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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.