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close this bookBringing Equality Home - Implementing the convention on the elimination of all forms of discrimination against women (UNIFEM, 1998, 45 p.)
close this folderIV. GOVERNMENT POLICY
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View the documentSouth Africa
View the documentColombia


The introduction of a new Government policy may not be as dramatic an event as constitutional change or a high court victory, but a good policy to which the Government is genuinely committed has great value. It can lead quickly to widespread, concrete changes if, for example, it specifies budget allocations for women's issues or quotas for women's representation at decision-making levels.

Policies are often framed in terms of open-ended or long-term Government commitments. It is important that women's NGOs monitor the Government's progress, measuring it against both the policy's stated goals and the Government's obligations under the Convention.

South Africa

The South African Department of Justice is in the process of developing a Gender Policy as part of a broader transformation of the justice system that began with the end of apartheid. The department has been entrusted by the South African Government with the task of making the legal system truly representative and responsive to the needs of all members of South African society. In the introduction to its draft Gender Policy, the Department of Justice recognises the need for a full examination of gender issues, as the legal system has failed women in so many respects:

For many years South African women who work within the legal system have voiced their concerns about the laws and the legal system. NGOs providing services to women have identified problems with the laws on domestic violence, rape, maintenance, inheritance, and other matters which deeply affect women's lives. The reality is that women have largely been rendered invisible in the legal system. They tend to require legal remedies for problems and violence which occur in their private world - with their husbands, partners, children, other relatives or friends. But the laws upon which they must rely have historically been formulated and applied by men and are not informed by the genuine needs of women (Draft Gender Policy, at 4).

The draft Gender Policy outlines the Justice Department's plan for reforming of laws, changing the way the courts operate, improving access to justice, facilitating community outreach, training in gender sensitivity, and increasing the representation of women at all levels.

The Women's Convention is relied upon throughout the policy. At the outset, the Department of Justice notes that South Africa has ratified CEDAW without qualification, and the Convention is listed as one of the primary "guiding principles" that is to inform the transformation of the South African legal system.

Specific Convention articles are also drawn upon in the formulation of goals and strategies. For example, the policy takes its guidance from CEDAW article 11, on equality in employment, to propose the following: the implementation of an affirmative action policy; the requirement that hiring panels be composed of at least 40% women; setting a target of 30% female employment in management by 1999; the provision of gender sensitivity training at all department levels; and the formulation of a sexual harassment policy. Similarly, when the policy considers the revision of family law, CEDAW articles 2 and 16 provide the framework. The policy also recommends that the South African Law Commission should "draw on the provisions of CEDAW when investigating and making recommendations regarding the harmonisation of common law and indigenous law".

The women's NGOs who presented a shadow report to the CEDAW Committee in July 1998 identified the Department of Justice's Draft Gender Policy as one of the most positive recent developments in South African law.


The political impetus around the women's human rights agenda that was generated by the 1991 constitutional process continued after the constitution's passage. According to PROFAMILIA, "the new political will, the incorporation of new groups in the Government, and the networking of feminist groups" led to further changes, as women's NGOs successfully lobbied the Government to adopt new programmes with a gender perspective. One of the most important of these was the policy issued by the Ministry of Public Health in 1992, entitled "Health for Women, Women for Health."

The Convention has helped provide the framework for the new health policy through its conceptualisation of health as a human rights issue. Article 12 of CEDAW requires the State to "eliminate discrimination against women in the field of health care in order to ensure, on a basis of equality between men and women, access to health care services, including those related to family planning." The State must also provide appropriate services in relation to pregnancy (CEDAW, article 12.2); provide educational information to women about family health and family planning (CEDAW, article 10); and ensure that women have equal rights with men to determine the number and spacing of their children, as well as having access to information and the means to make these decisions (CEDAW, article 16). In addition, the CEDAW Committee's General Recommendation on violence against women identifies coercion in relation to fertility and reproduction as a violation of women's human rights.

The Colombian constitution includes several key provisions regarding women's health that were modelled after the rights contained in the Women's Convention. The constitution guarantees women the right to found a family, to choose the number of children they will have, to have access to health education and information, to the enjoyment of a healthy environment, and to health care. The Colombian Health Policy elaborates upon and extends these entitlements by setting out a detailed programme of women's health rights. PROFAMILIA has summarised these rights in the following way:

· The right to a joyful maternity, which includes a freely decided, wished, and safe pregnancy,

· The right to humanised medical treatment, meaning that a woman's body, her fears, intimacy, and privacy needs should be treated with dignity and respect.

· The right to be treated as an integrated person and not as a biological reproducer by the health services.

· The right to have access to integrated health services which respond to women's specific needs, taking into consideration special characteristics such as age, activities, economic needs, race, and place of origin.

· The right to have access to education that fosters self-care and self-knowledge of the body, promoting self-esteem and empowerment.

· The right to receive information and counselling that promotes the exercise of a free, gratifying, and responsible sexuality, not necessarily conditioned to pregnancy.

· The right to have access to sufficient and appropriate information and counselling and to modern and safe contraceptives.

· The right to have working and living conditions and environments that do not affect women's fertility or health.

· The right not to be discriminated against in the work place or in educational institutions on the basis of pregnancy, number of children, or marital status.

· The right that biological processes such as menstruation, pregnancy, birth, menopause, and old age be considered as natural events and not as illness.

· The right to receive value and respect for cultural knowledge and practices related to women's health.

· The right to have an active and protagonist participation in the community and Governmental decision-making levels of the health system.

· The right to have access to public health services that take care of battered women and victims of all forms of violence.

(from: "CEDAW, Colombia and Reproductive Rights," at 5-6)

The overarching principle that informs the Colombian health policy is its recognition of the importance of women's active involvement. The policy stresses that all women have the right to be active participants in decisions that affect their health, lives, bodies, and sexuality. The policy sets out basic measures - that depend on women's agency - for ending discrimination against women in health care. Women must be empowered, so that the exercise of their rights is guaranteed; women must be afforded equal opportunities; pluralism and differences must be respected; health care must emphasise both women's freedom and privacy; and the social participation of women in active roles must be facilitated.