platform) and the realities of Central and Eastern European political life. Not even "political correctness" limits or restricts the hostility against women which is often present in political discourse. In my experience countries and Governments in the process of democratic transition are very concerned about their commitments under international norms. In other words, our Governments would very much like to be seen as taking international obligations seriously. I am deeply convinced that no serious politician would make statements which violate women's human rights should they be aware of existing international obligations which are contrary to these views and attitudes (even if their personal views would differ from the international norms).
It follows that I am convinced that our Governments and (lots of) our politicians are simply not familiar with international documents such as the Platform, even if they should be aware of their existence ex officio.
The Special Session should identify ways and means by which (individual, national) Governments, political parties, parliamentary committees etc. should be better informed about the existence of United Nations documents in the field of women's rights, including the Platform.
B. Who exactly are the addressees of the "actions to be taken" related to individual strategic objectives? And how do they know that they are?
In order to analyze how the Platform as a whole and its individual objectives can be implemented more effectively, we should first make it clear, who exactly should implement them.
According to the Beijing Declaration:
The participation and contribution of all actors of civil society, particularly women's groups and networks and other non-governmental organizations and community based organizations, with full respect for their autonomy, in cooperation with Governments, are important to the effective implementation and follow-up of the Platform for Action;
The implementation of the Platform for Action requires commitment from Governments and the international community (?)"
It follows from the above Sections that the main addresses of the Declaration and the Platform are
b. civil society in the individual Member States
c. the international community
If we take a look at the Platform and the "actions to be taken" elements attached to each area of concern we realize that there is a more detailed list of addresses here. Looking at the example of violence against women as one of the areas of concern, we find the following addresses:
a. the government(s)
b. local governments
c. community organizations
d. non-governmental organizations
e. educational institutions
f. the public and the private sectors, including enterprises
g. the mass media
i. trade unions
j. community organizations
k. youth organizations
l. research institutions
m. women's organizations.
Some of the very specific actions to be taken are requested from specialized agencies and bodies of Governments. In the area of violence against women these include:
a. the prosecution service (prosecution of offenders for violent crimes against women)
b. law enforcement officials
c. police personnel
d. medical personnel
e. social workers
The above groups are identified in section 124 (g) as "those responsible for implementing these policies" (meaning policies related to violence against women). My question is straight forward and provocative: how would all these addressees (target groups for the implementation of the Platform) know about the existence of the Platform and the meaning of its words? In my experience most addressees of the Platform, in other words bodies, organizations and individuals who were meant to be responsible for its implementation on the national level simply do not know about the existence of this important international document (along with other international documents in the field of women's rights).
How is this possible and how can this situation be remedied? - is the question to be addressed by the following sections of my statement.
C. The Government as the addressee of the Platform. Who is "the Government"?
The signature of most international documents, and certainly most women's rights related UN documents, belong to the authority of the foreign affairs section of Governments. I believe that it is a crucial question from the point of view of the effective implementation of these documents (including the Platform) how is the information about the existence of them and about the meaning of them is disseminated among (towards) the different branches and bodies of Governments. In other words: it would be extremely important to see that the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action (along with other international documents on women's rights) are not only signed as a diplomatic act which is authorized by the relevant body of the central government and carried out by the body responsible for foreign affairs but that all the branches of the government (including local governments) are effectively informed about the documents and the obligations of the given government body under those documents. This is most probably an automatism in cases of international documents in "classical fields" such as the economy, or even health affairs. But , at this stage, it is hardly an automatism in a new and emerging field such as women's rights. The fact, that UN women's rights documents (such as the Platform or CEDAW) require multi-agency, multi - disciplinary efforts for effective implementation makes this issue even more complex. In the "classic fields" governments have well established channels for the dissemination of information regarding the merits of international documents and the obligations of relevant government bodies under them. I have a strong feeling that in the case of women's rights related international documents these channels have not yet been established. In newly emerging democracies a further complicating factor is that we are still in the process of learning the means and ways of democratic decision-making.
Problem (summarized): it is likely, that several government bodies, who are addressees of the Platform are not aware of the existence of the Platform (and other women's rights related international documents) due to the lack of established channels of communication between different bodies of the government, in particular between those responsible for signing international documents and those who have responsibilities under these documents.
