<%-- Page Title--%> Human Rights <%-- End Page Title--%>

<%-- Volume Number --%> Vol 1 Num 122 <%-- End Volume Number --%>

September 12, 2003

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CEDAW A Treaty to End Discrimination

Kajalie Shehreen Islam

In some parts of rural Bangladesh, a newborn male child is welcomed with the sound of a loud azaan. A newborn girl child, if she is lucky enough, has the azaan whispered in her ear.

Thus begins the lives of millions of girls and boys in our society -- as well as in many other places -- discriminatory from start to finish. Gender discrimination is widespread in all spheres and at all levels, as indicated by official statistics on health, nutrition, education, employment, and political participation in all of which boys and men are given preferential treatment and fare better in every aspect.

Women from rights groups all over the country demanded full ratification of CEDAW by Bangladesh.

While the Constitution of Bangladesh guarantees equal rights to all citizens in Article 27 which states that “All citizens are equal before law and are entitled to equal protection of law” and Article 28(1), “The State shall not discriminate against any citizen on the grounds only of religion, race, caste, sex or place of birth”, it is self-contradictory. Article 28(2) states, “Women shall have equal rights with men in all spheres of the State and of public life” thus restricting family matters such as marriage, divorce, custody, maintenance, and inheritance to the discriminatory laws of the “private sphere”.

It was to counter, limit and, in a utopian world to end, this sort of discrimination that the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) was adopted in 1979 by the UN General Assembly. Consisting of a preamble and 30 articles, it came into force as a treaty on September 3, 1981. It defines what constitutes discrimination against women and sets up an agenda for national action to end such discrimination.

The Convention defines discrimination against women as “...any distinction, exclusion or restriction made on the basis of sex which has the effect or purpose of impairing or nullifying the recognition, enjoyment or exercise by women, irrespective of their marital status, on a basis of equality of men and women, of human rights and fundamental freedoms in the political, economic, social, cultural, civil or any other field.”

By accepting the Convention, States commit themselves to undertake a series of measures to end discrimination against women in all forms. This includes incorporating the principle of equality of men and women in their legal system, abolishing all discriminatory laws and adopting appropriate ones prohibiting discrimination against women. Another measure is to establish tribunals and other public institutions to ensure the effective protection of women against discrimination. Yet another step is to ensure elimination of all acts of discrimination against women by persons, organisations or enterprises.

Addressing the discussion on CEDAW Day, Mahila Parishad Chairperson Hena Das.

The Convention provides the basis for realising equality between women and men through ensuring women's equal access to, and equal opportunities in, political and public life -- including the right to vote and to stand for election -- as well as education, health and employment. The parties agree to take all appropriate measures, including legislation and temporary special measures, so that women can enjoy all their human rights and fundamental freedoms.

The Convention is the only human rights treaty which affirms the reproductive rights of women and targets culture and tradition as influential forces shaping gender roles and family relations. It affirms women's rights to acquire, change or retain their nationality and the nationality of their children. Parties also agree to take appropriate measures against all forms of traffic in women and exploitation of women.

The 174 countries that have ratified or acceded to the Convention, also known as the “international bill of rights for women”, are legally bound to put its provisions into practice. They are also committed to submit national reports, at least every four years, on measures they have taken to comply with their treaty obligations.

Bangladesh ratified CEDAW on November 6, 1984 with reservations on Articles 2 (condemning discrimination against women in all forms and pursuing a policy to eliminate it), 13(a) which guarantees equality of men and women in economic and social life and with family rights in particular, 16(1)(c) ensuring the same rights and responsibilities in marriage and dissolutions and 16(1)(f) which provides for equal rights with regard to guardianship, wardship, trusteeship, and adoption of children. Reservations on Articles 16(1)(c) and 16(1)(f) were withdrawn in July 1997 but the other provisions remain the top priority of women's organisations and NGOs in their lobbying and advocacy activities.

In observance of CEDAW Day on September 3 of
this year, Mahila Parishad organised a discussion in which members of various NGOs as well as representatives of some foreign organisations were present. In their addresses, the speakers demanded Bangladesh's full ratification and implementation of CEDAW. “Article 2 states the spirit of the Convention,” said Mahila Parishad General Secretary Ayesha Khanam. In order to stop heinous crimes against women, of dowry, rape, murder and discrimination in all its forms including matters concerning inheritance of property, rights over children and citizenship, Bangladesh must ratify Article 2, she added.

Among other recommendations put forward at the discussion on behalf of Mahila Parishad by Kaniz Mahbuba Keya, Professor of Rajshahi University, were demands for political participation of women in affairs of the State, improvement of the law and order situation and generating a positive image of women in general.
Almost 20 years after Bangladesh's ratification of CEDAW, women's rights groups vociferously, and women in their homes privately, continue to struggle for their rights. It is obvious that simple ratification of a treaty or even a number of treaties does not ensure human rights. If they were implemented in everyday life, the treaties would not even be needed. Humanity has come to a point, however, where basic human rights must be ensured by law, and even then they are not assured.

We seem to be going around in circles in our fight for women's rights, first in considering women as human beings, then ensuring equal opportunities for them regarding health, education and employment and then in demanding their rights in the private sphere, in issues of marriage, divorce, children, inheritance and so on. With any of these rights absent, we go back to wondering whether women are actually considered to be full human beings, equal to men. If men and women were considered equal, there would be no need for “women's rights”. The same “human rights” would apply to all. Women's rights as human rights should not only be entrenched into laws and legislatures, but embedded in the minds and practices of people. Only then will they come naturally and honestly.

Some information in the above article has been cited from the website of United Nations Division for the Advancement of Women.



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