CEDAW Success Stories
CEDAW can be a powerful tool for change. However, it must be recognized as such and embraced by governments and civil society. While legislative and other measures to protect women’s rights should be undertaken once States ratify CEDAW, these actions towards gender equality do not happen automatically. Implementing CEDAW requires commitment by governments to gender equality and strategic efforts by civil society to hold States accountable to their obligations under CEDAW. These stories highlight examples from around the world of progress made towards the realization of women’s rights, as set out in the Convention.
Austria :: Bangladesh :: Cameroon :: Colombia :: Egypt
and Jordan :: Hungary
India :: Jamaica :: Kenya :: Kyrgyzstan :: Kyrgyzstan & Tajikistan :: Mexico
Morocco :: The Philippines :: Sierra Leone :: Solomon Islands :: Thailand
Austria’s Ending Violence against Women Law Moves into Action
The CEDAW Committee under the Optional Protocol to the Convention decided two complaints against Austria concerning domestic violence in 2007. Each involved a woman murdered by her spouse despite the victim’s prior requests for official protection. The Committee’s recommendations focused on implementation of existing legislation, which continues to be a challenge in many countries that have passed new laws. Austria has been very active in implementing the Committee’s recommendations, testifying to the strength of the Convention and the Protocol in stimulating action to protect women from violence.
Bangladesh Court Combats Sexual Harassment
Bangladesh now prohibits sexual harassment, thanks to a milestone decision issued in 2009 by the High Court. A public interest litigation case, brought by the Bangladesh National Women’s Lawyers Association, challenged the High Court to step in and take action as there was no national law against sexual harassment. In this legal vacuum, the Court noted “harrowing tales of repression and sexual abuse of women at their workplaces, educational institutions and other Government and Non-Governmental organizations” and recognized that “equality in employment can be seriously impaired when women are subjected to gender specific violence.”
When deciding how to apply the Bangladesh Constitution to the problem, CEDAW was at the center of the Court’s deliberations. It found that CEDAW and the Constitution’s guarantees should be read together to understand what would truly advance gender equality, and in particular, took guidance from CEDAW’s Article 11 on equality in employment and the CEDAW Committee’s General Recommendation no. 19 on violence against women. Based on these principles, the Court issued sexual harassment guidelines for the whole country, which will remain in place until legislation is passed. The guidelines define sexual harassment, identify the steps required of employers and academic institutions to prevent harassment, and create a complaints procedure.
For more information, see Judgment on Laying Down Guideline on Sexual Harassment and Bangladesh High Court Gives Decision and Directive on Sexual Harassment Guideline to Serve as “Law” until Real Law Enacted.
Traditional Leaders in Cameroon Make Advances towards Gender Equality
Traditional leaders in Cameroon are changing traditional practices that are harmful to women after learning about CEDAW and the rights that it provides for women.
In 2007, civil society organizations in Cameroon, in collaboration with relevant government stakeholders, recognized the value of CEDAW as a powerful tool to stimulate change if widely disseminated and used as the basis for understanding universally accepted human rights principles, namely those relating to gender equality. They developed a training manual titled “CEDAW Made Easy,” which was used as a resource for a network of traditional leaders. The manual aimed to empower them to use the Convention to bring about concrete improvements in the lives of women in their communities. By simplifying the provisions of CEDAW and using examples of violations of women’s rights from the local context, the facilitators were able to explain the importance of the Convention to the realization of women’s rights in Cameroon.
CEDAW requires States Parties to take measures towards eliminating prejudices and customary and all other practices based on the idea of women’s inferiority. Traditional leaders have an important role in this respect, and after having been sensitized to women’s rights through the training, they are in a position to act as agents of change. There has been evidence of change following the training. Certain practices, based on the idea of women’s inferiority, such as sitting and sleeping on the bare floor or being stripped of clothing upon the death of one’s husband, have been abolished in some regions.
Plans are underway to translate the manual into French in order to further extend the reach of the successful training in Cameroon.
