When State Parties ratifies the CEDAW Convention, they are obligated to provide a review of their country situation on the measures taken to eliminate discrimination against women and to bring equality between men and women in their countries. The State will send a document called a States party report to the CEDAW Committee Members to be reviewed.
This section highlights the essential elements of a States party report to the CEDAW Committee, as identified by IWRAW Asia Pacific.
A CEDAW States party report demands much more than a generalised presentation of a country situation on the status of women. It serves as an on-going process set-up by the UN to monitor State compliance with their obligations under the CEDAW Convention. This report is the basis of a review by the CEDAW Committee of State action, and the State has to be in a position to explain its actions.
The State, through this report has to show what measures it has taken to identify and eliminate discrimination against women and bring about equality between women and men, what obstacles exist and how it will overcome them in the short-term and in the long-term. The State has to show good intention and be held answerable to the UN to give effect to the commitments it has undertaken internationally. The reporting process constitutes a mechanism for accountability at the international level.
The States party report, however, is more than a procedural requirement set-up by the UN. It provides the means by which the State is able to identify for itself, and in specific contexts, the obstacles and barriers to advance the equality status of women and to plan appropriate time bound interventions to bring this about. At the first level, this report needs to be seen as an internal planning instrument that will guide the State in fulfilling its obligations under the CEDAW Convention. This requires that the report is written honestly and that it takes into consideration the different contexts of women's lives prevalent in the country and identifies specific barriers and interventions relevant to the diverse contexts that exist.
The first or initial report serves as a baseline report on the basis of which benchmarks can be identified for monitoring progress. The subsequent or periodic reports serve to identify progress according to plan.
Who is responsible within the State, for fulfilling obligations under the CEDAW Convention?
This is equal to asking who is responsible for women in the country. In most countries, there is a national machinery for women and it is mistakenly understood that this machinery has prime responsibility to implement the CEDAW Convention, write the report etc.
The obligations under the CEDAW Convention falls in all fields so every sector and division of government, horizontally and vertically, has to take responsibility. This requires a multi-disciplinary, multi-sectoral approach.
While the CEDAW Convention is a legal instrument, it recognises that legal rights cannot be exercised unless there is development for women in the economic and social fields. Therefore, in order to implement the convention effectively and to facilitate a multi-sectoral approach, it would require acknowledgement of central responsibility from the Attorney General's Office, the Economic Planning Unit, the Public Services Department, and the Treasury. All other sectors would have to take on specific responsibility too.
The national machinery for women in a country would have to play a catalytic and coordinating role to ensure consistency in the understanding of the meaning and scope of the CEDAW Convention among all sectors, to facilitate monitoring of implementation, identification of obstacles and capacity-building. The report itself would have to be the collective expression of a political commitment from all sectors of the Government to implement the CEDAW Convention. The national machinery for women would have to play a critical advocacy role in mobilising this political commitment.
The purpose of a States party report to CEDAW can be summarised as follows:
- Provide a record of performance of government according to the standards of the CEDAW Convention.
- Identify problems and obstacles to women's equality so they can be addressed.
- Find solutions to these problems and obstacles.
- Identify best practices.
- Evaluate fulfillment of State obligation under the CEDAW Convention.
- Provide opportunity for governments to make a commitment to women's equality and identify priorities for the next four years.
- Provide an opportunity to benefit from the CEDAW Committee's vast experience to obtain ideas for fulfilling State obligation.
- Provide an opportunity for the State to show good faith in living up to its obligation by consenting to an open and transparent process of accountability.
It is critical that the State party implements its obligations according to the spirit of the CEDAW Convention. Hence, having clarity with regard to the meaning of equality and non-discrimination is essential.
The CEDAW Convention obligates States to view women as autonomous human beings with equal claims to the exercise of all human rights and fundamental freedoms in the economic, social, cultural and political fields (articles 1 and 3). This means that rights for women should encompass all aspects of life and not be focused on just their roles as wives and mothers. If women are to develop as full human beings, it implicitly requires that stereotypical roles for women are not condoned and male responsibility for the upbringing of children and care of the family has to be promoted by the State (articles 5a and 5b).
