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GENDER: “Truly Exciting If the U.S. Could Ratify CEDAW” – Part 2

Miren Gutierrez* interviews INÉS ALBERDI, executive director of UNIFEM

ROME, Nov 15 2009 (IPS) - CEDAW or the U.N. Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Violence Against Women (CEDAW) was adopted by the U.N. General Assembly in 1979.

Security Council debates protection of civilians - and women - in armed conflict. Credit: U.N.

Security Council debates protection of civilians - and women - in armed conflict. Credit: U.N.

On its 30th anniversary, just seven U.N. member states continue to refuse to accept the only international instrument that comprehensively addresses women’s rights within political, civil, cultural, economic and social life.

In the second of a two-part interview IPS talks to Inés Alberdi, executive director of UNIFEM, about the countries holding out, including the U.S., and the new agency for women that the General Assembly has decided to create.

IPS: The U.S. is the only developed nation that has not ratified CEDAW (although it has signed it); now it’s a priority of the Barack Obama administration… INÉS ALBERDI: It is very encouraging to see that the U.S. government is expressing receptiveness to ratifying the treaty; CEDAW now has almost universal ratification, which is a sign of a global consensus. It would be truly exciting if the U.S. could ratify the Convention in this anniversary year, but whenever this happens it will send a wonderful message on the importance of advancing women’s rights.

IPS: States ratifying the Convention are required to weave gender equality into their legislation, repeal all discriminatory provisions in their laws, and enact new provisions to guard against discrimination against women. But in many cases there is a gap between legislation and real action. IA: CEDAW creates not only obligations for legal reform, but also more broadly for the full range of measures that are actually required for women to enjoy their human rights. So to meet the CEDAW requirements there is a need to integrate gender equality into laws and policies, the operation of legal and institutional structures, the allocation of budget resources, the attitudes of judicial and police authorities and so on as well as to change media and cultural stereotypes about women.

On the New Agency for Women

IPS: The U.N. General Assembly adopted recently a resolution aimed at creating a new full-fledged U.N. agency for women, headed by an under-secretary-general. How do you envision the consolidation of the four existing U.N. women's entities?

INÉS ALBERDI: Well, there is now general agreement on a plan to merge the four gender-specific entities of the U.N. into a new ‘composite’ entity, taking into account each of their existing mandates. The adoption of the GA resolution in mid-September in this regard was an extremely important step in moving this forward. The Secretary-General and Deputy Secretary-General (DSG) are committed to ensuring that the U.N. does its utmost to turn this promise into reality and there is momentum now for strengthening the UN system in the areas of women's rights and gender equality.

UNIFEM strongly welcomes the resolution for the establishment of the entity that promises to address the gaps and challenges in the U.N. gender architecture and has taken an active part in the discussions that the DSG has held among all of the gender-specific entities about how best to do this.

There are now clear expectations, both from the member states and from women’s groups that the U.N.'s capacity to serve women will be substantially enhanced by the establishment of the new entity. It is expected that funding will be significantly increased and with it the kind of country-level programming needed to advance gender equality and women’s empowerment. Final decisions will be made by member states.

For UNIFEM it is especially important that the new gender entity has the authority and resources to lead innovative and catalytic country-driven programming, provide targeted technical cooperation and capacity building, and undertake global, regional and national advocacy.

Real action also requires resources, and here of course women must compete with many more powerful groups and interests. This is why it is important to build the organising and advocacy capacity of women and gender equality advocates both inside and outside of government.

IPS: Several countries have ratified the Convention subject to certain declarations, reservations and objections. What are the commonest reservations and objections? Why? IA: There are a wide range of reservations. One of the common areas for reservations is where a country sees a conflict between its existing legislation and the requirements of the Convention. What’s really encouraging to see in recent years is a trend towards states removing their reservations, after conducting successful law reform initiatives – in the areas of for example, nationality laws, or family codes.

IPS: The U.N. member states that have not signed the convention are either Islamic (Iran, Somalia, Sudan) or small island nations (Nauru, Palau, Tonga)… what is the problem there? IA: As I mentioned, CEDAW has almost universal ratification so it is not one of the international human rights treaties that’s experiencing a ratification challenge. And there certainly is global consensus on the importance of achieving gender equality – as evidenced by the inclusion of gender equality as one of the eight Millennium Development Goals and the reaffirmation of the centrality of gender equality to achieving these goals in the 2005 World Summit. The precise challenges faced by the few remaining states that have not ratified CEDAW are likely different in each case – but this is something they themselves would be best suited to answer.

IPS: It seems women are increasingly being recognised and honoured. An example is the five women who won Nobel Prizes this year: Elinor Ostrom, Herta Müller, Carol W. Greider, Elizabeth H. Blackburn and Ada E. Yonath (in comparison, only 40 women in total have been awarded it between 1901 and 2009). In the field of literature, apart from the Nobel Prize, another woman, Hilary Mantel, won the Man Booker Prize, one of the most prestigious … Do you see this as a sign of the gap between men and women narrowing? IA: I think high profile awards like these are perhaps not the best measure. Women have long been recognised for outstanding achievement – 5 years ago, in 1992, for example Rigoberta Menchu, an indigenous women’s rights leader from Guatemala, won the Nobel Prize as did noted human rights champion Aung San Suu Kyi of Burma the year before that.

What is important is the huge expansion of opportunities for women to pursue the education and experience that will enable them to get to the top – we see this in literature and art and sport as well as science, economics and politics. And I think this is true in many, many places, not just the West.

That said, it is also true that the attrition rate of women in scientific careers is also expanding, as women still have the major responsibility for care-giving in both families and communities.

Women can’t spend the 80 hour work weeks needed to compete and still take care of children or elderly family members. As women enter the workforce in greater and greater numbers, there is no comparable expansion in the care-giving responsibilities assumed by men – with the result that women are both the family breadwinner and the family caregiver.

*Miren Gutierrez is IPS Editor in Chief. This is the second of a two-part interview.

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