Reproductive Health Rights in Colombia
After a groundbreaking decision by the Constitutional Court in May 2006, women in Colombia may now legally access abortion in certain circumstances. Prior to this, more than 350,000 Colombian women sought illegal abortions every year, according to Women’s Link Worldwide, often resulting in death. The striking conflict between the reality of women’s lives and the law was the motivation behind the Constitutional challenge filed by a Colombian women’s rights lawyer.
The Court overturned the country’s total ban on abortion and ruled that abortions would now be permitted in the following three circumstances: when the life of a mother was in danger; when the foetus was expected to die; or in cases of rape or incest. In reaching its decision, the Court relied on Colombia’s international treaty obligations to interpret the Constitution. It cited the Programme of Action of the UN International Conference on Population and Development, the Inter-American Convention on the Prevention, Punishment and Eradication of Violence against Women, and the CEDAW Convention to establish that women’s sexual and reproductive health rights have been recognized as human rights and therefore must be protected by the Constitution. Women’s rights were at the centre of the Court’s justification for partially decriminalizing abortion.
The issue emerged in the Constitutional Court again in October 2009, where a woman seeking an abortion under legal grounds was denied the service due to conscientious objection by a judge from whom a judicial order to grant the abortion was required. The Court upheld the 2006 decision and ruled that it is forbidden to raise barriers to accessing an abortion under circumstances where it is legal.
Egypt and Jordan Remove Reservations to CEDAW
Egypt and Jordan have taken a positive step towards strengthening their obligations under the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) and, in so doing, have demonstrated their commitment to advancing gender equality in their countries.
While CEDAW has achieved almost universal ratification, it has more reservations than any other human rights treaty. When a country enters a reservation they are stating that they do not agree to comply with certain provisions of the Convention — in many cases provisions that are the very essence of the treaty. Reservations create a significant obstacle towards the realization of women’s rights in the countries where they have been entered.
In Egypt, a committee of high-level government delegates was established to study the withdrawal of its reservations, and in 2008 Egypt officially withdrew its reservation to article 9(2), which concerns gender equality regarding the nationality of a woman’s children. This significant step also followed reform of the nationality law in 2004, which established such equality and paved the way for Egypt to strengthen its commitment to the principles of CEDAW by removing one of its reservations.
More recently, in 2009, Jordan withdrew its reservation to article 15(4) of CEDAW, which gives women freedom of mobility and choice of residence without the consent of their husbands or other male family members. Similar to Egypt, this step followed legislative reform in the country whereby, in 2001 and 2003, respectively, numerous laws containing provisions discriminatory towards women were amended, including the civil status law, the personal status law, the penal code, and the passport law. These major reforms removed numerous obstacles to women’s equality in Jordan.
Women’s NGOs welcomed the removal of the reservations by the two countries and continue to advocate regionally for “equality without reservation.”
For more information, read Women Activists Welcome Endorsement of Gov’t Decision to Lift Reservation on CEDAW.
Preventing Coercive Sterilization – Hungary Takes Action
One of the first complaints considered by the Committee under CEDAW’s Optional Protocol came from Hungary in 2004. A woman belonging to the Roma minority alleged that she had been subjected to forced sterilization by medical staff in a Hungarian hospital. The complaint was, more specifically, that when she arrived at the hospital expecting to deliver her baby, it was found that the fœtus had died and a cæsarian was required. While on the operating table, she was asked to sign a consent form for the cæsarian, which included a written note at the bottom expressing further agreement to be sterilized (with the term “sterilization” appearing in Latin). Hospital records indicated that within 17 minutes of her ambulance arriving, the cæsarian operation and the tying of her fallopian tubes were complete. The complainant stated it was only afterwards, when she asked a doctor how soon she could plan to have another baby, that she learned she had been sterilized.
The Committee found that the State party had failed to ensure that the complainant could give fully informed consent to the procedure, violating rights under CEDAW’s Article 12 on health, requiring “appropriate services in connection with pregnancy,” as well as rights to information regarding family planning under Article 10, and to freely decide on the number and spacing of children under Article 16.
Among the remedies the Committee recommended were: (1) in light of the gravity of the violation, that the complainant be provided with individual compensation; and (2) that Hungary review its domestic legislation relating to sterilization and consent, to ensure compliance with international human rights and medical standards.
