“Many times when we work with women’s issues, we don’t really think of children’s issues.” This comment was made by a woman who does political work for children in Kenya.
After the UN parallel event titled “Movement Building for Political Power: Experiences of Kenyan Women Based on the Sex Boycott,” during which this woman spoke, I had the opportunity to converse with her for a few minutes. What I discovered from that conversation opened my eyes to the way that many countries view their relationship with the United Nations and the goals that it promotes.
Kenya recently adopted a new constitution-one which contains many provisions for gender equality. How did women obtain this victory? Well, they boycotted sex. In 2009, women’s organizations in Kenya called for a sex boycott for seven days until the government agreed to undertake reforms that would benefit women.
One new provision of the Kenyan Constitution stipulates that courts “can invoke CEDAW” and “draw on comments of the committee.”
Pause. Let’s look at what this means. Wouldn’t this mean that in Kenya laws can now be made that are based on comments made in meetings by a committee (CEDAW) which neither is elected, nor has the authority to interpret treaties “in ways that create new state obligations?” This provision rightly raises some questions.
Not only is the provision itself questionable, but it also creates the potential for conflict with other articles of Kenya’s constitution. Kenya currently does not allow abortion, except in cases where a certified doctor believes an abortion is necessary to save the life of the mother. However, CEDAW has defined what it labels “sexual and reproductive rights” include the right to abortion.
Speaking to the woman from Kenya, I raised a question regarding the contradiction between Kenya’s current laws and the definitions of what CEDAW argues are certain “rights,” asking how this tension might play out in the Kenya’s laws and policies.
What the woman responded made clear that she sees the acceptance of CEDAW as an opening to work for better recognition of the rights of women within Kenya, but it does not necessarily mean that all that CEDAW stands for is supported by the people of Kenya. She stated that people in Kenya “don’t want a right to abortion.” They “don’t really care about ‘reproductive rights.’” The woman stated that in “taking this direction we show that we see international law in this way, but this is the direction we want to take it.”
After this conversation, I realized that while countries may take some direction from UN resolutions which promote certain principles such as those espoused by the movement for women’s rights, they do not necessarily think that the UN is correct in dictating how these principles should be defined in individual countries. I also realized that there are many people and countries that in fact disagree with the UN’s definitions of certain “rights” and in fact do not want those things, such as the “right to abortion” and “reproductive rights,” even among those countries that have ratified CEDAW.
Still, countries must beware that they do not place themselves in a position in which they may be manipulated into accepting such definitions and interpretations. They must be careful in their ratification of resolutions that contain things with which they disagree, for their endorsement of such resolutions may open the door to later pressures to commit to the specific interpretations made by those who created the resolution itself.
“Is fertility about private choices or about changing norms?” This question was raised by Susan Yoshihara, Ph.D., at the UN parallel event titled “Fighting Maternal Discrimination: A New Challenge for the 21st Century.” One of the main purposes of this event was to present the reality of the recent decline in fertility, which is a result of women’s decisions to have fewer children, or no children at all.
Many people argue that women should have the right to choose the number and spacing of their children. However, many overlook the idea that perhaps women today don’t really have much of a choice. Perhaps the word “choice” is a misnomer. In fact, the “choice” that many attribute to women might be better labeled as pressure coming from the culture’s changing understanding of what constitutes women’s happiness.
Dr. Yoshihara presented the argument that society today seems to espouse two conflicting norms. Though women are leaning towards the “smaller family norm,” they still “dream of Prince Charming and the white picket fence.” Our culture seems to understand happiness as dependent on success achieved only through careers which require women to limit their family size. Still, women struggle between their desire for a successful career and their desire for a family.
Society’s new norm redefining happiness not only contributes to a decline in fertility rates, but also to a decline in respect for women. This sort of mindset forgets the value of motherhood, degrading the worth of women’s most unique attribute.
Society must be reminded of the dignity of the woman. Both men and women must respect and support motherhood as an alternative choice to the pressure that society’s new norms place on women today.
Back at school on a regular Monday afternoon, I typically find myself sitting in a classroom listening to my professor’s voice fluctuate from a regular tone to one which gets louder and louder as he tries to grab the attention of the guy playing Solitaire on his laptop in the third row. But today, I was not sitting in a classroom listening to a lecture on Comparative Politics. I was sitting instead in a conference room at a UN side event, listening to the newest ideas of how the international community can help every country achieve and sustain economic development.
