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Q&A: India’s Anti-Women Laws Dropping from the Books

Liza Jansen interviews Indian Jurist SUJATA MANOHAR

UNITED NATIONS, Dec 2 2009 (IPS) - The 30th anniversary of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) this month has brought women’s rights champions from around the world to the United Nations to share their success stories. One is Sujata Manohar, who helped create a national law in India that bars sexual harassment in the workplace.

Sujata Manohar Credit: Bomoon Lee/IPS

Sujata Manohar Credit: Bomoon Lee/IPS

“Some people believe the traditional way of life is better, but they are not in the majority and there is a clear move towards elimination of all kinds of discrimination,” says Manohar, a Supreme Court justice.

CEDAW, adopted in December 1979 by the U.N. General Assembly, is an international human rights treaty exclusively devoted to gender equality and is often described as an international bill of rights for women.

The Convention consists of 30 articles defining discrimination against women and an agenda for national action to end such discrimination.

“When it was adopted in 1979, the Convention pioneered the concept of substantive equality for women. It made clear that laws and practices must not discriminate against women,” noted Jessica Neuwirth, director of the New York Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, at a U.N. press conference Wednesday.

The Convention is widely accepted, with 186 countries having ratified it. Only a few have not signed – Iran, Nauru, Palau, Somalia, Sudan, Tonga. The United States has signed but not ratified the treaty.

IPS spoke with Justice Manohar, CEDAW’s national partner for India to ensure gender equality and outlaw sexual harassment in workplaces, about the importance of legal mechanisms to enforce women’s rights.

Excerpts from the interview follow.

IPS: One of CEDAW’s 30th anniversary achievements is its near-universal ratification. How universally accepted is the Convention in India? SUHATA MANOHAR: It is very much a national commitment, and as a result of that, they set up the National Commission for Women to work for the removal of discrimination against women. Of course, India is a vast country. There are pockets of orthodoxy.

IPS: Can you give some examples? SM: All the personal laws have been amended. In 1954, we amended the Hindu Law to remove all legal discrimination against women in the Family Law. Women can now inherit and they have the same rights as men, as far as inheritance is concerned. Then, they amended the Law of Adoption, so that women can adopt, and girls can be adopted.

Over the years, we have amended other religious laws because these laws were based on old traditions and religious values and [were] therefore discriminatory. Christian law has been amended to remove discrimination against women in the field of marriage and divorce, Parsi law has been amended to remove discrimination as far as inheritance is concerned.

Only one little Muslim law still needs to be changed, but there is a strong move now for reform within the Muslim community itself.

IPS: Islam and women’s rights have always been a thorny issue. The Convention has currently been ratified for the Muslim population in India, but with reservations – the law will change for the minorities when they agree to the change. How will you lose these reservations? JSM: I think Muslim women in India are slightly better off since they have access to education, they are exposed to the outside world and they are not secluded the way they are in some of the countries. They are starting the reform movement, and other women are asking for changes in Islamic law.

I am very glad that Egypt, Jordan and Morocco have changed their laws. That is an object lesson because if they are able to change their laws, then why wouldn’t it be possible in India?

I am very hopeful, I am glad that some of the Muslim countries are coming forward to improve women’s conditions.

IPS: What main obstacles did you encounter when implementing the convention in India? JSM: The orthodoxy in the country, it is very difficult to change a mindset. People have been brought up with, we should call it culture. They don’t like to change, so it takes time.

I think conventions like this are very important, they tell people how the international community thinks, so what is orthodoxy in isolation? There are a lot of non-governmental organisations in the country working for elimination of discrimination.

It takes time but both the country and the people are changing.

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