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Why this year’s election to the UN Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women matters

In the coming weeks, 189 countries from around the world will elect 11 members to the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) for the 2021-2024 term.  

Now more than ever, CEDAW needs human rights advocates who will fight for women’s rights without fail.

Across the globe women and girls still face discrimination on the basis of sex and gender. Many are refused access to education and political participation, and some are trapped in conflicts where rape is perpetrated as a weapon of war. Gender inequality underpins several problems that disproportionately affect women and girls, such as domestic and sexual violence, lower pay and inadequate healthcare. 

The term for the 11 members ends 31 December 2020 and the election to replace them will take place in the coming weeks after having been postponed since June 2020. The countries up for re-election are Nepal, Mauritania, China,  Philippines, Lithuania, Lebanon, Ghana, Nigeria, Bahamas and France.

New candidates for the 2021-2024 term are Mexico, the Netherlands, Jordan, Mali, Kazakhstan, Australia, Cameroon, Argentina, Côte d’Ivoire and Montenegro.

Already, members of CEDAW, which has 23 in total, are Peru, Japan, Saudi Arabia, Burkina Faso, Bulgaria, Azerbaijan, Trinidad and Tobago, Spain, Mauritius, Georgia, Egypt, Algeria. Their term ends 31 December 2022. 

Among those hoping to be re-elected is the Philippine career diplomat Rosario Manalo and if elected, she would serve her fourth term on CEDAW. But rights groups are saying that her record of undermining human rights should disqualify her from continuing to serve on the treaty body.

Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch, writes for Rappler, an independent online news website set up by Maria Ressa: 

“Over the years, Manalo has accumulated a record that shows a profound lack of commitment to human rights. How else to characterize her actions to try to block international scrutiny of the Philippines government’s murderous drug campaign and put human rights defenders at risk; or to assist Myanmar cover up its widespread sexual violence against women and girls; or plotting to lower international standards by drafting regional human rights conventions to appease rights abusing governments in ASEAN?”

Also up for re-election is CEDAW’s current Vice-Chairperson, Bandana Rana, from Nepal. Two UN rapporteurs and one independent expert on protection against violence and discrimination have recently expressed serious concern over some of the provisions proposed in a citizenship bill currently being debated in the Nepalese parliament with regard to nationality and the ability to transmit citizenship through marriage and to their children.

In an eight-page letter to the government of Nepal, the three UN-appointed experts expressed their reservations, saying that the proposed law is discriminatory against women, trans and gender-diverse persons, and does not comply with international human rights norms and standards. 

The fact, however, that Saudi Arabia has a seat on the Committee until 31 December 2022 is unacceptable. A country where women face systematic discrimination and are left exposed to domestic violence under the male guardianship system has no place on CEDAW. 

Under the male guardianship system, a man controls a Saudi woman’s life from her birth until her death. Every Saudi woman must have a male guardian, normally a father or husband, but in some cases a brother or even a son, who has the power to make a range of critical decisions on her behalf. The Saudi state has done very little to end the system, which remains the most significant impediment to women’s rights in the country.

About the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women

On 18 December 1979, the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women was adopted by the United Nations General Assembly. By the tenth anniversary of the Convention in 1989, almost one hundred nations had agreed to be bound by its provisions. It has now been ratified by 189 states.

The United States and Palau have signed, but not ratified the treaty. The Holy See, Iran, Somalia, Sudan, and Tonga are not signatories to CEDAW.

The Convention was the culmination of more than thirty years of work by the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women, a body established in 1946 to monitor the situation of women and to promote women’s rights. The present document outlines the meaning of equality and how it can be achieved. 

By accepting the Convention, states commit to undertake a series of measures to end discrimination against women in all forms, including to incorporate the principle of equality of men and women in their legal system, abolish all discriminatory laws and adopt appropriate ones prohibiting discrimination against women.

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