Recommendation: Governments should be called upon to ensure that there is effective communication about the existence and the meaning of women's rights related documents within the bodies of the government.
I can imagine, for example, the following call for Governments:
"The implementation of the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action requires multi-agency efforts from governments. Governments should therefore ensure that all their branches, bodies and agencies which have responsibilities in any of the areas of concern and/or for any specific action to be taken, are informed about the Declaration and the Platform for Action and about their specific responsibilities in the framework of the Platform. Governments should ensure that specific responsibilities under the Platform are clearly assigned to the relevant branches, bodies and agencies in ways which are considered to be authoritative in the national legislative and policy making context. Governments are also called upon to coordinate the multi agency efforts and monitor the effective implementation of the Platform by each of the relevant branches, bodies and agencies."
D. "Context is all" - How could Governments effectively implement the Platform without contextualized knowledge about women's rights?
Even if the information about the existence of the Platform and other relevant international women's rights documents were effectively disseminated within Governmental structures and responsibilities for actions to be taken would be clearly assigned to the relevant governmental bodies, the effective implementation of the Platform would not be possible without those governmental bodies' understanding of the spirit, the meaning, the aims: in other words the context of these international instruments.
The situation of newly democratic societies (and Governments) in Central and Eastern Europe is very special in this regard. "Equality of the sexes", similarly to "equality of classes" were integral elements of the official ideology of state socialist (communist) regimes. It follows that as opposed to Western societies in which steps towards gender equality were initiated and motivated by growing grass root movements who forced governments and mainstream structures to reconsider their views, attitudes, policies and laws towards women ( movements "from the bottom to the top") in East and Central European communist societies "sex equality" was a policy which worked "from the top to the bottom". It follows that "the woman question" is still considered by a large part of society and by many politicians and government officials to be a legacy of the communist past, an issue associated with state socialism. Lots of them have a "déjŕ vu" feeling: during communism it was an alien ideology which "forced us to deal with women's equality" and today it is the international community, the international documents and norms. In other words: even though the issue of gender equality and women's rights have never and nowhere become parts of mainstream politics "automatically" and easily, the present situation in western democracies, the fact that women's rights issues are issues to be dealt with is the result of an organic, continuos development and long process. The organic development, the long process, the history of the emerging and growing women's movements and other progressive political and social movements, their coverage by the media, their relationship with mainstream politics provided a certain context, a framework in which women's rights issues are seen. In Western democracies, as a result of the organic development of the movements for women's (equality) rights even the most conservative politicians, government, law enforcement and other officials have some idea about the context of "women's issues". In other words: in Western democracies "women's (rights) issues" are part of the political and social discourse while in most Central and Eastern European societies they are not.
It follows that most of those governmental bodies and government officials who have obligations to carry out the actions to be taken in the framework of the Platform and other international documents see these instruments out of context, in a vacuum.
(Background to recommendation)
(Central and Eastern European) new democracies usually have a love/hate relationship with international human rights organizations, institutions and obligations. While due to historic reasons the external pressure to change norms and attitudes are seen as "alien and unwanted" at the same time we realize that we have no other future but to join the international community and accept its norms. It follows that, as I pointed out earlier, most Governments of these new democracies are very open towards international organizations and are very cooperative if they are approached by them. A recent Hungarian example is a major IOM campaign in our country against trafficking in women. When IOM approached the Hungarian Government and asked for the cooperation for a successful campaign even the (self-identified) central-right, conservative government became immediately very active and enthusiastic. At the opening ceremony of the campaign the Head of IOM was present along with the Hungarian Minister of Internal Affairs, the minister of Justice and other leading personalities from the Government. It was obvious that the Government was convinced that if the issue of trafficking in women is so important for the IOM that they start a campaign in Hungary and the head(s) of such an influential international organization come to Hungary "for the sake of trafficked women or women who are to be protected from trafficking" then it should be important for the Hungarian government, too. An ad hoc committee of experts and government officials was set up, training programs for police were started, trafficking in women suddenly became an issue in the media and in public life. This would have not happened without the intervention of IOM.
The United Nations (possibly the Division for the Advancement of Women) should consider the possibility of organizing some form of training, campaign or official visit, or the combination of these into Central and Eastern Europe with the aim of raising awareness of the Governments of the region about the efforts of the UN in the field of women's rights/women's equality. At these occasions Governments should be informed about the fact that the advancement of women is among the priority areas of the UN.
