CEDAW: the women formula

Susanne Zwingel
2 November 2005

Adopted in 1979 by the General Assembly of the United Nations, the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) – the most far-reaching international commitment of governments working for gender equality – was the first international human-rights instrument to explicitly define all forms of discrimination against women as fundamental human-rights violations. As of April 2005, 180 states have ratified CEDAW, interpreting their treaty obligations in diverse ways ranging from reluctance to active incorporation.

In part one, ‘The birth of gender vision’, Susanne Zwingel told the story of CEDAW’s development and its interpretation by different countries.

* * *

Global norms and local traditions

Finland and Chile’s differing approaches to CEDAW show how each national context creates specific conditions which determine the Convention’s domestic use. Social groups opposed to global norms often portray national normative settings as unchangeable due to ‘cultural traditions’. In many postcolonial states today, for example, religion plays a crucial role in national identity formation, breaking away from the secular character of former colonising or currently despotic state ideology. However, this kind of opposition towards global hegemonic structures often neglects women's interests.

“Fighting violent conflict – an online conversation.” To join in the discussion on issues surrounding resolution 1325, see OpenDemocracy’s “women making a difference” blog

Transnational activists can play a key role in introducing international norms into domestic settings. With CEDAW, two particularly active NGOs are International Women's Rights Action Watch (IWRAW), founded in 1986 and based in Minneapolis, USA and International Women's Rights Action Watch Asia Pacific (IWRAW Asia Pacific) founded in 1993 in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. Both have as their goal ‘the progressive interpretation, universalisation, implementation and realisation of women's human rights through the lens of CEDAW’. IWRAW began by publicising the Convention among women's NGOs and the general public, and bringing alternative information from women's NGOs into the CEDAW monitoring procedure, beefing it up.

IWRAW Asia Pacific has developed a mission for the Asian Pacific region that connects local activism with the international framework to influence national policy change. Locally they collaborate with women's organisations to nurture grass-roots know-how regarding international standards, encouraging women to apply these norms to their realities and struggles. Building on this work, at their state's presentation, NGOs support the independent experts with their specific knowledge of the domestic situation.

They often stress the need to grapple with intersecting discrimination – that is, the reinforcement of gender-based discrimination by other dimensions of discrimination such as racism or socio-economic deprivation, contributing to a more complex understanding of the forms of discrimination that CEDAW and other human rights instruments seek to eliminate. NGOs are in turn supported in their development of follow-up strategies which respond to the recommendations of the CEDAW committee.

IWRAW Asia Pacific has also supported the establishment of CEDAW monitoring networks in twelve Asian countries. Here, NGO-coalitions have been formed to monitor public gender policies in light of the Convention and to propose or design additional measures to attain de facto equality. In Pakistan, the core group of one such network, the Aurat Foundation, decided to take the improvement of women's political participation as a starting point for its monitoring activities. It campaigned for a 33 percent allocation of seats for women in local decision-making bodies, a quota which was incorporated into the Local Government Plan of the year 2000. However, the CEDAW monitoring network concluded that the measure as such was not sufficient to encourage women to run for elections, because of the stereotypical view that women are not capable of being political leaders, reinforcing women's lack of knowledge of political procedures.

On its fifth anniversary, openDemocracy asks, “what has UN Resolution 1325 achieved?” Other articles in the debate include:

Srilatha Batliwala, “Women transforming power?”

Lesley Abdela, “1325: deeds not words”

Jeremy Greenstock, “Illuminating gender – 1325 and the UN”

Elisabeth Porter, “Women and security: ‘You cannot dance if you cannot stand’”

Maj Britt Theorin, “Women among paper tigers”

Nicola Johnston-Coeterier, “When women and power meet”

Nicola Dahrendorf, “Mirror images in the Congo: sexual violence and conflict”

Maria Livanos Cattaui, “The Women Vector”

To address this, a broad coalition of women's organisations headed by the Aurat Foundation campaigned in support of women running for elections and established capacity-building programmes for potential candidates. More than 36,000 women were soon elected to local government institutions. The mobilisation contributed to a long-term change in stereotypical understandings of gender roles, initiating a public debate on women's political capabilities. In 2002 the monitoring network was able to hold a national consultation with women councillors to identify problems in their work and develop future strategies.

The main activists of IWRAW Asia Pacific today are women organised on the sub-national and national levels, who are often not part of the educational or decision-making elite of their country. While IWRAW’s focus is on global awareness-raising, it concentrates even more on national social and political change. These networks accept CEDAW as a legitimate instrument for change, and they develop the Convention by interpreting its principles in the light of the gender hierarchies which confront people in their own specific contexts.

