7 June 1999


7 June 1999

Press Release


19990607 Louise Fréchette Addresses Special Commemorative Meeting on Twentieth Anniversary of Convention on Elimination of Discrimination against Women

Following is the text of the statement by Deputy Secretary-General Louise Fréchette on the twentieth anniversary of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, in New York today:

It is right and proper that we meet this year to mark the twentieth anniversary of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women. Its roots can be traced through the whole history of the United Nations and its efforts to proclaim and codify human rights. The preamble to the Charter tells us that the peoples of the United Nations were determined, 54 years ago, to "reaffirm faith in the equal rights of men and women". That pledge was reiterated in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights -- itself in great part the result of inspired leadership from a woman, Eleanor Roosevelt. Article two of the Declaration proclaims that everyone is entitled to all the rights and freedoms set forth in it, without distinction of sex.

Since then, all international human rights instruments have purported to apply to women and men alike. Most importantly, that is true of the Covenants on economic, social and cultural rights and on civil and political rights, both of which explicitly commit the States which adhere to them to ensure the equal right of men and women to enjoy the rights which they set forth. Meanwhile, between 1952 and 1967, specific conventions were adopted to secure women's enjoyment of particular rights -- conventions on women's political rights, on married women's nationality, and women's consent to marriage.

Yet the experience of seeking to secure all these rights for women in practice convinced women's rights advocates that nothing short of a "Bill of Rights for Women" was needed if women were to achieve true equality in the home and full citizenship in the community. The General Assembly concurred with them in 1979, when it adopted the Convention we are celebrating today.

The trouble is, of course, that international codes are not self-implementing. Nor, for that matter, is national legislation, though it is an essential step on the way. True equality for women, like any other desirable social achievement, requires work on many fronts at once: building political will; creating an enabling legal environment; raising awareness; and practising advocacy. It requires programmes and projects to level the playing field for women in their access to resources, and in their opportunities in public and private life; in politics and the economy, in the arts and sciences, in sports and in communities, in the school, the workplace and the home.

At the intergovernmental level, for more than half a century, the Commission on the Status of Women has provided guidance, inspiration, and on occasion candid criticism, on steps related to women's status and advancement. Four world conferences have been convened over a 25-year period. With their preparation and follow-up, these conferences have inspired women around the world to rally and demand that their voices be heard in the design of public policy and in framing legislation -- including, for instance, that which can protect them against violence in the home. They have also inspired women to make demands for public spending on issues of direct concern to them, most notably education and health services.

Yet on the eve of the new millennium, even as we celebrate this twentieth anniversary of the Convention, women's human rights continue to be disregarded and violated all over the world -- although in different ways and to varying degrees.

Women are victims of rape and sexual violence in the home, in war and in other forms of conflict. The majority of the world's poor, and of its illiterates, are women. Women continue to earn 75 per cent, or less, of every dollar, euro, or yen earned by men. Women are more commonly found in part-time work, in the informal sector, among the unemployed and the underemployed.

Women's work in subsistence farming and in family enterprises is ignored in conventional statistics such as gross national product (GNP), and there are no social security, health or old age benefits attached to such work. Women are also deprived of basic health rights, as you can see from the shocking maternal mortality rates in so many countries, and in the number of women who die from pregnancy-related causes every year.

How can we not suspect that these failures are directly related to the continued under-representation of women in nearly every political forum? In the official picture of our family of nations for the United Nations fiftieth birthday celebration four years ago, there were 185 male Heads of State and Government and other senior Government representatives -- and only five women.

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Let us at least take heart from the fact that two of those five are now top United Nations officials: Dr. Gro Harlem Brundtland, Director-General of the World Health Organization (WHO), and Mary Robinson, High Commissioner for Human Rights. Things are changing, albeit much too slowly.

Women from all walks of life, from all countries of the world, are rising to the challenge. One hundred sixty three States are now parties to this Convention, which means that in 163 countries women activists and legislators, judges and educators, politicians and professionals, have a powerful tool in their hands. Even in States which are not parties, the Convention is used to influence legislative processes, Government policies, and public opinion. Courts in countries as diverse as Botswana, Canada, and India have referred to the Convention when making landmark decisions to redress discrimination against women, in cases ranging from nationality to harassment at work and domestic violence.

Inspired by the Convention, and by the work of this Committee, diplomats and non-governmental activists joined forces at the Rome Conference last year to ensure that the Statute of the International Criminal Court codified rape and other forms of sexual violence in armed conflict as crimes against humanity. The Statute, as you know, is not yet in force, but already last September the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda convicted Jean-Paul Akayesu on charges, among others, of rape and other sexual violence as crimes against humanity.

This afternoon we shall have a discussion of the Convention's impact at the domestic level, in which former and present members of the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination will play a leading part.

This Committee, through its multiple activities, has been an agent for change for women collectively and individually. I salute your work. You have shown great courage and commitment in working to make the provisions of the Convention a reality -- not least in the role you played in the Beijing Fourth World Conference on Women and the follow-up to it.

At that Conference, Member States committed themselves to achieving universal ratification of the Convention by the year 2000. We in the Secretariat will work with the Committee, and with those Governments who have not yet ratified the Convention, to achieve that goal. Surely, the most fitting way to mark this twentieth anniversary of the Convention would be to begin the new century, and the new millennium, with a truly universal commitment to truly equal rights for women everywhere.

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For information media. Not an official record.