|Bringing Equality Home - Implementing the convention on the elimination of all forms of discrimination against women (UNIFEM, 1998, 45 p.)|
The year 2000 will mark twenty years since the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (the Convention) was opened for ratification. In the five years since I started work promoting the Convention as a standard-setting instrument for the actualisation of the human rights of women, I have been repeatedly asked whether the Convention can really do anything for women. The question I thought should have been asked is what can we do with the Convention, and for the past five years I have made this my mission.
The case studies in this booklet are a testament to what can be achieved if we use this instrument to normative effect, for the advancement of women. They show that around the world the Convention has been used to define norms for constitutional guarantees of women's human rights, to interpret laws, to mandate proactive, pro-women policies, and to dismantle discrimination. After twenty years of involvement, it is my firm belief that skepticism with regard to the value of this human rights treaty is unwarranted - which is not to say that the Convention is currently being used to its full potential - the point is quite different. This booklet, in my opinion, is not a validation of how useful the Convention has been for women, but is more an illustration of what is possible. The Convention's potential is immense, and much more effort has to be taken to exploit it in order to accelerate the realisation of women's rights.
Major breakthroughs have been made in the nineties for women's advancement, largely because of women's advocacy worldwide. The declaration that came out of the 1993 UN World Conference on Human Rights in Vienna unequivocally established women's rights and equality as essential preconditions to women's participation in development as agents and beneficiaries.
As women gain conviction of the legitimacy of their rights, demands arise for international and national mechanisms through which they can claim these rights. In this context, the Convention takes on added significance, as it is the principal legal instrument addressing women's rights and equality. Its uniqueness lies in its mandate for the achievement of substantive equality for women, which requires not only formal legal equality but also equality of results in real terms. By recognizing that discrimination is socially constructed and that laws, policies, and practices can unintentionally have the effect of discriminating against women, the Convention sets the pace for a dynamic, proactive approach to women's advancement. It is no longer possible to say that there is no discrimination against women if laws and policies do not overtly discriminate against women. Under the regime of the Convention, neutrality has no legitimacy. Positive actions are required of the State to promote and protect the rights of women.
Furthermore, the strength of the Convention rests on an international consensus on its mandate of equality and its principles, given more than 161 ratifications/accessions to date. Such a mandate is a strong counter to the claim that equality between women and men should be made relative to culture and tradition. As Rebecca Cook has noted, non-discrimination is now a principle of international customary law.
The existence of a positive legal framework for women's rights does not automatically confer rights on women. However, it does legitimize women's claims for rights and makes possible women's transformation from passive beneficiaries to active claimants. It creates the space for women's agency.
The Convention is largely dependent on the political will of Governments. This political will can be created through the development of a highly conscious constituency, not only among women and women's groups, but within Government bureaucracies as well. There is an urgent need to raise awareness and develop skills at various levels in relation to the Convention: among women, Government functionaries, lawyers and members of the judicial system. Advocacy for the application of the norms of the Convention has to be linked to the international mandate of equality and non-discrimination at the ground level.
This linkage also requires the establishment of a relationship between women's groups and the CEDAW Committee which monitors States parties' compliance with their obligations under the Convention. Women's interaction with the CEDAW Committee can help integrate their perspectives into the interpretation of the Convention's articles. This in turn will increase the Convention's scope for domestic application and contribute to the development of women's rights jurisprudence within the United Nations system. Women can thus transform the Convention into a truly living instrument and be critical actors in the establishing of norms and in the setting of standards for women's human rights.
The participation of women from all regions - and in all their diversity - in the setting of international norms is also critical because of the need for universal minimum standards of human rights. This is so especially in light of the rising fundamentalism in many countries around the world. We need to engage in the process of evolving a core set of universal norms and standards for women's rights. If we do not do this, rights for women will be subject to changing ideologies and shifting socio-economic and political contexts. The women we are working with are ready to engage in such standard-setting. It is, in fact, vital that they do this, so that their experiences and needs form the basis of such standard-setting, thus linking the national to the global and the global to the national.
There is much that can be done. Today when I am asked "What can the Convention really do for women?" I reply softly "What do you plan to do with the Convention?"
International Women's Rights Action Watch (IWRAW) Asia Pacific
Note: The IWRAW Asia Pacific is a collaborative programme to facilitate and monitor the implementation of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women. It has projects in 13 countries 'in Asia and is based in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.