I’ve Seen First Hand What CEDAW Can Do
The author, chief of the Africa Division of UNIFEM, explains the power of the UN treaty to eliminate discrimination against women—a potent tool that will only gain in strength with ratification by the United States.
I come from a country where discrimination against women, and as a result domestic violence, has always been the norm rather than the exception—part of our culture and tradition in Zimbabwe. In the village where I come from, it was normal that girl children would not go to school while boys would go to school.
In my family, I am the sixth born, with three elder sisters and two elder brothers and one younger brother and one younger sister. I was lucky because my father—who was a Dutch missionary and worked as a pastor at a Dutch Mission School—had learnt a lot from his Dutch colleagues about women’s rights, equality and non-discrimination. He gave all of us boys and girls the same opportunity to go to school. Incidentally, all of us girls did much better in school and have ended up with more impressive careers than our three brothers.
Even though my experience was an example of the power of giving girls an equal chance at education, ironically it was not until I was an adult working to support women that I learned about the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), which was adopted in 1979 by the UN General Assembly. Most of the countries of the world—with the exception of Iran, Somalia, Sudan, and most sadly, the United States—have adopted CEDAW and used it to improve women’s rights. Even as a representative of a women’s organization, it was eye-opening to learn the link between daily life and CEDAW.
When I was the program officer for UNIFEM Southern Africa in 1999, I organized a CEDAW training session with UNDP Malawi, to assist civil society organizations and government representatives to work together to report on the country’s progress with CEDAW standards. Our facilitator, advocate Boogie Khutsoane from South Africa, taught us all how important CEDAW is protecting the human rights of the women of the world: the right to education, the right to health, the right to equal pay, the right to information, the right to access to credit, the right to own land and property in your own name, and many more rights that help whole societies to be better off. Now a commissioner in the South Africa Gender Equality Commission, Boogie was instrumental in groundbreaking cases where court decisions have been made based on arguments from CEDAW provisions and recommendations.
Putting into action what I learned from Boogie in Malawi, I began to work on a comprehensive training program for judiciary and law enforcement agents in Zimbabwe and Southern Africa to help them use CEDAW to change women’s lives.
Since the ratification of the convention, many governments have undertaken several legislative, judicial, administrative and other measures to give effect to its provisions, and have also made efforts to identify laws that discriminated against women.
One of the most inspiring cases was that of Unity Dow in Botswana in 1992. Because she married a foreigner, Unity had to fight to be able to pass her citizenship on to her own children. She cited CEDAW in her arguments and was so convincing that the case became part of a movement that resulted in Botswana ratifying CEDAW. Since then, the country has brought the definition of the word “discrimination” in its constitution to coincide with the definition of the convention. Some 15 laws that had negatively affected women’s status had been reviewed, including the Marriage Act, the Marriage Property Act and the Penal Code Act.
Following Article 7 of the convention, Malawi for the first time has appointed women in top positions like that of vice president, attorney general and speaker of the National Assembly.
Uganda has effectively used Article 4 to institute affirmative action in local and parliamentary elections and university selection by giving the girls an extra 1.5 points to ensure women’s advancement.
With the help of CEDAW, so many women can now enjoy the access that I had as a child—without having to rely on exceptional circumstances to grant them the right to education and so many more human rights.
For more on CEDAW and information about taking action to gain U.S. ratification of the treaty, go to the CEDAW Task Force of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights.
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