In class, we often talk about politicians’ and economists’ use of economic indicators such as GDP as a measurement of economic growth and development. As much as it is acknowledged that these indicators are imperfect, it is pointed out that they are likely the best measure that we currently have, largely because they are one of the only measures we have. Today at the UN, I heard the argument that the use of economic indicators as a measurement of growth is not only flawed, but ineffective. Today, I heard the International Women’s Rights Action Watch Asia Pacific (IWRAW Asia Pacific) call for a new measurement of economic development-one based on human rights.
Panelists at this side event titled “Development and Women’s Rights: the Way Forward” argued that human rights should replace the use of economic indicators as the framework by which the international community sets goals and creates policies in the effort to help countries develop economically. The speaker pointed out several problems with economic indicators. One, they are based off the assumption that everything is quantifiable. But not everything can be-or has been-measured in terms of numbers. As the speaker pointed out, in the absence of quantified data, important issues get pushed off the table. This data may not be available for reasons that are themselves problematic; for example, some countries do not have legal penalties for domestic violence, and so there is no data about the prevalence of this violence which so greatly hurts women. Another flaw in using economic indicators to measure development is that this method is based off the neo-liberal assumption that as GDP increases, so too will the level of development. However, this is not always true. In some countries, though GDP has grown, levels of education and health have not increased.
These two examples clearly show that the use of economic indicators is flawed. However, to what extent can economic indicators be completely abandoned? If a new framework for development based on human rights is created, how are countries to measure economic development without the use of economic indicators?
Even if countries were somehow able to move beyond economic indicators, what would be the measure by which the international community determines how the pursuit of human rights contributes to economic development? The UN, of course, does have the Declaration of Human Rights, which could be used as the underlying framework with which countries outline their goals. But in order to achieve goals, one must adopt particular strategies and specific tactics. What does the IWRAW foresee strategies and tactics to be? The answer to this was given by one panelist who stated that countries must “use existing human rights frameworks” to proceed with development policy, particularly CEDAW and the Beijing Platform for Action.
However, it is crucial to note that the CEDAW convention and the BPfA Declaration are NOT fully endorsed by the international community. For example, nearly 90 countries have not ratified CEDAW. How can countries use as a blueprint for development something that they do not even support?
Many times, organizations attempt to make it seem that the “rights” upheld in certain documents are internationally accepted and must serve as the foundation for other decisions. The report titled “Rights by Stealth: The Role of UN Human Rights Treaty Bodies in the Campaign for an International Right to Abortion” brings to light many examples of how CEDAW seeks to slip language into international resolutions that in fact has not even been internationally endorsed.
In the search for an effective means of achieving and sustaining economic development, perhaps focusing more on human rights may be a viable alternative to the use of imperfect economic indicators as a measure of countries’ development. However, it is necessary that “human rights” signify those which actually are accepted by the international community, and not the interpretations of particular groups that seek to attach definitions to these terms which merely advance their own agendas.
Today we spent four hours in an intensive training session to prepare for the week of lobbying at the UN. Many speakers came to share their own experiences and to give us their advice. After seeing the training schedule a few days ago, I had been looking forward to hearing the two diplomats who were to come share some of their experiences of working at the UN. I was able to understand first-hand how difficult diplomatic work really is, but that it is so important to have dedicated individuals representing our values. One of the diplomats also gave a piece of practical advice that I was sure to write down. The diplomat said to “Put up your hand. Look them in the eye. Tell them it violates your conscience.” As simple as it may sound, this three-step tool may come in handy when I hear something that I disagree with since I am not yet sure how to firmly but respectfully defend my position. Other speakers were lobbyists themselves.
They taught us effective ways to share information with delegates. I learned about some euphemisms and misleading terms that unfortunately are used in official documents to promote a specific agenda. These are used to create the appearance of consensus on certain interpretations of language. The lobbyists also provided further evidence that will be useful in informing delegates. I had never read the San Jose Articles which were put together by lawyers, doctors, and others. The articles clarify that there is in fact no right to abortion under international law. All those who interpret “sexual and reproductive rights” as the right to abortion have been misled, for this definition is not upheld in international law.
With this advice and information fresh in my mind, I am looking forward to the morning when we will begin lobbying at the UN. The International Youth Coalition is ready to represent!