In 2005, the Commission on the Status of Women will review and appraise the implementation of the Beijing
Declaration and Platform for Action adopted at the Fourth World Conference on Women (Beijing, 1995), and
the outcome of the twenty-third special session of the General Assembly (2000). As part of the preparations
for this process, the United Nations Inter-Agency Network on Women and Gender Equality is organizing a
series of online discussions on various critical areas of concern laid out in the Beijing Platform for
Action. The Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights will facilitate the online discussion concerning
critical area of concern I, Human Rights of Women. To participate in this online discussion, please register
Section I of the Beijing Platform for Action (PFA),
on the Human Rights of Women, addresses some of the substantive aspects of women's human rights, but the emphasis
is on the means and strategies for guaranteeing women's human rights. It contains three strategic objectives:
The outcome document of the twenty-third special session of the General Assembly (2000), otherwise known
as the Beijing +5 outcome document, reviews achievements and obstacles in implementing this critical area of concern.
Achievements - The Beijing +5 outcome document recognized that many achievements had been made between 1995 and 2000. Some of these include:
- Elimination of discriminatory provisions in national laws governing marriage and family relations, violence against women, women's property and ownership rights, women's political rights, and women's labour rights;
- Steps towards creating an enabling environment for women to claim their rights such as adoption of policy measures, improved enforcement and monitoring mechanisms, and development of awareness raising campaigns;
- Increased ratification of the CEDAW Convention and the adoption of the Optional Protocol to the Convention by the General Assembly;
- Efforts to mainstream a gender perspective across all activities and policies of the UN system.
Obstacles - With the persistence of gender discrimination, the Beijing +5 outcome document also identified obstacles to the full realization of women's human rights. Some of the obstacles cited are that:
- Many discriminatory laws remained on the books and some new laws, which discriminate against women, had been introduced;
- Many women had insufficient access to justice;
- Some countries still had not ratified the CEDAW Convention and many maintained reservations;
- Women from minority ethnic groups, and other vulnerable groups, suffered from the effects of multiple discrimination
Separating the human rights of women from the other critical areas of concern in the PFA is conceptually difficult as women's human rights are relevant throughout the PFA. In all of its activities, the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights emphasizes the interconnected and interdependent nature of all human rights. The Office aims to achieve gender equality and promote women's human rights by working towards the elimination of discriminatory laws and practices, ensuring women's effective access to justice, and enhancing women's utilization of international human rights instruments and mechanisms, among other activities. Thus, the Office proposes to organize this online discussion in preparation for the Beijing +10 review and appraisal in the following manner, keeping in mind that flexibility is key to responding to the interests of the participants:
Below, general outlines are offered for each topic, with some questions to spur discussion. Please note that the questions are formulated only as examples and are not intended to limit a broader discussion of the topic.
At the end of each week, summaries will be provided to highlight the main concerns and identify conclusions and topics for further consideration.
Week 1: legislative and policy reform at the national level
Despite progress that has been made to eliminate discriminatory laws and practices, discrimination against women
persists. During this week, we will explore the efforts that have been undertaken to eliminate discrimination
at the national level since 2000. The discussion on this topic will revolve around
- Experience (both positive and negative) in reforming discriminatory laws and practices,
- How to translate legal reforms into de facto equality,
- The role of women's organizations in these efforts:
- For example, has it been difficult to reform discriminatory laws (or discriminatory regressions in the law) in a male dominated legislature?
- Have women argued that reforming discriminatory laws is not a priority for them, as they would rather focus on efforts that will more directly affect their daily life?
- In countries where basic civil and political rights are not enjoyed, such as the right to vote, freedom of assembly, and citizenship rights, how can discriminatory laws and practices be questioned and changed?
- Are there instances where laws and policies are designed to protect women's rights but no resources have been allocated to ensure their effective implementation?
- When laws guaranteeing equality have been passed and women approach the authorities to report a violation, are they told that they have not suffered a crime, that they should go home, that they should try to find an amicable solution?
- Does it appear that too often, judges are not aware of the law or fail to implement the reformed law?
- Are women's organizations frequently not consulted about legal reform, even about laws that directly concern women? When they are consulted, are their recommendations taken seriously?
Week 2: access to justice
Access to justice has frequently been identified as a major obstacle to women realizing their human rights.
Women often do not bring claims before tribunals, or when they do, they face innumerable barriers to
receiving adequate redress. The discussion on access to justice will seek to:
- Explore reasons why women do not use the justice system,
- Enumerate the obstacles to women's effective use of the justice system, where they have decided to engage in this strategy,
- Share best practices and lessons learned in attempting to improve women's access to justice
- For example, have women expressed their lack of faith in the judicial system or their feeling that it is not a good way to solve their particular problem?
- Have women pointed out the high costs of bringing a case to court?
- Are women discriminated against in the judicial system because they are women or because they belong to a minority group?
- Can a woman enforce her right to non-discrimination in court (e.g., with regard to work, education, inheritance, etc)? If so, are the evidentiary requirements so burdensome that she is unable to produce the necessary proof?
- When women report that they have suffered sexual violence, do police officers or judicial personnel blame the woman (e.g., for having "asked for it?")
- Are evidentiary requirements different for women and men? If women can not prove that a crime is committed are they subject to prosecution for offences connected to the original complaint (e.g., sexual relations outside of marriage when rape is not proven)?
- In your experience, what are the reasons why women choose not to go forward with a court case? Is it because of community or family pressure? The stigma attached to being a victim of a sexual crime? The perception that women who complain about discrimination are troublemakers and the stigma that results from such a perception? Limited chance or possibilities for redress? Fear of retaliation? Other reasons?
- Do legal literacy courses specifically targeting women help to encourage women's use of the judicial system?
- Are training courses for police and judicial personnel effective in removing barriers to women's access to justice?
- What other strategies have been used successfully?
Week 3: international human rights instruments and mechanisms
Numerous mechanisms have been created at the international level for the promotion and protection of human rights, including women's human rights. The United Nations human rights system includes two main types of mechanisms: bodies created under the UN Charter,
including the Human Rights Council and its subsidiary bodies and mechanisms, and expert
monitoring bodies established under the international human rights treaties.
The discussion under this topic will address such issues as:
- Whether the international human rights system provides effective protection of women's rights,
- The ways that women have made successful use of this system,
- The obstacles women face in using this system
- For example, are women aware of the CEDAW Convention but feel that it is not applicable to their situation or ineffective because the authorities do not recognize it as a source of law?
- Do women tend to focus exclusively on the CEDAW Committee and the Special Rapporteur on violence against women without using other international human rights instruments, including individual complaints, or Special Procedures as mechanisms for the protection of their rights?
- Does it appear that international mechanisms exercise influence over governments in pushing them to revise laws and practices that discriminate against women?
- What impact have the concluding observations of treaty bodies and recommendations by special procedures of the Commission on Human Rights had on the process? Please give examples to demonstrate the type of recommendations or action that has been a catalyst for change, including with regard to legislative and policy reform as well as access to justice?
Week 4: strategizing for the future
How can we overcome the obstacles faced in protecting and promoting women's human rights? What
lessons can be learned from previous experiences? Are there concrete steps that can be taken
by (a) the United Nations, (b) governments, (c) civil society?
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