Moreover Governments (including governmental bodies which are responsible for the actions to be taken in different areas of concern) should be informed about the most important related UN documents, institutions and mechanisms in the field. The prestige of the visit of a high ranking UN official, the media coverage of a UN based campaign for women's rights in the region, or even a training for government officials would be a very serious and effective contribution to the implementation of the Platform as well as other documents.
E. Non-governmental addressees
Civil society in general and non governmental organizations, women's networks, academics, educational institutions are also among those who are expected to implement the Platform.
It is even more of an illusion that these (non-governmental) groups are familiar with the Platform, its meaning and the ways in which it should be implemented. In my opinion it is not even clear who should ensure that civil society in general and all other non-governmental addresses are aware of their role in the implementation. Are Governments responsible for disseminating information about the Platform towards civil society? Or are those segments of civil society (those non-governmental bodies) who are concerned with women's rights/equality responsible for getting informed ? Once they are appropriately informed about the existence, the meaning, the aims and the context of the Platform, how are they supposed to take part in the implementation? A major difficulty in the Central and Eastern European region is that civil society and the non-governmental sector is still very weak, in particular in the field of women's rights. Most women's groups have very limited funding, lack of means to have access to information (no computers, no access to the Internet etc.), lack of organizational and language skills.
Due to all these factors it is unlikely that the non-governmental addressees of the Platform can be active in its implementation.
The most effective way of supporting the civil sector (including NGOs, academia, the media etc.) in implementing "their part" of the Platform would be to establish women's rights information and documentation centers in the Central and Eastern European region. These centers would be familiar with the context of gender equality and women's rights issues on the global as well as the local level and they would be in a continuous relationship with civil societies of the region. They should be a major source of information and support for local initiatives, programs and projects. They could organize (or help in organizing) information and media campaigns in different areas of concern, training programs, research projects etc. They could, for example, issue Beijing Platform Newsletters (or UN and Women's Rights Newsletters) in the local language with relevant information on the Declaration, the Platform, other international women's rights documents and on how are they implemented in different countries and parts of the World. The centers could collect and provide information on sources for funding for projects for the implementation of the Platform. (Such information is also very difficult to access, especially for groups and individuals without language skills.) These centers could also help Governments and governmental bodies in their efforts in implementing the Platform and other relevant UN documents. Even though such centers could be established by NGOs and academics with sufficient knowledge and skills in these matters, I believe that it is important that the centers should be somehow affiliated with the UN. The latter should considerably add to their prestige and success in the region.
F. How can the UN monitor the effective implementation of the Platform (and of other important documents on women's rights)?
It is a well known fact that the present monitoring systems of most international human rights instruments (including women's rights instruments) are not effective enough. Governments are rarely critical in their periodic reports about their own work in implementing international (human rights/women's rights) norms. (I should note, however, that the newly established procedure for individual complaints under the CEDAW Convention will probably be a good and effective monitoring system in and of itself.)
As an expert who is involved in the reporting process of our Government, I believe that the periods between requested reports are too long to continuously remind Governments about their obligation under CEDAW, the Platform and other documents. This is particularly problematic in cases of Governments (societies) which tend to forget about women's rights without the "external pressure" of international institutions. Most Central and Eastern European Governments are certainly in this category. There should be more regular monitoring and a more effective feed-back system between the UN and individual member states.
Independent experts of the local women's rights information and documentation centers should provide information to the UN on a frequent, regular basis about "women's rights news" in their countries. It follows that the centers would be focal points for a mutual exchange of thoughts between the country of mission and the UN. Thereby the UN (through the centers) could effectively support Member States in their efforts in implementing the Platform (and other instruments) and could also effectively monitor the process and the steps of the implementation.
According to the Beijing Declaration Governments participating in the Fourth World Conference on Women are:
Ensure also the success of the Platform for Action in countries with economies in transition, which will require continued international cooperation and assistance. "
I do hope that the work of the Special Session for the more effective implementation of the Beijing Platform for Action (and other UN women's rights instruments) will contribute to the feeling and the realization of this determination by women of countries with economies in transition, including women of newly democratic Central and Eastern Europe.