UN CSW: the way to empower women is to use CEDAW Article 5, not the CSW

The most effective international mechanism to promote gender equality and women’s empowerment is not the cumbersome UN CSW, it’s CEDAW, and it’s time to use it to make governments accountable.

Margaret Owen
31 March 2016

At the 60th Session of the annual UN Commission on the Status of Women (CSW60) this month, 8,000 women’s NGOS, representing feminist and women’s movements around the world, had the golden opportunity to rally around this year’s priority theme: “Women’s Empowerment and its link to Sustainable Development”.

But will this year’s assembly bear fruit? Will governments do what they promised to do last Friday, the 25th March?

"Non-Violence" (also known as "The Knotted Gun"), sculpture by Swedish artist Carl Fredrik Reuterswärd. Photo: Sophie Giscard d'Estaing

Whilst government delegates in the UN building burnt the midnight oil arguing through 80 hours of negotiations to agree the “final conclusions”, in an atmosphere often tense with battles over language on such controversial topics such as reproductive and sexual health, the definition of the family, LGBT rights, domestic and sexual violence, and issues of culture and sovereignty, we, in our various shabbier locations across 1st avenue, networked and talked to each other, bringing the voices of the poorest, most invisible and vulnerable women and girls to our “parallel NGO events”. But who heard us?

Our meetings, which so vividly described the realities of the often desperate needs and crucial roles of the world’s very poorest women and girls, were barely visited by the policy makers across the road in the UN building who are charged with the responsibility of implementing the Agreed Conclusions they have fought over with such intensity.

The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) is one of the most ambitious UN projects since the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), and Goal No. 5 on gender equality opens the door for women and girls to raise such issues as violence against women, and their sexual and reproductive rights. But the real challenge is to ensure that women and girls have an equal decision-making role in the 16 other goals, for clearly we women have important contributions to make towards ending poverty and hunger, ensuring health, education and decent work for all, and most of all for ending inequalities, addressing climate change and building a sustainable peace.

The promise in the SDGs is to “Leave No One Behind”.  This is a beautiful phrase, but words are not enough, and rarely have we NGOs seen the commitments made by Member States in decades of Agreed Conclusions implemented on the ground.

Sphere Within Sphere by Italian sculptor Arnaldo Comodoro.

“Implementation!  Implementation! Implementation!”  Cried the indefatigable deputy CEO of UN Women, at the NGO consultation prior to the official CSW opening. Likewise, Ambassador Antonio Patriota, the Brazilian CSW Chair, stressed the vital roles of the women’s organisations in every country as the key monitors of progress in fulfilling these agreed obligations, and as the agents for filling the yawning gaps in data and identifying those categories of women and girls – such as the widows – who are so often forgotten and fall through all safety nets.

Indeed, the scope and ambition of this 2030 Agenda (A/RES/70/11) poses huge data challenges. Existing sources of data are insufficient, and without filling this gap there can be no effective monitoring of its gender dimensions.

 For example, although we have much anecdotal evidence of the huge increase in the numbers of widows and wives of the missing due to armed conflict, revolutions, sectarian strife, HIV and AIDS and harmful traditional practices such as child marriage to far older men, there are no reliable statistics, or even adequate qualitative information to describe their life-styles, coping strategies, support systems, or experience of violence within the family – which is a vital precondition for evaluating any progress in improving their status. 

The role of men and boys in promoting gender equality is well referenced in the Agreed Conclusions, and there is a wealth of “best practice” around, the question of how to actually harness their potential for this important task that could be so transformational in changing conventional patriarchal attitudes is not spelt out.  Patriarchal attitudes block, so often, women’s access to justice, even where new modern laws have been enacted to comply with obligations under international agreements such as the Beijing Platform for Action and the CEDAW.

Bandana Rana, the Nepali feminist who won the Women of Distinction Award, who also spoke at the NGO consultation, prioritised the task of “changing the mind set of men and boys in the home”, and she looked forward to the day when “every home rejoices at the birth of a girl”. How to get this transformation on the road?

As a UK barrister and lifelong human rights activist (now in my eighties), who has attended no less than nineteen annual CSW meetings, here is what I would like to see happen, and as soon as possible.

 I want to see as many Member States, who have ratified the CEDAW (Committee of the UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women) to band together to collectively ask the CEDAW to consider a General Recommendation (GR) on their Article 5: Stereotyping and Cultural Prejudices.

Article 5 requires States Parties to “take all appropriate measures to modify social and cultural patterns of conduct of men and women, with a view to achieving the elimination of prejudices and customary and all other practices which are based on the idea of inferiority or the superiority of either of the sexes or on stereotyped roles for men and women”.

For me, the most effective international mechanism to promote gender equality and women’s empowerment, and make Governments accountable for their omissions to protect their women citizens from discrimination and abuse is not the cumbersome bureaucratic anti-NGO CSW, but the CEDAW.

 CEDAW now needs – pushed and persuaded by the best of its Member States – to enhance the importance of Article 5, and use its wording to interrogate States Parties at their 4 yearly reporting sessions, asking them what means they are using to change the attitudes of men and boys at all levels of society, from the top echelons to the village, in the informal as well as formal education structures, in the work place, in the army, in trade unions, political parties, and among religious and traditional leaders.

CEDAW could engage the NGO community in providing them with examples of best practice that have succeeded in altering mind sets, starting in the family, so that little boys are taught to respect their mothers and their sisters, and see girls and women and equal partners in the development of their communities and society generally.

In our struggle for the dignity, respect and human rights of widows, of whom there are now so many facing unacceptable discrimination, abuse, poverty and violence, often barred, whatever the constitution and law says about equality, to inherit and own land, access education, training, credit, or employment. Furthermore, these women and girls are often victims of life threatening and degrading mourning and burial rites, it is the traditional attitudes that must be changed, and it can be done if there is the political will. All widows must be able to live in dignity, their roles as sole heads of households supported, freed of the stigma and “inauspiciousness” so common to their status.

CEDAW can “name and shame” those countries that are found to have done nothing to implement Article 5.   

Those that can provide the details and evaluation of their projects to alter those attitudes that block women’s empowerment will see their reputation enhanced and their successful programmes highlighted, publicised and adapted, providing that support for the CSW60 Agreed Conclusions they so badly need if the 2015-30 Agenda for the SDGs is to be achieved.

Such a CEDAW initiative would be a powerful driver of implementation of the CSW60 Agreed Conclusions, and also help empower those women’s NGOs that will be the effective evaluators of progress in the coming years.

This article is part of oD 50.50’s series covering key debates at this year’s UN Commission on the Status of Women.

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