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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.

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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.

Pre-G20 in Toronto: the real deal on maternal health June 20, 2010

Posted by Dominique Millette in Canadian development policy, Canadian maternal health policy, development assistance, G20, health policy in developing coutries, women's issues.
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What does it take to really help mothers stay healthy? An Amnesty International presentation on maternal mortality in Peru in the context of Millennial Development Goals, part of the People’s Summit held in Toronto June 18-20 to counterbalance the upcoming G20 forum for the world’s richest economies, provided some answers.

In Peru, the to-do list is likely longer than Canadian International Co-operation Minister Bev Oda’s. There’s a need for social change to empower women’s decision-making, roads for people to get to health centres, bilingual people fluent in Quechua and English and… perhaps to start, a budget for the Maternal Mortality National Plan. That’s right: with one of the highest maternal death rates in the Americas at 185 per 100,000, Peru has allocated no money at all to improve the situation. Meanwhile, U.N. estimates of maternal mortality are closer to 240 deaths per 100,000. Why the discrepancy? Ruth Mier y Terán Moscoso, responsible for campaigns and training in the Peruvian section of Amnesty International, points out the government has a vested interest in keeping maternal mortality rate reports as low as possible. Bigger issues, of course, need bigger solutions, which cost more money.

Presumably, this is the kind of problem the Harper government in Canada intended to solve, and should solve, with its maternal health initiative for developing countries, $1 billion over five years, which initially excluded any sort of birth control funding and still excludes abortion services. There’s just one thing: women need to control more of their lives, and their governments, for any real progress to happen.

Each year, some 500,000 women worldwide die during pregnancy or while giving birth and nine million children die before they reach the age of 5, according to Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) statistics. About 2.5 million teenagers have unsafe abortions each year and tend to be more seriously affected by complications. That’s just the start of issues recorded during the World Conference on Women in Beijing in 1995, as noted by Amnesty International Women’s Human Rights Campaigner Lindsay Mossman. At the heart of maternal health is the need for the mother to have the capacity to make independent decisions about her reproductive choices, from age of marriage to contraception use. Once this is secured, mothers need access to care.

Marrying young puts mothers at risk. Women from 15 to 19 are twice as likely to suffer complications from pregnancy. Women under 15? Five times as likely. Choice is crucial. In Peru’s rural communities, the hardest-hit by poverty and lack of health care, choice is something women don’t have, explains Mier y Terán Moscoso. The power of women is an issue, as only men (with the exception of widows) have the right to vote in local assemblies. Women have no choice about having children, she says. It depends on the husband.

At the systemic level, abortion is currently illegal in Peru except to protect the health of the pregnant woman. Whoever seeks an abortion without being at risk faces two years in prison and the doctors performing it, four years. Ambiguity over what constitutes a health risk makes doctors hesitant to perform any abortions at all, says Mier y Terán Moscoso.

Meanwhile, rural areas are the hardest hit by a lack of access to health care, with subsequently higher maternal death rates. Eight out of ten communities in Peru rated as extremely poor are in rural areas. Many have indigenous populations and 40 per cent of indigenous people have no identity papers, which must be obtained in Spanish. Therefore, they have no access to universal health care. Physical access is also a problem: 51 per cent of all communities have no health centre at all. Half of those who do have only a first-aid post. And while the government has paved roads for exploration of mining and oil rights, many rural communities with human beings as their only resource have no roads at all.

Meanwhile, when doctors do appear, they may face extremely difficult conditions, working very long hours. They do not speak indigenous languages, so that in the absence of interpreter services, they won’t be able to communicate with patients. Women in rural indigenous communities are less likely to speak Spanish than men. For this reason, they may also face difficulties in taking medicine as prescribed. As a result of all these factors, only 36 per cent of women in rural areas go to a health care centre or see a health care professional.

Therefore, the picture of health goes beyond the wish or intention to provide services. Empowering women helps take away much of the risk of pregnancy and birth. Helping communities gain access to health care can involve more than training or hiring doctors, and may involve substantial investments in infrastructure, as well as cultural training to better harmonize accredited practice with traditional care and customs. And, of course, once the children are born, they matter, at the very least, every bit as much as when they were in the womb. Healthy mothers are the main part of the development solution.

Toward these ends, Amnesty International has produced a report entitled Fatal Flaws – barriers to maternal health in Peru. The Canadian Chapter also has a wealth of information about the issue worldwide on its “End Maternal Mortality” blog.