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Victories give CEDAW hope in improving women’s lives November 11, 2011

Posted by Dominique Millette in development assistance, NGOs, United Nations, women's issues.
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The UN is often derided as a slow and ineffective animal. However, women’s rights expert Shanthi Dairiam had a message to deliver her audience at the George Ignatieff Theatre on November 10th : all over the world, from the grassroots up, women have come forward and used the multilateral institution as a tool to pressure their governments. “Since 1945, the UN has become the unlikely grandmother of women’s rights,” she observed.

In 1993, the activist founded the International Women’s Rights Action Watch Asia Pacific, an NGO based in Malaysia which monitors the UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW). She was a CEDAW committee member from 2005-08.

Among the successes Dairiam cited was that of Nepal. In 2002, the passage of the 11th Amendment of the Civil Code there granted women the long-denied right to property, divorce rights, the right to abortion and greater punishments for polygamy and rape. Meanwhile, in 2008, Morocco officially lifted its reservations against the Convention, which it had ratified in 1993. Legislation in Morocco had been updated to become more progressive in 2003.

Individual suits against flawed legislation have also benefited from CEDAW committees’ Concluding Observations. In Japan, nine women working for Sumitomo applied for mediation, claiming a pay difference with male employees with the same educational backgrounds and years in employment. They had to resort to court action. The plaintiffs used CEDAW recommendations provided to them in 2003. CEDAW then examined the Japanese government report and eventually, the judge referred to CEDAW recommendations on prohibiting indirect discrimination. The plaintiffs won their case. In doing so, they and CEDAW created an international precedent.

Of course, not all victories are clear cut and as wide-ranging as the parties concerned would prefer. With 187 countries having ratified the Convention and having to be monitored on an ongoing basis, “it is well-nigh impossible to be rigorous about monitoring,” conceded Dairiam.  Ratifying countries must report every four years. Women’s groups come as delegations to present their findings and point out areas for improvement. “Non-governmental and civil society activism… is crucial to the domestic implementation of human rights,” the lecturer stated.

There are many barriers to implementation, one of which is the “cultural” defence, for practices ranging from female genital mutilation to polygamy: “Some governments argue it’s impossible to eliminate discrimination because of culture… (but) you can condemn it, if you can’t eliminate it. Condemnation is very important. It sets the tone for the rest of the work.”

Another barrier is access to equality. This is where Canada has failed in its own obligations and has done nothing since receiving CEDAW’s Concluding Observation, centring on access to social services as a way out of poverty, which disproportionately hits women. The same can be said about the issue of part-time work around the developed world: women occupy over 90 per cent of part-time positions, without benefits, sick leave or hope of promotion. Canada’s response to CEDAW critiques of its social services distribution was to point to its federal decentralization. This defense could not be used to explain the second area of concern CEDAW pointed out – the failure of the Canadian government to properly investigate the disappearance and murder of hundreds of aboriginal women.

Shanthi Dairiam spoke at the George Ignatieff Theatre to deliver the 14th Annual Dame Nita Barrow Lecture, presented by the Centre for Women’s Studies in Education with support from the International Development Research Centre.

Whether we can solve a problem like Afghanistan November 10, 2011

Posted by Dominique Millette in Asia, Canadian development policy, development assistance, NATO, Peacekeeping, South Asia, war.
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A former ambassador to Canada insists life has improved in his country since the NATO invasion. Can it be rebuilt – and if so, at what cost?

Remembrance Day this year will be cause for reflection perhaps even more than usual in our country. Canadian troops may have pulled out of Afghanistan, but no one is about to forget their contribution there – and Canada’s continued involvement in the country – any time soon.

Of the armed forces sent there, 158 returned in body bags. Defense spending alone has totaled at least $8 B, with some estimates placing it at up to $16 B. Meanwhile, Canada spent an average of $150 M a year for development assistance during its military deployment, with a high of 280 million dollars in 2007-2008. That amount was set to drop to $100 M per year from 2011 to 2014.

Did any of it make any difference?

According to one Afghan former official: absolutely. On November 8th, the Munk School of Global Affairs invited former External Affairs and Defense Minister William Graham to converse with former Afghan ambassador to Canada Omar Samad. Mr. Samad speaks with the zeal of the faithful, even though his diplomatic obligations are now behind him after a stint in France. “I do not consider the Canadian mission as a failure… Afghanistan today is a far better place than it was 10 years ago,” he insisted.

When Graham spoke of the disagreements he had in Cabinet with the minister responsible for development at the time, given the uncertainty of financial aid getting to where it was directed, Samad acknowledged that “corruption has become endemic, unfortunately… There was mismanagement of aid. We didn’t know how to prioritize it, or how to coordinate aid.” However, he stated that GNP and GDP in Afghanistan have quadrupled in the last ten years, while revenue collection has gone from zero under the Taliban to $2 B in the past year.

Several sources confirm the country’s rapid growth in the past decade. However, cynics might be forgiven for pointing out that the exponential increase started from a very low point; Afghanistan today remains one of the poorest countries in the world, with a per-capita GDP of $900 U.S. and a life expectancy of 45 years. The literacy rate, meanwhile, is 28 per cent – for women, only 12.6 per cent.

Does the drop in aid corresponding to Canadian troop withdrawal signal Canadian disengagement from Afghanistan altogether? To Samad, “I personally think it was a huge mistake to give an end date. It should be phrased differently… A defeatist mentality doesn’t help us. It helps the other side.”

What incentives does Canada have to continue to care? Geopolitics, for one: Afghanistan is at the crossroads of several strategic states. It shares a border with nuclear-capable Pakistan, Iran, several Central Asian republics such as oil-rich Uzbekistan, and China. To some, it also shares a border with India through Jammu and Kashmir. India’s interest in the country has also been expressed in a recent $500 M aid pledge. Meanwhile, China is the biggest investor in Afghanistan, but “wants stability first”, explains Samad.

As it stands, Samad makes a convincing case for continuing aid to Afghanistan and keeping an eye on the region. The question, now as before, is how – and how much.