In 1910, when the legendary poet and Nobel Laureate Rabindranath Tagore dreamt about the world “where the mind is free without fear and the head is held high”, he dreamt for all.
However, such a utopian world seems to be a far-fetched one for half of the population. Human history has witnessed woman to have been the most discriminated section. Such discriminatory patterns exist throughout the world, even in recent times when the world was hit by COVID-19 pandemic, women were one of the worst hits. From loss of jobs to increase in domestic violence, women struggled on every front.
CEDAW as a ray of Hope
In spite of all the set backs there exists hope and there has been some concrete development in the status of women. The Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) has been one of the major catalysts for the same. The convention is often referred to as the ‘women’s bill of rights’ because of its holistic and inclusive nature. On December 19,1979 when the convention was adopted by the UN General Assembly there was hope as well as scepticism. But the convention has been widely accepted and has been ratified or acceded to by around 187 countries.
The key feature of the concerned treaty is that its objective is to exclusively protect the human rights of women and its alignment with the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). The convention has also been able to articulate nature, scope and meaning of sex-based discrimination.
Countries ratifying CEDAW are obliged to eliminate all forms of discrimination against women to ensure holistic development of women. The states are also obliged to permit the CEDAW committee to probe the steps taken by the state party. This committee is called Committee on the Elimination of discrimination against women and comprises of 23 gender equality experts. The election in the said committee leads to a tenure for four years and half of the members are replaced upon every election. It looks into the progress made and also the impediments involved. Another important feature of the convention is that the committee has the power to develop jurisprudence which provides for wider interpretations. The convention not only aspires to bring changes at public sphere but also in private spheres, as provided in its Article 2 and 16. Historically, countries have dodged any action to curb discrimination in the private sphere which has led to shallow and more often or not in partial victories. It should be appreciated that the convention acknowledges that discrimination against women is deeply intertwined with culture, customs, gender role and stereotypes.
CEDAW went through great criticism and was even called as “poor cousin of the human rights treaty bodies” because of its insufficient enforcement mechanism, later the enforcement mechanism was brought at par with enforcement mechanisms of other Human Rights Conventions. Even with better enforcement mechanisms the changes take long to be seen and are result of long struggles. Ratification of Convention does not guarantee any spontaneous action and any change is made after a hard-won battle where constant reporting by NGOs’ play an important role. Also, not all state parties are always willing to create laws when the discrimination is caused by religion or customs involved. It has been also observed that civil bodies play an important role. These bodies create domestic as well as international pressure to bring about the desired changes. International media has also been seen to be an ally of the convention and has been known to pressurize governments to look back and adhere to standards of the conventions, its requirements and recommendations.
According to various studies it has been observed that the mere act of ratification of CEDAW itself led to significant effect on women’s literacy and higher level of reportings have led to higher female life expectancy, better literacy rate, lower mortality and increased presence in parliament and in the work force. It has also led to improved physical security of women and lesser gap between the law in the books and its execution on the ground. Another important aspect is that the judicial bodies of various countries have used CEDAW and its jurisprudence. This has in turn helped in seeping in of ideas and objectives of the CEDAW into the finer fabrics of these countries.
Impact of CEDAW on various countries
There exist several instances where CEDAW contributed in elimination of discrimination, such as in Costa Rica it helped in development of property rights and participations in politics. In Tanzania the convention led to development of inheritance rights. The convention has played a huge role in the evolution of domestic violence laws in various countries like Republic of Korea, South Africa, Turkey, Nepal. In Burkina Faso, the convention triggered development of legislations which criminalised violence in all forms against women. In Panama, the convention criminalised femicide. Similar developments can be seen in Mongolia, Rwanda, Canada, Ukraine and Moldova, although the gravity of discrimination differs from country to country depending upon the social and economic conditions.
Impact of CEDAW in India
In India, the effect of CEDAW has been of great value. After signing it in the year 1993, several legislations were brought into existence to fulfil the obligations mentioned into it. In 1997, the apex court in its famous Vishakha judgement quoted CEDAW and in absence of any legislation provided with guidelines to counter sexual harassment at workplace. In 2005, the Protection of Women from Domestic Violence Act came into existence which was also in tandem with CEDAW.
It can be concluded that the effect of CEDAW over the emancipation of elimination of discrimination against women has been immense over the years. The convention has become an ambassador of elimination of gender-based discrimination and any discussion over the concerned topic can barely be concluded without touching upon CEDAW. It has given a strong mechanism and standards to follow which ensure that the changes occur at a deeper level. On the other hand, the fact cannot be neglected that any step towards the elimination of discrimination can only be taken when the state parties show their willingness, in absence of it there exists no possibility for such conventions to bring about the desired results. There exist several examples where states have blatantly ignored a section or have been involved in genocide in some or the other form and women are the one to suffer the most. Uighur Muslims in China being one of such cases. In spite of several witnesses and considerable amount of international pressure China continues to be involved in section based as well as gender-based atrocities and this coaxes us to the undermine the much-applauded CEDAW and related Human Rights Conventions and looking into their limitations.
There is a long struggle ahead for women to experience no gender-based discrimination, till then we can keep working towards the same and keep reminding ourselves that even if progress is slow, it is still progress.