Activists and U.N. officials celebrating the 30th anniversary of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) say the treaty has been an increasingly successful tool for challenging discriminatory laws and battling violence against women’s and girls.
“The CEDAW Convention is at the core of our global mission of peace, development and human rights,” U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said at the opening of CEDAW’s 30th anniversary event in New York Thursday. “The Convention is one of the most successful human rights treaties ever.”
Still, he cautioned, three decades after the treaty was introduced, “Violence against women and girls is found in all countries.”
“The results are devastating for individuals and societies alike: personal suffering, stunted development and political instability,” he said.
Adopted in December 1979 by the U.N. General Assembly, CEDAW has been described as an “international bill of rights” for women and girls. Ninety percent of the U.N.’s member states are party to the treaty.
“It goes beyond the traditional scope of formal equality, pioneering the concept of substantive equality – that is, equality in real life,” said Navi Pillay, U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights.
Ten years ago, the General Assembly also adopted an additional protocol, now signed by 98 countries, that allows victims or human rights advocates to seek redress for violations under the Convention.
The CEDAW Committee has since heard complaints ranging from forced sterilisation to pension rights in case of divorce.
The treaty’s positive influence has spread around the world.
Morocco gave women greater equality and protection of their human rights within marriage and divorce by passing a new family code in 2004.
India has accepted legal obligations to eliminate discrimination against women and outlawed sexual harassment in the workplace.
In Cameroon, the Convention is applied in local courts and groundbreaking decisions on gender equality are being made by the country’s high courts.
Mexico passed a law in 2007 toughening its laws on violence against women.
And the CEDAW committee in Austria decided two complaints against Austria concerning domestic violence in 2007.
Ban also noted that within the U.N. itself, the number of women in senior posts has increased by 40 percent.
“The Convention has been used to challenge discriminatory laws, interpret ambiguous provisions or where the law is silent, to confer rights on women,” Pillay said.
The 186 countries that that have both signed and ratified the Convention pledge to ensure equal recognition, exercise and enjoyment of human rights by women without discrimination. Only the Holy See, Iran, Nauru, Palau, Somalia, Sudan, Tonga and the United States have not signed and ratified the Convention.
“But ratification is not implementation, and some states maintain reservations to the Convention which may be incompatible with its object and purpose,” Pillay added.
Those “reservations” often touch on the Convention’s core articles, dealing with nationality, family rights and family relations, and should not be permitted because they ran counter to the treaty’s main objectives, agreed Regina Tavares da Silva, a former member of the CEDAW Committee that monitors compliance.
Today, CEDAW’s champions are the gender equality advocates around the world – civil society groups, lawyers, judges, academics, and CEDAW Committee members, according to Pillay.
Women’s rights challenges remain profound and should be interpreted through a lens of culture, custom, tradition and religion, she said.
“But discrimination against women and girls persists. So while we recognise the Convention’s successes, we must also acknowledge the urgent need for the entire U.N. system to support its full implementation,” Ban said.
“We must move beyond debates to concrete action that will increase the impact of the Convention,” the secretary-general stressed.
CEDAW’s 30th anniversary event brought together speakers from around the world, including Sarah Jones, an award-winning playwright, performer and UNICEF goodwill ambassador, who gave a rendition of her hilarious and lively show, “One Woman, Eight Characters”.
It was hosted by the New York Human Rights Office and the United Nations Development Fund for Women (UNIFEM).
The celebrations also featured a photo exhibit titled “Women Can! Women’s rights are human rights”, and a photo contest with entries from 28 countries.
“Throughout its 30 years, the Convention has managed to capture the imagination of women worldwide and it has been used by many to transform their lives,” said Naéla Gabr, CEDAW’s chair.
“The Convention has set the standard,” she said, but “it is clear there remains much more to be done.”