This activism has spawned an important new process, the contextualising of international norms without succumbing to cultural relativism – a process which not only legitimates those norms, but renders them more useful and effective worldwide.

An indispensable prerequisite for this form of transnational cooperation is mutual respect, and a careful approach to dealing with power hierarchies. IWRAW Asia Pacific's mandate is based on the principle of empowering women, and on maintaining sustainable, fair relationships with national and local organisations. It supports national NGOs in their work and in gaining access to global processes. On this basis, transnational implementation networks try to influence national policy, either in cooperation with the state or through criticism and public pressure.

Drawing some conclusions

Over the last decade, feminist voices from the global south have emphasised the fact that so-called global norms are predominantly influenced by “western” values. In assessing the women's human rights framework, for example, Inderpal Grewal questioned the concept of a ‘universal woman’, defined solely by her gender – she highlights many different roles being ascribed to a ‘woman’ depending on the combination of race and class categories that makes up the hierarchy in different nation states. She exposes a ‘mismatch’ between global norms and ‘localised specificities of gender inequalities’ stemming from the nature of the global norm creation process itself, from which most voices on this globe are excluded. Viewed thus, transnational NGO activism is as likely to construct an exclusive transnational civil society and perpetuate the dominant international order, as to legitimate inter-governmental processes.

Too often an international agreement, while hard to achieve, is seen as a normative standard that should ‘trickle down’ to the domestic level, to correct normative malfunctions or dissonances. This expectation was prevalent during the Beijing and Bejing+5 conferences. The Beijing Platform for Action was offered up as an irreversible achievement. Voices opposing it were termed backward or fundamentalist – that is, disqualified from renegotiating global standards. Of course proponents of a certain understanding of women's rights will want to maintain the standards once agreed on a high international level. But in practice, a more dynamic understanding of the appropriation of rights may well be more effective.

A better approach recognises that global norm implementation will not simply arise out of a global discourse, but as part of a process either of active appropriation or refusal to appropriate, within national contexts. CEDAW may have evolved obeying an intergovernmental logic, but international, national and sub-national activists have started to transform it into a transnational implementation network of women’s rights. Ultimately, as we have seen in this case, global norms will emerge from all these practices intertwined. They will be best understood as transnational by their very nature.

The opposite dynamic also holds true: if an instrument created by intergovernmental cooperation is not connected to domestic norms and discourses, it will not have much impact beyond intergovernmental rhetoric. Many international instruments are destined for non-implementation because of those missing links.

Certain implications follow from this. Firstly, while it is assumed that there is a common ground on which the parallel efforts of human rights activists around the world can be acknowledged, there must be an accompanying assumption that these standards are not fixed, but open to the kinds of renegotiation inspired by localised knowledge. Secondly, we need to recognise that national or local contexts are not secluded or unitary cultural entities, but that they also enshrine diverse sources of knowledge and legitimacy.

While local contexts do have a ‘character of their own’, they consist of differing yet overlapping experiences. This defies a homogeneous definition of ‘cultural context’, instead acknowledging its polyphony. A ‘culture’ consists of a wide range of voices, including those of women in their diversity. National and local activism, understood in this light, can produce strategies for change that are contextualised interpretations of international norms. It is too simple to understand human rights as ‘imports’ from western liberalism or neo-colonialism. Instead, claims for human rights made by women in postcolonial situations must be read as distinct voices from within a long-circulating discourse of modern ideas about democracy, rights, equality and justice. They are locally produced ideas articulated in a universal spirit of human dignity.

The political strategy that emerges from these conclusions must aim at bringing overlapping value systems together instead of separating them. In my view, international organisations and governments could be far more proactive in supporting those connecting discourses. With CEDAW, the initiative for and establishment of a transnational implementation network has almost entirely been the work of NGOs. Yet such a process needs not only innovative thinking and commitment, but also considerable resources. It would benefit all involved, including governments and international organisations, if they worked more closely together.

Understanding the need of contextualised appropriation of global norms is crucial if these norms are to become pervasive. This complex process is not well served by concepts such as ‘strong’ enforcement mechanisms bringing ‘deviant’ states into compliance with international standards. Human rights require a concept of human dignity and of self-determination on the part of the individual and the community, coupled with a responsibility to enhance and promote this goal at the level of the nation-state. The puzzle today is how to increase transnational cooperation around a set of norms that is universal primarily as an ideal of human dignity, but universally contested when it comes to its global realisation.

Susanne Zwingel, Lecturer, Faculty for Social Sciences, University of Bochum, Germany, has recently completed her Ph.D. on the impact of the CEDAW Convention. The summary of her research findings appeared in the autumn edition of the International Feminist Journal of Politics 2005

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