In its review, the CEDAW Committee is critical of States whose actions are limited to facilitating the roles of women as mothers and viewing this as promoting women's rights. Nor is it considered adequate to show large numbers of women as target groups for a particular programme or service. The conceptual basis of the programme or service needs to be examined to determine whether it promotes equality and autonomy for women.
Implementation of the Beijing Platform for Action
One further element which the CEDAW Committee expects a States party report to touch on are steps taken to implement the Beijing Platform for Action and the suggestions given in the Outcome Document 2000.
Status of reservations to the CEDAW Convention
Under the Vienna law of treaties, reservations to specific articles of the CEDAW Convention are permissible. This provision is there in recognition of the fact that a State may face economic or cultural difficulties in implementing certain obligations. In such cases, it is considered better to allow the State concerned to become a party to the CEDAW Convention, albeit with limited obligations, rather than exclude it altogether. However, the law of treaties also stipulates that a reservation that undercuts the spirit of the CEDAW Convention may not be made. Furthermore, international jurisprudence is increasingly of the view that a reservation has to be temporary. This means that having made a reservation, the State has to start dismantling the obstacles that stand in the way of implementing the reserved article. Through the process of reservation the State is only given time to prepare itself to take on all obligations under the CEDAW Convention.
The CEDAW Committee in its review requires States to report on the steps they are taking to limit the effect of a reservation, to remove obstacles and the time frame within which the reservation will be withdrawn.
The need for rigour in writing the report
The need for rigour in writing the report is indisputable from the point of view that the report is to serve as a planning instrument.
There is a need to know which categories of women still suffer from a poor status, in what areas and contexts, to what degree, and why and what should be done in specific circumstances. The claims and conclusions made in the report require to be substantiated by data disaggregated by sex and according to sub-sects of women, rural, urban, geographical area, age, special categories such as minorities, the disabled, women in the plantations, migrant women etc. Secondly, data is also needed to substantiate de facto results and the impact of laws, policies or programmes - who has benefitted and to what extent? It is insufficient to just list the positive laws, policies or programmes (Refer to the CEDAW Guidelines). There should always be a basis for comparison of data e.g. rural vs urban, men vs women, or changes over a period of time (historical trends) where applicable or comparison with absolute figures. This makes the information meaningful.
Non-availability of data
Sometimes, data may not be available to identify the situation of women in the context of services provided by the private sector or incidence of violence against women. In particular, there may not be data to establish the de facto status of women such as the number of women who are exercising their rights under a positive law or the obstacles women face in exercising their rights under a particular law or policy. In such cases, it is best to acknowledge the gap in information in the report and express the intention of collecting relevant data for the next report. If possible the report should show what plans the State has made to collect the data concerned.
Presentation of data
The following could be considered:
- Insert headings according to framework;
- Insert tables of statistics as annex if there is a great deal of data; and
- Consider visual presentation of statistics by graphs, pie charts etc.
NGOs work directly with women at various levels to promote their interests. They are sensitive to the needs of women in different contexts and have access to relevant information regarding obstacles to the advancement of women. It would be advisable to hold a consultation with relevant NGOS before finalising the States party report. Consensus on what the obstacles are and the priority actions that need to be taken will provide the basis for a relationship of collaboration. Such a relationship and collaboration can be mutually beneficial.
While the report of the States party concerned will form the main basis of the review, there are other sources of information available to the CEDAW Committee to assist it in its review.
These include country-specific reports submitted by specialised UN agencies such as WHO, ILO, UNESCO, UNICEF etc., reports of UN Special Rapporteurs such as the Special Rapporteur on Violence Against Women, shadow reports of NGOs - national and international, reports submitted by the States party concerned to other treaty bodies, the Concluding Observations of other treaty bodies and the results of research conducted independently by individual members of the CEDAW Committee.
How the report of the States party compares in relation to this body of information is an issue to consider.
