On 9 July 2012, a celebration of the 30th anniversary of the Committee on the Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) was held by UN Women and the OHCHR at United Nations headquarters in New York. The event, “CEDAW30,” commenced with a morning programme and interactive panel discussion entitled “Focusing on Women’s Political Participation and Leadership – In Pursuit of Equality.”
The session, moderated by Ivan Simonovic, Assistant Secretary-General for New York Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, was extremely well attended. The commemoration followed the opening of the Committee’s fifty-second session, which runs through 27 July.
Deputy Secretary-General of the United Nations Jan Eliasson emphasized in his introductory address that the fight for women’s equality is far from over. Mr. Eliasson urged the international community to come together in order to politically empower women and erase gender discrimination in all aspects of public and private life. “We need all of the experts on the Committee, we need governments, we need non-governmental organizations and we need citizens – women and men everywhere – who understand that equality makes us all stronger,” he said.
Mr. Eliasson poignantly recalled the story of Eleanor Roosevelt, whose work with the UN system was met with resistance at first from within; eventually, through persistence, she was able to reach positions of great responsibility. Mr. Eliasson used this story to symbolize similar gains in equality and participation made by the women’s movement through their persistence and determination for equality. Since its inception in 1982, the Committee has grown into a strong, globally respected voice, Mr. Eliasson continued. 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, has transformed the lives of countless women and girls. The Deputy Secretary-General cited a particularly representative example of these achievements in the case of Rwanda, which has made huge gains in women’s political participation since the genocide and accompanying violence against women in 1994.
Michelle Bachelet, Executive Director of UN Women, shared her view that the Convention had become “a living law” thanks to “the wisdom, energy, and commitment” of the Committee’s members. Today, at the commemoration of CEDAW’s 30th anniversary, more than 30 countries have 30 per cent or more women politicians, she stressed; in the fulfilment of the goal she coined as “30-30-30,” gender parity can be achieved by 2030. Ms. Bachelet heralded CEDAW’s remarkable global impact, and opined that the work to enhance the rights of women that began at the UN Conference on Sustainable Development (“Rio+20”) should be continued.
Global rates of women’s participation in politics are still low and need to be balanced towards more equal distributions to fully account for the voices of all women, Ms. Bachelet cautioned. Female leadership has altered the traditional notions of male-dominated politics and transformed social norms of who should be in leadership positions, she continued. She added that democracy was “not only about the right to vote but also about the right to be elected,” pointing out that male-dominated parliaments and governments could not have a level of sensitivity to women’s concerns and rights equal to that of fully representative governing bodies.
On behalf of President Dilma Rousseff of Brazil, Elenora Menicucci de Oliveira, Minister for Policies for Women, delivered a statement that reaffirmed Brazil’s commitment to the Convention. The current government, run by the first female president in her country’s history, was the “the administrator of the greatest group of programmes for supporting women” in the history of Brazil, she stated. For example, the Bolsa Familia programme provides income transfers to 13.5 million families, giving women the power to receive and administer financial resources. Furthermore, the “My House, My Life” programme guarantees dwellings for low-income earners and titles to women who own property. Ms. Menicucci stated that her government is implementing ambitious efforts to combat poverty, which in Brazil is “synonymous with combating feminine poverty.” The rapidly growing country has also made progress in combating violence against women and children, especially through its 2006 “Maria de Penha” law, which increased penalties for perpetrators of domestic violence. For Brazil to achieve full gender equality, “a culture of peace for our daughters and sons,” must be provided, Ms. Menicucci concluded.
Shanti Dairiam, Member of the Board of Directors of the International Women’s Rights Action Watch - Asia Pacific, pointed to the problem that institutions including the family and the State reinforce discrimination against women. In this context, Ms. Dairiam stressed the need for enhanced civil society advocacy, to create a multi-dimensional approach to ending that pattern of discrimination. In this vein, she advocated consistent, systemic interaction between women’s groups and the CEDAW Committee to ensure the implementation of international human rights norms and legal standards at the local level. The speaker concluded by emphasizing her view that CEDAW and NGOs working together in strong relationships achieved the major gains of the past 30 years, through the contributions of NGOs in reporting, observing and monitoring implementation of the convention.
In the final keynote speech, Rebecca Alitwala Kadaga, Speaker of the Ugandan Parliament, said the presence of her countrywomen in leadership positions, including Vice-President and senior posts in the key ministries of finance and planning, trade and industry, health, and education, has had a positive impact on social attitudes on women’s political participation. To attract the women’s vote, several political parties had been obliged to set quotas for women in their party leadership structures; new laws have been put in place requiring women’s participation in Parliament at a level of 40 percent. Though none of the parties have achieved the set targets, Ms. Kadaga continued, women are now more visible in leadership posts, having risen from under 10 percent in 2001 to about 35 percent in 2010. The presence of women has also led to advocacy and steps towards protecting the rights, space and appointments of women. The Speaker put Uganda’s progress thus far in perspective, pointing to Scandinavia as the region of the world with the highest percentage of women in politics, with the Americas ranking second and the Arab World and Asia-Pacific ranking lowest. Of the 33 countries with 30 per cent or more women in parliament today, 26 have quotas in place that helped to ensure this outcome, she concluded.
During the panel discussion that followed, three dynamic political experts discussed the political opportunities for women in their countries, and the success and challenges of their quota systems. Sapana Phadhan Malla, a lawyer and member of the Constituent Assembly of Nepal, shared the view that the international community should see CEDAW as a bill of rights for women worldwide, and that it was literally a “living document.” At 33 per cent of parliamentary seats, Nepal has the highest level of women’s participation in Parliament in the Asia-Pacific region; this quota is mandated by the Interim Constitution, and parties’ accountability to it is supported by the Election Commission’s monitoring. As in the case of Uganda, Ms. Malla stated that women’s heightened visibility had enabled their negotiation for more rights, including the incorporation of the Convention into the Constitution and mandating that women hold at least one of the top four government posts — President, Vice-President, Speaker of Parliament, or Deputy Speaker. More political will, advocacy and monitoring on the ground and legal reform are needed in order to ensure the sustainability of these gains in Nepal and across the world, Ms. Malla concluded.
Finally, Souad Triki, Team Leader of the ENPI Civil Society Regional Programme and Vice-President of the Independent Higher Authority for the October 2011 elections in Tunisia, stated that 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, she stated. Tunisia’s government ratified the Convention with reservations in 1985 and the Optional Protocol in 2010, withdrew those reservations in 2011, but maintained a State decree concerning article 1 of the Constitution, which stipulated that Tunisia was a Muslim State. In Ms. Triki’s view, Tunisia today faces a challenge of ensuring the permanence of the gains made for women’s rights, especially in the face of extremist forces that have emerged since the revolution. She concluded that it is crucial to remove Tunisia’s reservations to the Convention and fully enshrine women’s rights.