CEDAW: designed to be used

CEDAW is not just a wish list from which politicians in the UK can ‘pick-n-mix’ when drawing up their shopping lists of “things to do about women”. Jane Esuantsiwa Goldsmith argues that in the run up to the general election it is an instrument we can use to call our politicians to account.
Jane Esuantsiwa Goldsmith
27 January 2010

CEDAW... sounds like a piece of apparatus you might find in a children’s playground! I’ll agree the acronym is not exactly catchy, it’s a marketing challenge; most people in the UK haven’t heard of it, even in the human rights field. But that doesn’t excuse UK politicians from embracing the principles of CEDAW  and recognising it as the foremost human rights instrument for women in the world.

Thirty years on from the launch of CEDAW, what a joy it was to be invited to chair the big “birthday party” organised by One World Action and Womankind Worldwide.  And what a great crowd! We gathered an impressive array of talent from the women’s movement; the expertise and energy in the room was phenomenal. More than a hundred women, women’s organisations, and a sprinkling of men, from all parts of the planet - India, Africa, Latin America, Iraq, were joined by guests from Commonwealth organisations, the Equality and Human Rights Commission, plus Mike Foster, parliamentary under Secretary of State at the Department for International Development, and Theresa May, Shadow Secretary of State for work and pensions.

We were celebrating 30 years of CEDAW, and getting a flavour of the experience of international and women’s rights organisations from the global North and South in implementing it. Some of us have been working on dancing in the streets the day it was launched! My past flashed before me at the conference – I recognised old mates from the Beijing conference; representatives from the Dalit movement in India,  Iraqi women from the leadership course we ran with the Women’s National Commission -courageous activists who remain “Feminists under fire”, still making the most of what CEDAW has to offer.

Talking with participants I was struck by how relevant CEDAW is today, now more than ever, for women of all the generations represented there. Politicians often come up with a shopping list of “things to do about women” without much joined up thinking; a sort of “pick-n-mix” of issues that float to the top of the political in-tray. The added value of CEDAW is that it provides a strategic framework, an understanding of the whole picture and how inequality in one area can impact on another. The sixteen articles in  CEDAW promote a comprehensive vision of equality for women in every sphere of life: political, social, economic, legal, cultural, fiscal and financial; equal access to the benefits of society including health, education, employment; civil rights, family, and political representation. CEDAW is against the discrimination and stereotyping that hold women back and allows for special measures to overcome them, including support for rural women. In short, it’s a charter for women to enjoy full and independent lives as the human beings that we are.

CEDAW in action

But CEDAW isn’t just a wish-list, it’s an instrument designed to be used. The conference participants offered us a global tour of CEDAW in action - a flavour of what women had achieved from Bolivia to Tanzania, and what needs to happen next. In many countries, especially developing countries as diverse as India, Morocco, Bangladesh and Mexico   they are doing a lot better at putting the Convention into action; they’ve enshrined CEDAW in their constitutions, or used it as a basis for framing legislation. Participants at the conference agreed that the UK is way behind on this; our politicians here tend to see it as an international rather national issue, and it is not referred to in any recent national equalities legislation. Changes in funding regulations mean that it is even more difficult for women-only services to get funding in the UK. Our leaders and politicians have a duty to go out there and promote CEDAW, inform people, create a culture in this country in which human rights can flourish rather than buy into the anti-human rights culture we have now.

What happens next?

At the close of conference we recognised we’d come so far and still have a long way to go, but the mood was upbeat. We wanted to see CEDAW linked with the Millennium Development Goals, the Beijing Platform for Action, and other human rights instruments.  The thread running through it all was how we achieve cultural change, how we educate people to make equality happen. Key recommendations covered every level, from local to national to international.  In the UK, we can hold politicians to account by getting them to use CEDAW in national legislation and policy development, and to collect the data we need to make that happen. We need to hold the local authorities accountable for implementing the Equality Bill in the UK. The Equality and Human Rights Commission should get behind us and spread the message about CEDAW; push the case for funding for women-only services - for example, for survivors of domestic violence, and argue against procurement and tendering processes from undermining CEDAW.

We have work to do ourselves in the voluntary and campaigning sector, by breaking down the silos between human rights and equalities, and working with women and men to redefine gender roles and stereotyping. We should build on the experience we already have of innovative ways to measure progress and identify how change happens, which we need to share with others; and link the agendas of the Millennium Development Goals and the Beijing Platform for Action with CEDAW’s vision so we have a strong joined up platform on women’s rights.

Above all we need education, education, education! For government bodies and ministers, for politicians of every party, and for the general public to understand their rights under CEDAW.  The upcoming UK general election is likely to be closely fought, and we know that political parties already see the appeal to women voters and representation of women as MPs as critical election issues. We have the chance to pin the politicians down to commitment to the principles of CEDAW, and to a joined up strategy to make it happen. Politicians here have the responsibility to turn around the anti-human rights culture in the UK and recognise that it has the power to transform our approach for the better. If decision-makers worldwide would recognise the scope and vision of CEDAW and work with us to implement it in every sphere, now wouldn’t that be something?

A report of the conference with full recommendations will be available from Womankind Worldwide and One World Action in February 2010



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