Firstly, while the content of State obligation is presented in 16 specific articles, the articles cannot be viewed in isolation. Article one which defines discrimination, articles 2-4 which spells out specific measures required to eliminate discrimination, article 5 which requires the recognition of the adverse effects of customary or cultural practices on the equality status of women, and article 15 which underscores women's right to equality before the law, are overarching articles and need to be taken into consideration when dealing with every issue or article pertaining to women.
Secondly, as mentioned earlier, the substantive articles may not reflect every context of women's lives, but the very fact that the CEDAW Convention obligates States to eliminate all forms of discrimination against women means that every context is included. Article one, which defines discrimination and article 15, which deals with equality before the law helps us to include all contexts.
Thirdly, since the CEDAW Convention obligates the fulfillment of de facto equality, obstacles to the exercise of a specific right which may arise from several quarters need to be established and action taken. This requires that an agency responsible for a particular sector may have to study the adverse effects arising out of another sector. For example, the Ministry of Labour in one country found that its attempts to improve the employment status of women by enacting a law of equal pay for equal work and providing 14 weeks paid maternity leave was thwarted by a provision in the family code which required women to get the permission of their husbands to be employed. Similarly in another country, attempts to contain the problem of domestic violence surfaced the fact that its social policy for housing, which provided housing only to male members of the household, restricted the options of women victims to take action. This was because magistrates would not grant divorce to women victims of domestic violence as they had no options for housing once they were divorced.
The implications are that there has to be holistic approaches to ensure de facto equality. Cross-sectoral links have to be established, consistent and sustained monitoring of the effectiveness of positive State policy law or programmes have to be undertaken and the parameters of data gathering have to be expanded. This further requires the review and reform of institutional arrangements as well as appropriate capacity-building.
Fourthly, the CEDAW Convention obligates the progressive implementation of State obligations. The State is not expected to bring about equality for women immediately. Since the review of progress is made every four years, this provides blocks of four-year periods in which to set priority targets and benchmarks for achievement which can be synchronised with the development plans of the country.
The following is a list of official and unofficial documents that States parties should/could refer to, in order to establish State obligation under the CEDAW Convention.
Official documents (international)
i) The CEDAW Convention. Since the official guidelines require that the report is written under each of the substantive articles (1-16) it is essential to refer to the treaty itself. (Click here for text of the CEDAW Convention)
ii) General Comments (used to be General Recommendations). These are authoritative explanations of the meaning and scope of the provisions of the CEDAW Convention made by CEDAW according to the authority given to it under article 21 of the Convention. They are considered to be the jurisprudence that has developed over the years in interpreting the meaning and scope of the CEDAW Convention. States Parties are required to take them into consideration when establishing their obligations. Currently, there are 25. However, not all of them are substantive in nature; some are procedural or technical. (Click here for list and details of General Comments)
iii) The reports of the thematic expert group meetings convened by the Division for the Advancement of Women (DAW) and thematic background papers prepared by DAW for the Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) meetings.
iv) The Beijing Platform for Action and the Outcome Document adopted by the UN General Assembly Special Session (5-9 June, 2000): "Further Actions and Initiatives to Implement the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action".
v) International Conference on Population and Development, Plan of Action (ICPD)
vi) The Vienna Programme and Plan of Action
Official documents (national)
National documents that need to be referred to are, the National Development Plans, Annual Reports of various ministries, sectors and departments, National Policy on Women, National Plan of Action (Beijing Plan of Action), ICPD Plan of Action and other relevant plans.
There are many papers written by academics and experts that provide guidance on the scope of State obligation and on the methodology of writing the report. One publication that is recommended is "Assessing the Status of Women: A Guide to Reporting Under the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women" (2002), produced by the Commonwealth Secretariat, the United Nations and IWRAW Minnesota. This is not an official document but a resource and can be utilised according to its relevance.
New 2008 Official Guidelines by the CEDAW Committee
The CEDAW Committee has provided guidelines for the writing of States parties reports, both initial and periodic. These guidelines apply to all reports submitted from 2008 onwards. They also replace all earlier reporting guidelines issued by the CEDAW Committee. To download, please click here.