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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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Why we need gender-specific refugee policies in Canada July 12, 2010

Posted by Dominique Millette in refugees, United Nations, women's issues.
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I was reminded of how women are so much more in need of asylum than their male counterparts (who already need it far too much in our world) by the story of Sakineh Mohammadi Ashtiani, recently granted a temporary stay of execution by stoning for adultery in Iran.

The stay is temporary. She could still be executed, probably by other means. Apparently, women are more often liable to be stoned, and buried to the chest, deeper than a man would. It should, therefore, come as no surprise that women die more often than their male co-accused from accusations of immorality.

This story highlights the sad fact of the abuse of women on a worldwide scale, in ways even more atrocious than we allow in our own culture. Just today, another story surfaced about a women’s protest against such unfairness in Bangladesh, where a young woman was whipped 101 times after being raped and becoming pregnant. Her rapist was pardoned. The country’s judiciary there has declared such community sentencing, issued from fatwas, as illegal. It doesn’t stop them from being carried out.

Likewise, multitudes of women face domestic violence around the world without any enforcement of already-existing laws. It may be bad here. It’s worse in other countries. The women who suffer from such policies, or from lack of enforcement of any laws meant to protect them, deserve refugee status. This should include women refused any hope of justice for rape, or subject to rape without any hope of state protection. Such a definition could enable women from Haiti, for example, to come to Canada to escape the horrors they face right now.

The issue of state neglect as a violation of human rights is not new. We’ve come a long way since the definition of refugees was first crafted by the U.N. in 1950. Today, for instance, the UNHCR (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees) recognizes clearly that domestic violence is a form of persecution.

Indeed, when governments fail in their duty to protect citizens, through systemic prejudice such as sexism, anyone who seeks protection in another country is a legitimate refugee. This recognition is especially important not only to the rights of women, but also to sexual minorities. We must be vigilant in ensuring that our governments apply this standard to all incoming refugees who fit the description. And more than that, I would say: we must advertise our countries as havens for those who so desperately need one.

Guns: world issue hits close to home April 26, 2010

Posted by Dominique Millette in Canada, United Nations.
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One third of all guns in the world are in the U.S. And half the guns used to commit crimes in Canada come from south of the border. So yes, this country needs and wants an International Arms Treaty. “Here in Canada we live next to a country with as many guns as people and those guns are killing Canadians. This is the main argument for an international agreement,” asserted Coalition for Gun Control president Wendy Cukier during an April 22 conference in Toronto.

The Coalition for Gun Control includes more than 300 policing, public safety and violence prevention organizations and was founded in the wake of the Montreal Massacre.

Whether in the Congo or in Canada, every one of the 200,000 civilian gun deaths which occur yearly in the world happens in a neighbourhood. That neighbourhood is connected not only to a community, but to the world at large. To what extent, how often and what can anyone do about it was the subject of the talk, sponsored by York University’s Centre for International and Security Studies.

Guest speakers were Cukier, also Associate Dean at the Ted Rogers School of Management at Ryerson; James Sheptycki, York University Professor of Criminology; Kenneth Epps, Senior Program Associate at Project Ploughshares and Detective Sergeant Rob Didanieli, of the Toronto Police Department’s Organized Crime Firearms Enforcement Unit.

“Guns tend to increase lethalization,” Cukier pointed out. As it happens, it’s a women’s issue: the percentage of women killed by partners in the past year was “55 % in U.S., 46 % in Brazil and 25 % in Canada”.

Firearms flow from unregulated areas to regulated areas. This is the case from gun-heavy South Africa to surrounding countries, as well as for the U.S. to Canada. Many guns may come from legal sources but are diverted into illegal use. Regulation addresses this problem by trying to plug the holes. The objectives of an international agreement are to lower the risk of misuse and diversion, as on the national level. The UN Programme of Action on the Illicit Trade in Small Arms and Light Weapons seeks to ensure that states prevent illegal possession.

Since most guns in the world are in civilian hands, in non-conflict situations, the human rights aspect of gun control is that states which fail to adequately regulate firearms are failing to protect citizens from gun violence.

Though the impact of regulations is difficult to prove, Cukier asserts there is broad evidence. “The difference between Canadian and U.S. homicide rates (200 versus 10,000) is explained entirely by the difference in firearms,” she observes. Meanwhile, Canadian homicide rates without firearms are only slightly lower than the ones in the U.S.

In Ontario, according to the Advocacy Project, possession or access to firearms is the fifth leading risk factor for femicide. Murders of women with guns are down 60 % in last 15 years alone, which correlates with stricter controls.

Kenneth Epps of Project Ploughshares described the push for an International Arms Trade Treaty (ATT). “National controls vary and are inadequate”, he noted, adding there is a need for common global standards in the face of the impact of irresponsible arms transfers. An ATT would regulate not only civilian weapons but also conventional military matériel.

Negotiations have started in the U.N., and are mandated by U.N. Charter. They also have overwhelming support, from 153 out of 192 countries. In addition to inclusiveness, there is a need for high standards for authorizing transfers, and for effective implementation and transparency. Given the requirement of documentation, tracing and marking, the treaty must provide help for ill-equipped states. Negotiations will start July 2010 and a treaty conference will be held July 2012. The U.S. has indicated its support despite ferocious opposition from the National Rifle Association (NRA) but has required that the conference be conducted by consensus. This raises the potential problem of problem of going to the lowest common denominator, observes Epps.

James Sheptycki described what he termed “pistolization” to describe the social phenomenon of the gun as an everyday item. Civilians own 650 million of the total 875 million combined civilian, law enforcement and military personnel weapons in the world; therefore, pistolization is a major concern. Non-conflict deaths due to firearms are high in many countries. They amount to 39,000-42,000 deaths per year in Brazil, where there are active, violent criminal networks. Meanwhile, the U.S. is the “only advanced industrial democracy in the world with a high rate of pistolization”.

Allowing civilians to bear arms can increase casualties immeasurably. The Virginia Tech shooting resulted in 32 deaths, while the one at Dawson College produced one death, with several wounded. Why the difference? Standing orders. In the U.S., police must worry about crossfire from self-defending civilians, so it takes longer to secure a perimeter. In Montreal, police were able to respond to gunfire immediately, notes Sheptycki.

Meanwhile, outside Canada, pistolization of local cultures affects peacekeepers’ security, development efforts and aid delivery, for example in the Congo. “More research is needed to integrate domestic and international levels of research on pistolization as a public policy issue,” asserted Sheptycki.

Rob Didanieli, Detective Sergeant with Organized Crime Enforcement at the Toronto Police Department, is in charge of the Arms analysis and investigation unit. Last year, 3,000 firearms were seized in Toronto alone. Many handguns are used in crime, since they are easier to conceal and use. Of these, 53 % were sourced to the U.S. and  47 % to Canada, where most were stolen from legitimate businesses.

Didanieli noted that gun running from the U.S. to Canada is a lucrative endeavour. A handgun easily available in Georgia for $300 can be sold on Canadian streets for five times that amount. Since this country is a source of high-grade meth and cannabis, drugs go down and guns come up. The large border is “impossible to police”, said Didanieli, with 300 million people going back and forth just last year.