Women’s Rights on the UN Agenda: CEDAW 28th Session

By Elizabeth Willmott Harrop

January 2003

This article was first published in the UN Chronicle Magazine

Women’s rights are taking centre stage as the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) holds its twenty-eighth session from 13 to 31 January 2003 at UN Headquarters in New York.

During the three-week session, the Committee is considering reports from eight States parties to the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women: Albania, Canada, El Salvador, Kenya, Luxembourg, Norway, the Republic of the Congo and Switzerland. There are a total of 170 States parties to the Convention, all of which must submit periodic reports as part of the terms of the treaty.

Made up of experts voted in by State parties, three of the twelve Committee members were re-elected; however, for nine members this is their first session, having taken up their posts at the beginning of this year.

In a statement to the Commission on Human Rights last year, the Special Rapporteur on violence against women, Radhika Coomaraswamy, called women’s issues “the greatest challenge of the international human rights movement”. She asked: “Will we be able to persuade States to take effective action in the very arena toward which they are ambivalent–culture and the home?”

The phrase “Women’s Rights are Human Rights”, which is promoted by the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, recognizes that there can be no human rights without women’s rights, but also that, in the past, women’s rights have been sidelined because their promotion challenges deep seated cultural beliefs and social systems. Ms Coomaraswamy explains: “For many women and girls in the world … the family is not always the site of care and nurture. Though some are subject to the brutality of individual family members, others suffer violence because cultural practices sanction the violence and make it legitimate and acceptable within the greater society.

These structural forms of abuse are not always seen to constitute violence and are often embedded in the economic and social life of the community. Because of the link to notions of culture, these forms of violence are tenacious and extremely difficult to eradicate.”

As just one example of how such cultural norms underpin attitudes towards women, the report by the Republic of the Congo, presented on 27 January, acknowledges “the weight of prejudice and of a patriarchal culture based on inequality of the sexes and superiority of men over women”. Although the Committee praised the Congo for its frank acknowledgement of serious obstacles to gender equality, Committee members also stressed the need for the Government to take concrete measures to eradicate these deeply entrenched traditional practices and customary laws that continue to subject women to unfair treatment.

In an important step for women’s rights, an Optional Protocol to the Convention, which allows CEDAW to receive and consider complaints from individuals or groups within its jurisdiction, entered into force in December 2000. This means that the monitoring of women’s rights in the 49 States which are party to the Protocol can be more effective, and there is at least a possibility that victims of abuses can seek redress through the Committee, which will have a series of meetings on the Optional Protocol in the first week of February 2003.

Ms Coomaraswamy has rightly pointed out the enormous challenges faced by women in the area of human rights; however, there is cause for optimism. Besides the Optional Protocol, there have been two incredibly important verdicts for women in international law in the last five years.

In 1998, the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda in its Akayesu verdict declared rape to be an act of genocide. It was also the first time an international court punished sexual violence in a civil war. This historic verdict was followed by another important precedent, this time set by the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia, which in February 2001 issued a landmark verdict stating that rape and enslavement rose to the level of crimes against humanity in Foca, Bosnia and Herzegovina.

Although women’s rights are one of the most challenging areas within the international human rights arena, one should not underestimate the effects of these individual breakthroughs. Indeed, just the fact that so many States are willing to attend the CEDAW meetings in New York and report not only the positive measures they are taking to promote and uphold women’s rights, but also to reveal the inadequacies of current practice, is an achievement in itself.

Liberty & Humanity