“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.
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.
The first parallel event I attended at the CSW today was focused on the relationship between economic development and Human Rights, and was sponsored by the International Women’s Rights Action Watch Asia Pacific (IWRAW Asia Pacific). The foundational assumption articulated by the panelists was that there is no necessary relation between development and human rights. One of their major complaints was that it is difficult to work for women’s equality when the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) are seen as the Bible. While this was certainly a valid and important point, the thing that interested me was another part of the discussion.
Several members of the panel talked at length about the Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination Against Women, or CEDAW. While on its face, the convention seems harmless or even beneficial, abortion advocates around the world have used the CEDAW convention in an attempt to create an international right to abortion, despite the absence of any language in officially negotiated UN documents (including the CEDAW) that support such a right.
In addition to this, one of the panelists (an 8-year member of the CEDAW committee) gave a disturbing answer to a question asked by a Canadian audience member. The question was whether or not there could be transparency in the CEDAW committee when they chose suggestions from NGOs to help hold parties to the convention accountable. The panelist gave a long answer to the question, but essentially the answer was no. The CEDAW committee, and the committee alone, would decide which issues were “important” enough to address with the signatories, without explaining their reasoning if they didn’t feel like it.
The same panelist also spoke on several of the “General Recommendations” that would be soon published by the committee, including: ‘The economic consequences of marriage and its dissolution’ and ‘Harmful practices’. Again, the meaning and scope of these recommendations is left to the sole discretion of the committee.
As they discussed the CEDAW, they made it clear that, in their opinion, the universal ratification of the CEDAW was necessary for human equality and women’s equality. Here are some quotations from the presenters:
“We must use concrete references to CEDAW. . . when advancing women’s rights”
“Whatever agenda comes next, it must be made in conjunction with the objectives of the CEDAW”
“To ensure women’s equality, it is crucial to implement the CEDAW”
The obvious inference from these statements is that without the CEDAW you cannot have equality for women. Much like the argument that you cannot be in favor of women’s equality unless you are a feminist, this statement is flawed. The goal of equality for women is not and will never be contingent on the ratification of any governmental or intergovernmental document. If the entire United Nations system were to disappear tomorrow, the goal of achieving the equal treatment of men and women would not be a lost and unachievable goal. That is the job of each and every man, each and every woman, each and every family, and each and every parish. And as long as there is a man, woman, family, or parish that believes that women and men are equal in worth, then the movement for women’s equality will succeed.
But it will be more difficult to advance women’s equality if the CEDAW is seen as the Bible.