For the first time since the pandemic began, the CEDAW Committee met with the opportunity for in-person participation of both state delegates and NGOs. #CEDAW82 took place from 13 June to 1 July 2022 at the United Nations in Geneva, Switzerland. The Committee carried out constructive dialogues with eight states: Azerbaijan, Bolivia, Mongolia, Morocco, Namibia, Portugal, Turkey, and the United Arab Emirates.
While CSOs do not take part in the formal state dialogue, they are given the opportunity to both present a public oral statement and privately brief the CEDAW Committee on key issues in women’s rights. The renewed presence of civil society organisations and grassroots activists was strongly felt. During the constructive dialogues, their physical presence was important to strengthening the chain of accountability for states’ CEDAW obligations, and to ensure treaty bodies’ responsiveness to the issues of women on the ground. Several members of the CEDAW Committee expressed gratitude for the return of civil society at CEDAW. Natasha Stott-Despoja tweeted “Just wonderful to have you in the room, supporting our work and keeping us all accountable”, summarising the importance of NGOs’ physical presence in UN treaty body processes.
Activists from Turkey wore masks with the phrase “The Istanbul Convention Will Be Ours”, in reference to Turkey’s withdrawal from the Istanbul Convention. For Mongolia, the state delegation participated entirely remotely, and the NGOs’ in-person presence in the room was a stark contrast. There was also diversity among the perspectives and groups within NGOs taking part in the session. The unique issues faced by women with disabilities, rural women, LBTI+ individuals and women who use drugs were spotlighted.
The suspension of in-person participation in the last few sessions allowed the reviews to continue throughout the pandemic, given concerns about health and travel restrictions. However, the hybrid format was not without issues. The remote participation format assumes that everyone has consistent digital access, which may not always be the case. In our From Global to Local training programme, we faced challenges in organising interpretation virtually and in-person.
During the CEDAW session, there were occasional issues with lagging audio, poor sound quality or bad connection. This by and large affected CSOs during private lunch briefings, as IWRAW AP and the organisations themselves were tasked with finding interpretation, dealing with technological issues, and accommodating both in-person and hybrid speakers. The consistent difficulties show the need for OHCHR’s support for the CSO engagement process in order to facilitate meaningful participation, especially for CSOs in the Global South who not only would have to travel further to attend in person, but are more likely to face visa issues, need interpretation or face technical difficulties.
While each country review happens in isolation, many of the thematic areas were present throughout the whole session. These are some of the key trends that cut across the countries:
Shrinking Space for Human Rights Defenders
The human rights regression that the world is facing in general was abundantly clear for women’s rights organisations (WROs). Many women’s rights activists who participate in CEDAW (and conduct their own advocacy back home day to day) risk their own personal security, through threats of violence, severe judgement, or fear of legal consequence. Azerbaijani activists stated that unequivocally the matter of greatest concern is the shrinking space for civil society and defenders. The United Arab Emirates saw no national NGOs submit a shadow report, instead hearing from international NGOs who do not face the same risks. During the Turkish dialogue, the state conflated women’s rights advocacy with terrorism, arguing that any crackdowns on civil society were based on security risks.
There was a continued reluctance on the part of many state delegates to define discrimination with specific mentions of gender, sexuality or assigned sex. In the review for Portugal, the Committee pointed out that the national machinery for equality between women and men expanded its competencies to other areas of discrimination. As a result, the gender rights space was argued to have been diluted, and the lack of gender-sensitive budgeting means projects specifically empowering women are often haphazardly funded.
For Azerbaijan, the Committee noted that there is a lack of gendered analysis, and thus of gender-sensitive policies (such as quotas), due to gender-neutral frameworks. In the Concluding Observations, they stated that this allowed for gender stereotypes to be strengthened and ultimately impacts the role that women feel they can play in society.
It was also noted that this has a particularly harmful impact on LBTI+ individuals. Turkey and Morocco were both questioned on their human rights record for LBTI+ individuals, particularly with regards to violence and threats. Both countries stated that their anti-discrimination clause includes every citizen. The Committee asked questions and responded from a perspective that through a gender-neutral framework, sexual and gender minorities slip through the cracks.
A Mongolian LGBTQ+ activist pointed out the danger in ‘neutrality’: it allows us to continue using binary, heteronormative language and perspectives in law and policy making, completely invisibilising diverse identities and reiterating patriarchal views on gender. This neutrality also means that legal and social protections do not explicitly extend to anyone who exists outside the heteronormative, binary framework, impacting the right to family, civil rights, bodily autonomy, and the right to be free from threats of violence. This is an underground, but very prevalent, form of moral policing, which ultimately not only harms LGBTQ+ communities, but everyone who ends up being confined to traditional gender roles.
Women’s Rights within the Family
For several countries, women’s rights within the family as it relates to plural legal systems were questioned. Article 16 on the right to equality within the family covers discriminatory personal status laws, right to custody and distribution of property. Often, there existed a disconnect between the rights granted by civil law and those granted by customary or religious law, and there was a lack of rights awareness as a result. For example, in Namibia, customary law is valid only to the extent that it doesn’t conflict with constitutional or statutory law. But the problem is this is not widely known, and women living under patriarchal customary law do not know their rights.