The Committee’s decision under the Optional Protocol has proven to be an important stimulus for reform in Hungary. In 2008 the government amended the Public Health Act to improve the provision of information and procedures to obtain consent in cases of sterilization. And in 2009, the government announced that it would be providing financial compensation directly to the complainant.
Read the full text of the Committee’s decision.
Groundbreaking Vishaka Decision on Sexual Harassment Still Resonates in India and Beyond
Twelve years after the Supreme Court of India issued a landmark judgment regarding sexual harassment, significant strides have been made towards eliminating this particular form of discrimination against women. Systems for accountability have been established in public and private institutions, and sexual harassment is more widely acknowledged as a violation of women’s rights. As a result, more women are willing to come forward with complaints.
These changes arose from the famous ruling on Vishaka v. State of Rajasthan in 1987, brought before the Supreme Court of India by a group of women’s NGOs. Motivated by the gang rape of a social worker by her own colleaguesin a village in Rajasthan and the failure of local officials to investigate, the NGOs petitioned the Court to draft a law to compensate for the Indian Parliament’s inaction. In doing so, they relied on provisions of the Indian Constitution, on theCEDAW, and the CEDAW Committee’s General Recommendation no. 19 on violence against women. The Court found that by ratifying CEDAW and by making official commitments at the 1995 Beijing World Conference on Women, India had endorsed the international standard of women’s human rights, which requires protection from sexual harassment. It drew up a set of guidelines and norms, including detailed requirements for processing sexual harassment complaints that will bind private and public employers until the Government passes suitable legislation. The definition of sexual harassment employed by these guidelines is a close paraphrase of the definition provided by the CEDAW Committee in General Recommendation no. 19.
The ruling has made an impact beyond the borders of India. Earlier this year, the High Court of Bangladesh issued guidelines against sexual harassment citing the Vishaka decision as a precedent, in particular, the Court’s application of the CEDAW Convention.
Read the full text of Vishaka v. State of Rajasthan.
CEDAW in Jamaica: ‘Rights a di plan, wid CEDAW in wi han’
While the impact of CEDAW is most noticeable at the macro level, in instances of constitutional or legislative reform, the changes that CEDAW have brought about in individual women’s lives all over the world cannot be underestimated. When the rights enshrined in CEDAW are understood in relation to real struggles faced by women, the Convention becomes a powerful tool for mobilization at the community level, providing women with inspiration and authority to claim their individual rights. In communities around the world the work of local NGOs is paying off for individual women.
For example, in Jamaica two women own their own homes after learning about their right to social benefits guaranteed in the CEDAW convention. During a workshop titled, “Rights a di plan, wid CEDAW in wi han” (rights are the plan with CEDAW in our hands), which was organized by a local women’s rights NGO, approximately 30 women from all over the island learned about CEDAW and its applicability to their lives. Prior to the workshop, they were not aware of the availability of low interest loans from the State nor were they aware that access to these loans was their right in light of state obligations under CEDAW. The knowledge inspired two of the participants to register for their entitled housing benefits at the National Housing Trust, which has subsequently led to their becoming owners of their own houses.
For more information, see Women’s Outreach Centre Champions Gender Issues.
Kenyan Courts Protect Women’s Inheritance Rights
As a result of Kenya’s courts’ forcefully asserting that the principle of gender equality must be respected despite traditional biases in favour of men, women and girls are getting a fairer share of inheritance.
Kenya’s Court of Appeal made an important decision in 2005 that directly addressed the conflict between discrimination against women built into customary laws on inheriting family property, and the guarantee of gender equality in Kenya’s Constitution, the African Charter, and CEDAW. In Rono vs. Rono, the sons claimed a greater share of their deceased father’s property than their sisters and their father’s widow. They argued that “according to Keiyo traditions, girls have no right to inheritance of their father’s estate” and that customary law supported their claim. But the court found that, where discrimination is at stake, the Constitution and human rights standards must prevail.
