This contribution is published as part of the Think Piece Series Let's Talk about Women's Rights: 20 Years after the Beijing Platform for Action. In this series, leading feminist thinkers discuss achievements in the field of women’s rights and gender equality; identify the challenges faced in implementing the Beijing Platform for Action; and consider ways of moving forward. They offer both critical insights and highlight opportunities for realizing women’s rights after 2015. Please share your thoughts on this article in the comments space below.
CEDAW inspired the Beijing Platform for Action. The combination of CEDAW as a binding instrument and the political agreement made in Beijing together created better conditions for confronting gender-based discrimination. CEDAW considers justice a key element for the protection of human rights. It is now essential to press for compliance with the standards for access to justice. A key objective for coming decades is to build a vision for improving women’s access to justice in all spheres of social life. The UN can be a determining factor at the national, regional and international levels, but only if all of its parts are engaged in common dialogue with each other, with State Parties, and together with social movements and civil society. The CEDAW Committee has played a leading role in educating the international community about the grave consequences of all forms of gender-based discrimination.
Gladys Acosta Vargas
is a member of the UN Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women.
The CEDAW Committee 20 Years after Beijing
This think piece offers reflections on the legacy of the Committee on the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) over the last 20 years. The CEDAW Committee monitors the implementation of the CEDAW Convention. There have been notable advances in the international protection of women’s rights. The Beijing Platform for Action has been a strategic roadmap, but a culture of respect for international norms of human rights needs to be further strengthened.
CEDAW entered into force in 1981 and while it is one of the most ratified conventions, it is also the one with the most formal reservations. The rights protected by this Convention inspired the Beijing Platform for Action and in turn, these high-level political agreements created better conditions for the implementation of CEDAW as an international norm. The silence of women has been broken and we have taken the first step toward demanding justice: having a voice. Women have spoken in the most diverse scenarios, not only to be heard, but to change the status quo, empowered by greater autonomy in their lives. Social and feminist movements have helped to create a critical public awareness about all forms of exclusion. Women’s voices are now qualitatively stronger in formal and political public spaces, and in their vibrant diversity continue to permeate social and cyber spaces, helping to enrich democratic expression.
Widespread discrimination against women in grave as well as in more subtle ways generated continuous social tension. This was the social context in which the 1995 Beijing Platform for Action discussed and highlighted the most relevant issues reflected in the 12 Critical Areas of Concern. The documents agreed on in Beijing, similar to agreements reached in the United Nations General Assembly, are policy guidance instruments and as such must be distinguished from the terms of CEDAW whose legal status becomes binding once ratified by member states. Through the combination of the two, there is a constant and mutually reinforcing evolution of the concept of gender justice underlying CEDAW.
The strengthening of the international protection of human rights is disputed territory, even more so where it concerns women’s rights. International Conventions, Treaty Bodies, World Conferences, General Assembly and Security Council resolutions and their mechanisms have all modified international relations in the midst of which the condition of women has gained importance. However, there are other high-level political spaces, notably the Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) whose declarations have been less incisive than the political processes that led to the Beijing Conference. This trend is apparent in the CSW59 Political Declaration
of March 2015.
Regretfully, the 2015 Declaration lacks the strength necessary to promote an agenda for the coming decades. It failed to inspire enthusiasm in civil society organizations; indeed, it did not sufficiently enable them to participate in the preparation of the declaration. Even though there was an NGO presence, there were no real mechanisms in place to take their views on board. Not surprisingly, the end product did not prove to be innovative in the face of the current pressing challenges to the advancement of women’s human rights. Nor did it include important regional developments, such as the Regional Conferences on Women and the relevant formulation of international standards by CEDAW. Experience shows that international advances can only be realized if they result from engagement in fruitful dialogue with social movements. That is the only way, and the best way, to bring the challenges of real daily life to policy making and transform political discourse in international forums.
An international framework defining states’ obligations
In the past two decades a new international legal doctrine has been established. It should inform the practice of justice worldwide, even in those countries that have not ratified CEDAW. For example, the CEDAWs General Recommendations (GR) offer fresh concepts that can be consulted in bolstering the defense of women’s rights. These documents also provide guidance to state parties in preparing their reports to the CEDAW Committee and contain general guidelines for the interpretation of the Convention’s articles.The documents are highly relevant because they deal with contentious issues such as refugees, asylum, nationality, statelessness (GR #32, 2014) and harmful traditional practices against women and girls (GR #31, 2014). Other GRs have focused on civil matters, such as marriage, family relations and their dissolution (GR #29, 2013). Also worth mentioning are GRs about specific population groups, such as older women (GR #27, 2010) and migrant women workers (GR #26, 2008). Perhaps the most important achievement in the past two decades has been the growing emphasis on state responsibility (GR #28, 2010) for the eradication of discrimination against women. This obligation of the state to act carefully, coherently and in a systemic manner has yielded important results, such as the constant reform of laws and the practice of innovative forms of justice.
At the same time, through concerted action, professionals with a gender perspective both inside and outside of state institutions, have articulated claims and put pressure on state actors to generate public policies combating discrimination against women. While these advances do permit greater compliance with international law mandates, recent history has also demonstrated that they can be overturned by political fluctuations. Thus, the CEDAW Committee devotes special attention to public “constructive dialogues” with States Parties when they present their progress reports, the quality of which has progressively improved. Thanks to a rigorous and respectful protocol, Committee experts work with the reporting states and consider in-depth the existing problems and their possible solutions. Social movements and non-governmental organizations may submit their documents and hold an informal dialogue with the Committee. The transparency of this practice encourages participants to take ownership of the Committee’s Concluding Observations and to disseminate them, as the basis for monitoring compliance within the agreed timeline.