Notably, questions on the intersection between nationality rights and family law were also prevalent in almost every country – such as whether women can pass on citizenship to their children on an equal basis with their husbands; whether women can pass on their nationality to foreign spouses; and whether stateless or internally displaced women change their status upon marrying someone without the same status.
Extractive Industries and their Impact on Women’s Health
Sustainable development and mitigating the impact of climate change was a throughline for all eight countries. For Namibia and Mongolia, there was representation from CSO groups specifically focused on the impact of extractive industries on women’s health. The Mongolian report also included a call for accountability of international financial institutions. The Committee noted that in both these cases extractive industries disproportionately impacted rural women, and there was little attempt to provide information on potential health impacts and get consent from those in the affected regions. In Namibia’s Concluding Observations, the Committee reiterated the importance of women being part of the decision-making process and getting the informed consent of affected communities.
Right to Abortion
Every country received questions and recommendations regarding safe abortion access.
For all countries, the laws in place protected the right to abortion in at least some settings, but de facto many people who needed abortions were unable to access them, due to lack of awareness of their rights, lack of accessible and safe abortion centres, severe stigma, or the intervention of state or non-state actors. NGOs in Bolivia stated that while laws permit abortions in three instances (mother’s health, cases of rape, cases of incest), there are high rates of forced pregnancies because of right-wing groups and anti-gender groups. NGOs are currently lobbying for this to be considered a form of torture. The Committee highlighted instances of maternal mortality as a result of unsafe abortions or forced pregnancies, but information on clandestine abortions is lacking.
Some countries had additional restrictions which made accessing abortion difficult. In Morocco, the consent of the husband, parents or tutors is still required for abortion in cases where the woman suffers from mental health problems. In Turkey, a prosecutor’s order is necessary in cases of rape or incest.
The issue of SRHR in Azerbaijan took a different approach: Azerbaijan is second in the world for sex-selective abortions. In cases where couples already have two children, 80% of pregnancies are terminated if the baby is female. While abortion access is granted, the case of sex-selective abortions reiterates the use and control of women’s bodies based on deep-rooted patriarchal values.
Continued and Disproportionate Impact of COVID-19 on Women
The Committee approached the impact of COVID-19 in a myriad of ways. Questions included how COVID-19 has disproportionately impacted women, who bear the burden of domestic labour and childcare, and are more likely to lose their job or financial security. Committee members asked what policies or social protection schemes were in place to remedy this. Access to girls’ education during the pandemic was emphasised, particularly with regard to access to technology in rural areas.
The impact of COVID on domestic violence was a major area of concern, and the CEDAW Committee reiterated the need for accessible, functional hotlines, shelters, and social support, as well as the need for public awareness campaigns. Every country received a question on how the state plans to combat this and to provide adequate support to the countless women and girls who may be trapped at home with abusers.
With Turkey’s withdrawal from the Istanbul Convention, a European treaty targeting violence against women, gender-based violence was a high priority for every country. The Committee expressed fear that the withdrawal not only represented a huge step back for women’s safety in Turkey, but also was a critical point in the global trend against human rights treaties and the rule of international law.
Bolivian NGOs centered the increasing rates of violence against women in their advocacy to CEDAW, pointing out that the country has one of the highest rates of femicide, with one murder happening every three days. The Committee focused on reforming the criminal code to penalise all forms of violence against women, as well as reframing sexual violence laws to be rooted in consent. The Bolivian state also conveyed that addressing economic needs would be important in its fight against gender-based violence.
While the return to fully in-person reviews is beneficial, the experience did reveal that the OHCHR needs to work more with CSOs to ensure that the hybrid format runs smoothly. The resources are directed mostly at the state dialogue. This is useful, and obviously the key part of the CEDAW session, but it cannot be overstated how important it is to hear from CSOs and activists to have a more accurate idea of how to approach the state dialogues, and how to craft the Concluding Observations.
The cost of interpretation and technical assistance for the private lunch briefings was left to NGOs and IWRAW AP. This is not new, but the complications of the hybrid format highlighted the need for more OHCHR support. The Bolivian private lunch briefing was riddled with technical issues, due to remote interpretation issues, as in-person interpreters are far more expensive. This means that many of the important points and nuances were lost.
Because of schedule changes and lack of cohesive communication between OHCHR, IWRAW AP, and the CSOs, the United Arab Emirates did not even have a private lunch briefing. This strips CSOs of the opportunity to highlight exactly what needs to be prioritised.
It is imperative that the OHCHR and CEDAW Committee sees CSO engagement as equally important as state engagement, and deserving of the same resources, support and time.
Tara Nair (she/they) is a rising second-year law student at NYU School of Law, and an International Law and Justice scholar. They are currently interning with IWRAW AP as a summer international law and human rights fellow.