This same challenge was addressed again in 2008 by the Kenyan High Court in the Ntutu decision, where it was argued that Masai customary law did not recognize a daughter’s right to inherit from her father’s estate. The Court relied on the Rono vs. Rono decision, noting in particular the need to respect the requirements of CEDAW and international law, and recognized women’s inheritance rights.
Women Bring CEDAW to Life through Quilt-Making in Kyrgyzstan
More than 200 women in Kyrgyzstan joined together in an innovative community art project titled “CEDAW in Kyrgyzstan: Movement towards Justice” and created an extraordinary quilt to bring visibility to CEDAW’s 30th anniversary and more importantly, to express their experiences of discrimination. Prior to the actual quilting, the women learned about their rights guaranteed by CEDAW from experts on gender equality. They were then able to identify obstacles to their enjoyment of their rights and used their discoveries as a basis to design the quilt panels. Having provided women, whose voices are often unheard in political structures, a unique forum to make their challenges and concerns visible, the quilt will feature at CEDAW’s 30th anniversary event at UN Headquarters in New York before being prominently displayed permanently in the Supreme Court of Kyrgyzstan. Read more on this project.
Apart from employing such creative methods as quilt-making, women’s rights activists in Kyrgyzstan have also used more traditional means towards claiming their rights as enshrined in CEDAW. Prior to the 2007 parliamentary elections, for example, women’s activists embarked on an advocacy campaign towards changing the electoral laws to support women’s political leadership. They refused to see a repeat of the 2005 national parliamentary elections when all 75 elected members were male. Their strategies were successful, resulting in the introduction of gender quotas into the law. Read more on this process.
Women’s Right to Land in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan
More women are now successfully claiming their right to own land and helping to avert the threat of feminized poverty, due to comprehensive changes to the land reform processes in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. The processes first put in place — involving de-collectivization and privatization of ownership — were not intended to discriminate against women. However, the principle of equality set out in the Convention was not met, and the actual impact of the processes left many women without any hope of land ownership.
Once the true extent of the problem was recognized, both Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan embarked on major overhauls of their initial approaches. The Land Code in Tajikistan and the Law of Land Management in Kyrgyzstan were brought into line with the Convention’s Article 16 and other human rights standards. Government institutions responsible for land reform began to systematically integrate women’s needs into planning and budgeting. Awareness was raised with local officials about the link between protecting women’s rights and improving the effectiveness of services, and rural women and local governments partnered to support women’s cooperatives and village-level projects. Individual women were provided with legal advice and practical support to make their land claims. The media also became involved, widely broadcasting the message, “Land in the Right Hands!,” to support women’s equal rights.
While improvements are still continuing, there is strong evidence that the process is now on a better track: between 2002 and 2008, the proportion of women owning family farms in Tajikistan rose from 2 percent to 14 percent.
For more information, visit the website of UNIFEM’s Sub-Regional Office in the CIS.
CEDAW Shines a Spotlight on Femicide in Mexico
The CEDAW Committee concluded its inquiry in 2004 under the treaty’s Optional Protocol concerning the abduction, rape and murder of women in the Ciudad Juarez area of Chihuahua, Mexico. The Committee concluded that there had been grave and systematic violations of human rights by the State party and issued a series of concrete recommendations. While the situation has not yet been completely resolved, action has been taken. For example, in 2007, Mexico passed a general law on violence against women, which directly addressed the Committee’s recommendation to strengthen the coordination and cooperation between the federal and state authorities in response to cases of violence against women.
Women’s Access to a Life Free from Violence in Mexico
Mexico has embarked upon a major transformation of its response to violence against women, with the 2007 passage of the Mexican General Law on Women’s Access to a Life Free of Violence. The law provides a comprehensive vision of government responsibility for preventing and eradicating violence against women (VAW), based on recognition of it as an extreme form of discrimination and violation of women’s human rights. Drawing strongly on CEDAW and its General Recommendation 19 as well as on the regional women’s rights treaty, the Convention Belém do Pará, the General Law defines different forms of VAW, including femicide, and identifies the main spheres in which women are subjected to violence — the family, the workplace, education, the community and institutions.
