Three Decades of Progress for Women's Treaty, But Many Challenges Ahead
Fabiana Frayssinet interviews SILVIA PIMENTEL, CEDAW Committee member
Silvia Pimentel / Credit:Courtesy of Fernanda Pasquariello Monteiro
Credit:Courtesy of Fernanda Pasquariello Monteiro
RIO DE JANEIRO, Dec 8 (IPS) - The United Nations Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), which turns 30 on Dec. 18, has brought greater global awareness of women’s rights and been instrumental in the huge strides made towards ending discrimination and inequality in the world.
However, it still faces great challenges, including a new conservative onslaught that seeks to revert much of the progress made in favour of gender equality.
In this interview, IPS spoke with Brazilian university professor Silvia Pimentel, one of the 23 members of the Committee that monitors implementation of CEDAW by the 186 countries that have ratified it.
CEDAW, the most comprehensive international treaty on women's rights, is considered the magna carta of women’s human rights, constituting the institutional backbone of the long march towards gender equality.
As its name indicates the aim of the Convention is to eradicate gender inequalities in all its states parties by requiring them to take "all appropriate measures, including legislation, to ensure the full development and advancement of women, for the purpose of guaranteeing them the exercise and enjoyment of human rights and fundamental freedoms on a basis of equality with men".
The Convention was adopted by the United Nations General Assembly on Dec. 18, 1979, at a special meeting in the New York headquarters, and entered into force two years later when it was ratified by the twentieth country. Thirty years later it has secured almost universal ratification, with only a handful of countries still not ratifying (most notably the United States).
Ten years ago, the Convention was strengthened by an Optional Protocol - ratified by all but four Latin American countries - which granted additional powers to the Committee.
The Committee is made up of 23 experts on women’s issues, elected by the States Parties for four-year terms, who act in their individual capacity and are chosen for their "high moral standing" and renowned experience in the defence of women’s rights.
In a break from the continuous travelling that her duties in the Committee demand, Pimentel, a prominent Brazilian feminist, talked to IPS about CEDAW, ahead of its 30th anniversary.
Pimentel highlighted in particular the powers granted to the Committee to conduct inquiries in cases of grave or systematic violations of the Convention, acting on requests submitted by individuals or groups of individuals who report abuses.
IPS: Thirty years after the signing of the Convention, what do you feel have been the greatest gains for women?
SILVIA PIMENTEL: There is greater awareness of the human rights of women and the importance of promoting equality and non-discrimination. In Latin America, we have waged an enormous battle and achieved extraordinary changes in legislation, but we still need to enhance enforcement of these laws.
In its Final Observations to the States Party (which it makes in respect of their national four-year reports), the CEDAW Committee invariably recommends that priority be given to implementation, by insisting that it is not enough to bring de jure changes (changes in the law), and that de facto changes (changes in actual conditions) are necessary.
IPS: Based on your experience in the Committee, what is your evaluation of the current situation of women in Latin America?
SP: There has been some progress, but there are also well-organised conservative, fundamentalist efforts - even in the legislatures - that are pressing to undo the progress made in reproductive rights. As for sexual rights, these same forces are stopping us from moving forward.
IPS: Women will finally have the special U.N. agency that has been a long-standing demand (an umbrella body grouping the four existing entities for women in the U.N., whose creation was approved by this year’s General Assembly and is still unnamed). How will this new body advance women's rights?
SP: We’re optimistic, because it’s undeniable that there are a great number of forces interacting in this sense. Also because of the commitment of (U.N.) Secretary General Ban Ki-moon to raise the agency to a hierarchical position directly beneath his office (it will be headed by an under-secretary-general, like other major agencies).
The international campaign UNITE to End Violence Against Women, recently launched by the secretary general (in 2008) is another sign of his commitment to the cause of furthering women’s rights.
IPS: How does the Committee work? What tasks does it carry out?
The mandate of the CEDAW Committee is to monitor State Party compliance with the obligations undertaken upon signing and ratifying the Convention. The Committee periodically receives official reports submitted by the parties, considers the report and invites each party to a constructive dialogue regarding the report and the situation of the country in question.
It also receives additional information from U.N. agencies and NGOs. Only later does the Committee prepare and send its Final Observations, which include recommendations of actions to be taken.
Four years later, when they submit their following report, governments must respond (to the Committee’s Final Observations) giving an account of the measures taken. Lately, we have been selecting two problems - the two that merit most concern - and we’re requiring that the state party send a report within two years indicating the actions taken and the advances made with respect to those problems.
We also have the Optional Protocol, adopted 20 years after CEDAW, which expanded our competence.
We can now receive individual and group communications reporting violations to CEDAW, and we can also conduct interviews and inquiries - visiting the country, if necessary - when grave and systematic violations to the Convention occur.
IPS: What does the Committee’s power to investigate a request from an individual or group of individuals mean? Are there any cases that can illustrate this?
SP: I would have to say the well-known case of femicides (gender-based murders) in Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, and the cases of violence against women in Austria, a first-world country where the State is surprisingly negligent with respect to the prevention of violence against women and the protection of their rights so they can enjoy a life free from violence.
IPS: Of all the cases and situations you’ve dealt with, which have moved you the most?
SP: The list is endless, but I’ll shorten it to three cases. The first is the murder in India of a group of elderly women who were accused of witchcraft. They were blamed for drought, excess rainfall and the death of a small boy, among other incidents. There are studies that reveal that property interests were behind the whole thing.
The second is the situation in several African countries, where as many as 96 percent of all women have been subjected to genital mutilation, with many dying as a result of infections because this practice is performed under poor conditions of hygiene.
And the third is the so-called "fattening method" practiced in some areas of Africa, known by the French expression "le gavage" (force-feeding). As soon as they turn nine, girls are kept tied up for days next to 18 litres of milk and huge amounts of food, which they are forced to consume until they reach 130-140 kilograms, when they are considered fit to be offered in marriage.
And I could go on.
IPS: This region has developed quite a solid structure in terms of legislation. But on the ground, gender violence, discrimination and inequality of opportunities remain very widespread, more so among rural and indigenous women. How can we shorten the gap between laws and reality?
SP: Changing the patriarchal and sexist mentality that predominates in our societies is an essential condition to close this gap. This demands a huge effort on the part of the State and the public policies it implements, particularly in formal and informal education, but especially through the media.
IPS: What new challenges have emerged throughout these three decades with respect to the violation of women’s rights?
SP: The issue of violence was not expressly included in CEDAW.
It was only in 1989 and 1992 that the CEDAW Committee issued two recommendations on the subject. In 1978, the political conditions were not ripe for it. The expressions 'sexual and reproductive health' and 'sexual and reproductive rights' are not included either in the text of the Convention.
After the International Conferences in Cairo (1994) and Beijing (1995), reproductive issues were incorporated by the Committee through its Final Observations and its General Recommendation 24 on women’s health. (END/2009)