CEDAW considers justice a key element for the protection of human rights, strengthened by the December 2000 entry into force of the Optional Protocol of CEDAW. This established the opportunity to submit individual complaints to the Committee, providing it with an opportunity to expose substantive or procedural gaps and recommend redress for rights violations. CEDAW also serves as a legal instrument for continuing progress and the resolution of cases in national jurisdictions as well as in regional courts like the Inter-American Court of Human Rights for Latin America and the Caribbean region (IACHR). For example, the IACHR handed down an innovative and ground-breaking sentence in 2009 on crimes against the lives and integrity of women in the “Cotton Field” case
For the first time, a state (Mexico) was held responsible for violating the rules of due process in investigating and prosecuting femicides. The sentence applied the CEDAW’s definition of international standards, taking into account the interpretation of General Recommendation #19; and also considering all reports presented to the CEDAW Committee and the Concluding Observations previously submitted by the Committee to the State Party in question. By integrating international and regional norms regarding women’s rights, and ordering the state to fulfill obligations that include social reparations and guarantees of no repetition of such violations, this sentence constituted a substantial step forward in holding states accountable for their actions and inactions.
Improved legal frameworks—yet hampered implementation
Over the 20 years since Beijing, CEDAW has influenced important constitutional reforms in Latin America, which are imbued with human rights protections and fundamental guarantees. Likewise but to a more limited extent, it has influenced the enactment of important national legislation. Major strides in civil codes have been made in most Latin American countries regarding equal rights of women in marriage, separation, divorce and related family matters. In most countries, however, there is a persistent refusal to recognize the marriage rights of same-sex couples. In all of these family matters just like in other spheres such as labour law, there still remains a substantial gap between the law and the reality. For example, while the law has generally eliminated traditional restrictions on the rights of married women, restrictions continue to be exercised in areas where access to information is limited.
Despite legal equal access to remunerated work for men and women, women continue to be over-represented in precarious employment that lacks job security and basic benefits. Moreover, women generally bear an additional burden for a variety of unremunerated domestic work responsibilities.
There is also greater violence against women in rural areas and among indigenous populations affected by poverty and lack of education. While indigenous women in principle have the same rights as all other women, the reality is that they often live in situations of oppression, exclusion and discrimination exacerbated by a history of racism. This is why indigenous women’s rights are in need of explicit consideration and protection.
While better overall conditions now exist for the exercise of women’s legal autonomy and political participation, significant gaps still remain in legislation regarding their sexual and reproductive rights and in ensuring protection from violence. Most countries have enacted laws against domestic violence, although this legislation only addresses the effects and not the social, economic and cultural causes of gender violence.
Access to justice remains partial and unequal and even though women are aware that they have legal rights, they still lack sufficient confidence in the judicial system. Their lives are still limited by rigid and pervasive gender stereotypes which are discriminatory and damaging. Despite state obligations under the CEDAW to address this stereotyping, these responsibilities remain largely unaddressed.
Endless debates on the scope of legal reforms persist and a culture of tolerance for breaking the law prevails. In all of these circumstances, it is essential to press for compliance with the standards for access to justice.2
Outlook: What factors ensure that rights will be realized?
During the 20 years since Beijing, a favourable balance for women’s freedom and well-being has materialized through more and better justice. The CEDAW Committee has grown in importance and influence, despite difficulties and delays in the implementation of its resolutions.
A key objective for coming decades is to build a vision for improving women’s access to justice in all spheres of social life while recognizing their diversity. As reaffirmed in Beijing, rights under the law can only be enjoyed when fully legislated and implemented. It is important to identify the factors that can accelerate this process. The United Nations System can be a determining factor at the national, regional and international levels, but only if all of its parts are engaged in common dialogue with each other, with State Parties, and together with social movements and civil society. Pending challenges include addressing the fragmentation of women’s rights in national legislation, a chronic lack of resources for implementing gender policies, the incomplete realization of full citizenship for all women, insufficient compliance with formal legal principles, and the need to confront pervasive impunity through enforcement of the law.
Demanding women’s human rights is increasingly less taboo and more women than ever are stepping forward. The CEDAW Committee has played a leading role in educating the international community about the grave consequences of all forms of gender-based discrimination and exclusion. The best guarantee for societies progressing towards peace and development is having more women and girls exercising their freedom and creativity in environments where equality and justice prevail. There is no time to waste.
See also the think piece by Fareda Banda in this Series: Achievements and Challenges in Gender Equality in International Human Rights Law: The Last Twenty Years
A General Recommendation on women’s access to justice is under active consideration by the Committee.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Gladys Acosta Vargas is a member of the UN Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (2015-2018). In the course of her career, she has been Chief of the Latin America and Caribbean Section at UN Women (2008–2011), UNICEF Resident Representative in Argentina (2006–2008), UNICEF Resident Representative in Guatemala (2002–2006), and Regional Advisor on Women and Gender Equity in the UNICEF Latin American and Caribbean Regional Office (1999–2002). She has worked as an international consultant for, among others,UNIFEM, UNICEF or IIDH, and she conducted research evaluating state-NGO relations during Beijing 1995 on Colombia's Process of Contradictory Empowerment. She holds a law degree from the Pontificia Universidad Católica del Perú and a Master's Degree in sociology from the Human Sciences of Rene Descartes Academy of Paris, Sorbonne, France.