The necessary framework for ensuring proper government responses to VAW is also clarified, including directions for the revision of penal codes, the development of government policies, and establishing multi-sectoral institutional arrangements. The General Law designates a coordinating and monitoring role to the Mexican national women’s machinery and gives it responsibility for elaborating regulations to support the law’s full implementation.
Changing an entire government’s approach is a huge undertaking and cannot be accomplished overnight, especially in countries such as Mexico, which operates under a federal structure of government. But progress has been encouragingly swift: in 2009 all 32 States had adopted the law, making it fully enforceable across the country.
For more information, see Mexico Replies to Juarez with Anti-Violence Law.
Equality for Women in Morocco’s Family Law
The groundbreaking introduction of Morocco’s new Family Code in 2004 gave women greater equality and protection of their human rights within marriage and divorce, as mandated by Article 16 of the Convention. The new law embodies the principle of shared family responsibilities between the spouses. It was the product of extensive public discussion of challenges women faced under the previous law, as well as analysis of the implications of human rights standards and religious texts. To help ensure effective implementation of the new rights that have been guaranteed, the legislative changes were also accompanied by the creation of dedicated Family Courts, and the Ministry of Justice is enhancing the provision of support services and training for judges and court officials.
Introduction of the new Family Code has been part of a broader wave of important reforms within the country, including changes to the Labour Code to introduce the concept of sexual harassment in the workplace (2004), changes to the Penal Code to criminalize spousal violence, changes to the Nationality Code (2007) to give women and men equal rights to transmit nationality to their children as required by the Convention’s Article 9, and changes to the Electoral Code, which introduced a “national list” that reserved 30 parliamentary seats for women (2002).
In light of these extensive changes to the nation’s legal framework to protect women’s human rights, the Government has announced its intention to remove Morocco’s reservations to the Convention.
Philippine Magna Carta of Women
A new gold standard for gender equality has been created in the Philippines through the recent enactment of the Magna Carta of Women (MCW). The new law will prevail over existing laws and will be the basis of reform of discriminatory elements of these laws.
Numerous provisions of the CEDAW Convention are reflected in the law. Evidence of the Convention’s influence is most striking in the inclusion of substantive equality between men and women, in line with CEDAW’s aim towards real empowerment of women. The law creates a positive duty on states to abolish the unequal structures and practices that perpetuate discrimination and inequality. The state must also develop plans, polices and programmes to address discrimination in all spheres of the lives of men and women. This is fundamental towards achieving equality of results as required by CEDAW.
Another notable feature of the law is the attention devoted to the rights of marginalized women, such as rural and indigenous women, informal women workers and migrant workers, and women with disabilities. This is in line with the Convention, which places an obligation on States to address the rights of rural women, and with the Committee’s General Recommendations on other marginalized groups, such as migrant workers and women with disabilities.
The MCW will lead to harmonization of many existing laws on women as it requires the review and, if necessary, amendment or repeal of laws that are discriminatory to women within three years. The law commits to strengthening the Philippine Commission on Women (PCW), the overall monitoring and oversight body for implementation of the Act. Rules and regulations concerning implementation of the MCW are to be formulated by the PCW, with broad stakeholder consultation, by early 2010.
For more information, see Philippines Officially Enacts Legislation for Gender Equality.
Women Gain Rights in Marriage, Divorce and Inheritance in Sierra Leone
Dramatic changes to Sierra Leone’s legislative framework offer hope for women who suffer discrimination in areas such as marriage, divorce and inheritance, and many of whom are vulnerable to domestic violence. The Government of Sierra Leone recently signed into law the Registration of Customary Marriages and Divorces Act (2007), the Devolution of Estates Act (2007), and the Domestic Violence Act (2007), collectively referred to as the “gender acts.” The passage of these acts, in June 2007, followed a recommendation by the CEDAW Committee only one month prior to “place the highest priority” on the enactment of these laws.
CEDAW principles are included in each of the laws. For example, the Customary Marriages and Divorces Act establishes a minimum age of 18 for marriage and requires consent by both parties; equality in matters of inheritance is provided for through the Devolution of Estates Act, which also abolishes the discriminatory practice of wife inheritance; and the Domestic Violence Act creates a state obligation to protect women from violence, whether the perpetrators are their spouses or other men. Under the broad definition of domestic violence, marital rape is an offence.
