COMMITTEE ON THE ELIMINATION OF DISCRIMINATION AGAINST WOMEN CELEBRATES THIRTIETH ANNIVERSARY (New York)
Deputy Secretary-General, UN Women Chief address Committee
9 July 2012
Stressing that the struggle for women’s equality was far from won, Deputy Secretary-General Jan Eliasson today called on the international community to unite in politically empowering women and erasing gender-based discrimination and oppression in all aspects of public and private life.
“We need all of the experts on [the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women], we need Governments, we need non-governmental organizations and we need citizens — women and men everywhere — who understand that equality makes us all stronger,” said Mr. Eliasson during the opening of a Headquarters event to commemorate the Committee’s thirtieth anniversary. The commemoration followed the opening of the Committee’s fifty-second session, which runs through 27 July.
Mr. Eliasson said that, since its inception in 1982, the Committee, comprising 23 expert members serving in their personal capacities, had grown into a strong, globally respected voice. Its work in convincing 187 Governments so far to accede to the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, and in scrutinizing their compliance with the treaty’s provisions, had transformed the lives of countless women and girls.
To achieve parity between the sexes in politics, the fundamental rights of women and girls everywhere must be realized, he said, adding that the United Nations was committed to leading by example. “Our policy is to find the best person for every job”, he said, applauding the performance of the Organization’s all-female formed police unit in Liberia, and that of female staff involved in everything from patrolling dangerous areas to rescuing victims from disasters. By 2014, fully 20 per cent of United Nations police would be women, he said.
Backing and guiding such efforts, was the Committee, he continued. It had tackled human rights issues neglected for too long, such as the rights of lesbian, bisexual and transgender women. It had also encouraged women from non-governmental organizations to speak out, and today, those women were part of many United Nations campaigns, including the Secretary-General’s “UNiTE to end Violence against Women” initiative.
Michelle Bachelet, Executive Director of UN Women, said the Convention had become “a living law” over the past 30 years, thanks to “the wisdom, energy, and commitment” of the Committee’s members. Today, more than 30 countries had 30 per cent or more women parliamentarians, and by joining forces, gender parity could be achieved by 2030, she stressed. “I want you to remember this as 30-30-30.”
Temporary special measures such as quotas or parity laws were a powerful tool to achieve that goal, she continued. The United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development ( Rio+20) outcome document had stated the importance of implementing such measures, and the Committee had consistently advised States parties to consider adopting them. There had been ground-breaking results in countries such as Rwanda, Sweden, South Africa, Nicaragua, Timor-Leste and Algeria. Democracy was “not only about the right to vote but also about the right to be elected”, she said, emphasizing that parliaments and Governments composed mostly of men did not have the same level of sensitivity to women’s concerns and women’s rights.
Ms. Bachelet said it had taken concerted efforts to ensure that the Rio+2O outcome text explicitly recognized the importance of sexual and reproductive health for sustainable development. Once women and men were represented equally in parliaments, it would not be necessary to explain that “if women could vote for or be elected to the highest office, they should also be able to define if and how many children they wanted to have”. Further, a 2007 Massachusetts Institute of Technology study in India had found that the increased presence and visibility of female politicians in local government had raised the academic performance and career aspirations of young women.
Elenora Menicucci de Oliveira, Minister for Policies for Women of Brazil, delivered a statement on behalf of President Dilma Rousseff, who said that, as the first female President in her country’s history, it was an honour to reaffirm Brazil’s commitment to the Convention. The Government was the “the administrator of the greatest group of programmes for supporting women” in the history of Brazil, she said. For example, the Family Stipend Programme, which provided income transfers to 13.5 million families, gave women the power to receive and administer financial resources. The “My House, My Life” programme guaranteed a dwelling to low-income earners and titles to women who owned property.
The Government wished to go even further, and was committed to combating poverty, which in Brazil was “synonymous with combating feminine poverty”, she said. The country had also made headway in combating violence against women and children, as, for instance, through the 2006 “Maria de Penha” law, which strengthened penalties for perpetrators of domestic violence. In order for Brazil to become a totally free and equal country, it was crucial to build “a peace culture for our daughters and sons”.
Shanti Dairiam, Member of the Board of Directors of the International Women’s Rights Action Watch - Asia Pacific, said the problem was that institutions such as the family and the State reinforced discrimination against women. In doing so, they denied responsibility and justified a state of helplessness, with the excuse that “the problem is elsewhere”. Civil society’s role and work on the ground was crucial to creating a multi-dimensional approach to ending that pattern of discrimination, she said. There was a need for civil society advocacy, as well as consistent, systemic interaction between women’s groups and the Committee to ensure that international human rights norms and legal standards were implemented at the local level, she said, stressing that a rights framework did not automatically confer rights, but only legitimized claims for rights.
Moreover, the visibility of non-governmental organizations in the Committee’s reviewing of Governments’ compliance with the Convention had raised their standing in some countries, she said, adding that there were examples of Governments being more willing to acknowledge and even consult them. To that end, in 1997, the International Women’s Rights Action Watch - Asia Pacific had initiated the “From Global to Local” programme, which had helped to systematize a much-needed relationship between the Committee and women’s non-governmental organizations in the region.
Following Ms. Dairiam’s address, three speakers took the floor to shed light on efforts in their respective countries to empower women.
Rebecca Alitwala Kadaga, Speaker of the Ugandan Parliament, said the presence of her countrywomen in leadership positions, including Vice-President, Cabinet ministers and Speaker, had had a positive impact on social attitudes. In order to attract the women’s vote, several political parties had been obliged to set quotas for women in their party leadership structures. Though none of the parties had achieved the set targets, women were now more visible in leadership posts, having risen from under 10 per cent in 2001 to about 35 per cent in 2010. Women had also risen to senior posts in the key ministries of finance and planning, trade and industry, health, and education. Their presence had also led to advocacy and steps to protect the rights, space and appointments of women.
She went on to note the enactment of the Prevention and Prohibition of Trafficking in Persons Act and the Prevention of Female Genital Mutilation Act, also citing progress towards the passage of the Domestic Violence Act, which had been stalled for several years, and the Domestic Relations Bill, which had been on the drawing board for more than 47 years. She said that, as Speaker, she had set aside funds in the current parliamentary budget for a day-care centre for the children of Members of Parliament and their staff.
Sapana Phadhan Malla, a lawyer and member of the Constituent Assembly of Nepal, said that at 33 per cent, her country had the highest level of women’s participation in Parliament in the Asia-Pacific region. Under the Interim Constitution, women candidates must fill 33 per cent of all parliamentary seats, which was further supported by the Election Commission’s strong monitoring to make parties accountable in maintaining the sex ratio.
She said women’s heightened visibility had enabled them to negotiate for more rights, including incorporation of the Convention into the Constitution and mandating that women hold 33 per cent of posts in all State structures and at least one the top four Government posts — President, Vice-President, Speaker of Parliament of Deputy Speaker. But there was confusion about temporary special measures as opposed to permanent measures, she said. No phase-out policy had been introduced to end the temporary special measures, causing some parliamentarians to use them as a way to secure votes or curtail rights. Now that the Constituent Assembly had been dissolved, the challenge was how to preserve the consensus reached on progressive rights for women.
Souad Triki, Team Leader of the “Civil Society” ENPI–South Programme and Vice-President of the Independent Higher Authority for the October 2011 elections in Tunisia, said the ousting of long-standing President Zine el Abidine ben Ali had ushered in a new chapter in her country’s history. Women, who had suffered the most in the region from marginalization, poverty and unemployment rates twice as high as those of men, had been on the frontlines of the resistance movement. The Government, having ratified the Convention with reservations in 1985 and the Optional Protocol in 2010, had withdrawn those reservations in 2011, but maintained a State decree concerning article 1 of the Constitution, which stipulated that Tunisia was a Muslim State.
Today, women comprised 18 per cent of the 160 members of the Independent Higher Authority, she said, adding that it had adopted a draft law, later validated by the President, which obliged political parties to achieve gender parity and equality on electoral lists. Nevertheless, women represented just 7 per cent of electoral candidates and 24 per cent of seats in the National Assembly. One of the greatest challenges today was not to lose ground on women’s rights, while ensuring that the gains made were permanent, she emphasized.
During the ensuing discussion, participants asked Ms. Triki how women’s advancement could be sustained in Tunisia.
She said there was a power struggle in the National Assembly over that matter. To ensure that gains made were not erased, it was crucial to remove Tunisia’s reservations to the Convention and fully enshrine women’s rights. Moreover, it was vital to prevent conservative, extremist elements within the Islamist political parties from winning their bid to deny women’s rights and impose sharia law as a basis for the Constitution.
Asked how Nepal could sustain its high numbers of women parliamentarians, Ms. Phadhan Malla said it was critical to do so, particularly since the Constituent Assembly had been dissolved.
Regarding women’s difficulty in getting elected and exerting influence in Parliament, Ms. Kadaga said the problem was that many Governments were oblivious to their commitments under the Convention. That was why Uganda had decided that the Minister for Gender must report annually on the status of women, and that all bills sent to Parliament must comply with the minimum standards set forth in the Convention. Concerning the rights of rural women, she said it was crucial to educate women who comprised the bulk of Africa’s voters, as was ensuring they had the time to attend political meetings. Supplying them with energy-saving stoves and water would free up much of their time.
During the Committee’s earlier meeting, Charles Radcliffe, Chief of the Global Issues Section of the New York Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, said that, to mark the Committee’s thirtieth anniversary, the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights had issued 30 Years Working for Women’s Rights, a publication to chart the treaty body’s progress and map out the work ahead in addressing challenges to women’s rights and gender equality. The publication was also meant to serve as a resource tool to help States and other stakeholders understand the role of the Committee, its working methods, the Convention and its Optional Protocol, as well as its general recommendations, he said. The Committee is one of nine treaty bodies that monitor key United Nations human rights conventions.
Summarizing recent developments in strengthening the treaty body, he recalled that, following consultations with the Committee and others during meetings held in Dublin in 2009 and 2011, the High Commissioner for Human Rights had issued a report last month that recommended, among other things, creating a comprehensive reporting calendar that would ensure strict compliance with human rights treaties and equal treatment of all States parties; ensuring continued consistency of treaty body jurisprudence in relation to individual communications; and setting up a simplified, focused reporting procedure to help States parties meet their reporting obligations in a cost-effective manner.
During the recent Annual Meeting of Chairpersons of Treaty Bodies, held in Addis Ababa in June, the chairpersons had backed the High Commissioner’s report and urged each treaty body to carefully review its working methods accordingly. They had also discussed ways to facilitate interaction with regional human rights mechanisms and actors in Africa. As for the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights’ efforts to end violence against women, he said it had organized, in cooperation with UN Women and the Secretary-General’s UNiTE campaign, an expert group meeting in Panama on the investigation of femicide in Latin America, which had produced an annotated outline of a protocol to investigate such gender-motivated killings. Additionally, OHCHR and UN Women had produced a draft guidance note on reparations for conflict-related sexual violence.
Committee Chairperson Silvia Pimental, expert from Brazil, noted that the body had a “very full, but interesting agenda during this session”, with members expected to consider periodic reports submitted by Bulgaria, Guyana, Indonesia, Jamaica, Bahamas, Mexico, New Zealand and Samoa. Cases under the Optional Protocol would also be examined.
She went on to say that the expert members would discuss draft general recommendations on the economic consequences of marriage and its dissolution; progress concerning the draft joint recommendation on harmful practices; the general recommendation on the human rights of women in conflict and post-conflict situations; and the general recommendation on access to justice. The Committee would also consider reports and information received under its follow-up procedures to concluding observations, in addition to meeting with non-governmental organizations.
Reporting on developments since the Committee’s fifty-first session, she said the number of States parties to the Convention remained at 187, while 104 had acceded to its Optional Protocol. Bosnia and Herzegovina had deposited its instrument of acceptance of the amendment to the Convention, which had 66 contracting States.
Reporting on the Chairperson’s activities, she said she had highlighted the Convention’s relevance and the Committee’s work during the Annual Human Rights Conference of the State of Sao Paulo Bar Association; participated in the discussion “The Future Women Want: Leaders’ Summit on Gender Equality and Women’s Empowerment for Sustainable Development” during the Rio+20 Conference; and discussed human rights mechanisms with African Union counterparts in respect of the Committee’s report process and individual complaints during the June Addis Ababa Conference.
In her capacity as Chair of the pre-session working group for the fifty-second session, she presented her report on its meeting held from 24 to 28 October 2011, saying the list of issues and questions had been prepared for countries under consideration at the present session. Particular attention had been paid to States parties’ follow-up to the Committee’s concluding observations in previous reports, she said, adding that the lists had been transmitted to the States parties concerned.
Barbara Bailey, expert member from Jamaica, then briefed the Committee on the status of follow-up reports to concluding observations made under article 18 of the Convention, noting that reports had been received from Madagascar, Rwanda and Uruguay, all of which would be assessed during the current session. Reports received from Fiji, Netherlands and Switzerland would be considered during the next session as they must be translated beforehand, she added.
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