The Government, in collaboration with civil society and international partners, has embarked on the process of implementing the gender acts through dissemination of the laws and awareness raising, increasing legal literacy among women, and training relevant officials.
For more information see Legal Protection at Last for the Women of Sierra Leone.
The Solomon Islands Removes Discriminatory Practices in Evidence Legislation
Important changes to the law of evidence in the Solomon Islands offer survivors of sexual assault a greater chance of receiving justice after a new law, the Evidence Act, was passed in 2009. Under the previous rules of evidence, established by common law, women faced discrimination during the court process, particularly with respect to rape cases, as a result of archaic practices which left women little chance of finding justice. One practice for example, known as the ‘cautionary rule’ was based on the perception that a woman’s word must be treated with caution and therefore, required supporting evidence to corroborate a victim’s testimony. Also, women who delayed reporting a case of sexual assault were often discredited, another indication of a blatantly discriminatory perception that women are not to be trusted. Not only did these, and other, discriminatory rules of evidence create obstacles to successful prosecutions, but they re-victimized women in court. The new law, abolishes these rules and also, includes positive measures to protect women in court such as making provision for victims to present their testimony outside of the courtroom — and away from the accused perpetrator — through the use of video cameras.
The conflict between these discriminatory provisions in the law and international human rights standards enshrined in the CEDAW Convention was brought to light by a major initiative undertaken to measure legislative compliance with CEDAW in the Solomon Islands and eight other countries in the Pacific. A tool, titled “Translating CEDAW into law,” was developed, establishing 113 indicators which can be used to assess how the guidelines contained in CEDAW are translated into law. It is a valuable resource for reviewing national legislation and formed the basis for such a review in the Solomon Islands, undertaken by the Law Reform Commission of the Ministry of Justice and the Ministry of Women. As a result of the review, laws that were not in compliance with CEDAW were identified, including the existing rules of evidence established by common law.
As the Solomon Islands is currently preparing its initial report to the CEDAW Committee, the Evidence Act is an important achievement worthy of highlighting, particularly with respect to compliance with the obligation under article 2 to abolish existing practices which discriminate against women.
For more information, see Solomon Islands Parliament Strides towards Gender Equality in Sexual Assault Law. and Translating CEDAW into Law.
Women’s Rights Are Enshrined in Thailand’s New Constitution
Fundamental women’s rights are included in the highest law of the land after the enactment of Thailand’s 2007 Constitution. These important changes were brought about through a collaborative process between the government’s Constitutional Drafting Committee and women’s rights NGOs. A network of women’s rights organizations relied heavily on CEDAW to advocate for the inclusion of provisions in the Constitution aimed at ending all forms of discrimination against women. The final Constitution is reflective of women’s voices and of the positive reception to their concerns by government.
Key principles from the CEDAW Convention were incorporated into the new Constitution. An excellent example is the inclusion of violence against women whereby women are to be protected from violence and are entitled to rehabilitation, while organizations rendering legal aid to survivors of domestic violence must be supported by the state. The CEDAW Committee notes that violence against women is a form of discrimination against women. While national constitutions generally provide for the principle of non-discrimination, few go to lengths to specify forms of discrimination from which women are to be protected. Not only can women’s right to be protected from violence now be enforced in the highest court in Thailand, but the prominence of the issue in the Constitution will hopefully lend to increased efforts to address violence against women at all levels of government.
Another issue that was very important for those involved in women’s rights advocacy during the drafting process was equality for women in the political process as provided for by Article 7 of the CEDAW Convention. The final Constitution incorporates guarantees for women’s political participation, including with respect to Parliament and the Senate, the composition of party lists and, participation in policy making, planning, political decision-making processes and monitoring of state performance.
While much remains to be done to move from commitment to action, the inclusion of women’s rights provisions in the latest Constitution of Thailand is an important step in bringing Thailand into greater compliance with the CEDAW Convention and demonstrating a commitment to gender equality.
For more success stories, see Bringing Equality Home: Implementing the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW).