8 July 2019
The Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women this morning celebrated the fortieth anniversary of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women by holding a panel discussion titled: 40 Years of Promoting and Empowering Women.
The panellists explored the issues of women’s political participation, women’s human rights at risk, how the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women made a difference, and areas of improvement. Participating in the panel were Rosemary McCarney, Permanent Representative of Canada to the United Nations Office at Geneva; Nicole Améline, Member of the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women; and Martin Chungong, Secretary General of the Inter-Parliamentary Union. Orest Nowosad, Chief of the Groups in Focus, Human Rights Treaties Branch, Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, moderated the discussion.
On women’s political participation, panellists pointed to the progress made since the Beijing Conference and said that since 1995, women’s representation in parliaments had increased from 11.3 to 24.3 per cent in 2018. Where positive measures had been taken, women’s political participation had increased, they said, and remarked that quotas – adopted in 130 countries - had almost become a universally accepted way to correct historical imbalances. However, progress was not fast nor deep enough. Women’s leadership was key, not only for themselves but for their societies, their countries, and the world confronted with complex challenges such as migration, the digital economy, or climate change.
Addressing the question of women’s human rights at risk, panellists remarked that women’s rights had not been sufficiently consolidated in the world to withstand conflicts and crises. Women had to be represented - in the armed forces, on the transitional justice entities, and be an integral part of peace negotiations – and not merely consulted on issues. Despite the controversy surrounding some gender-related issues, it was important to pursue women’s rights and make advances, they stressed, especially given the pushback that was coming from different places. Parliamentarians were role models and opinion shapers who could play an instrumental role in fostering a gender equality mentality. They could implement gender sensitive budgeting measures, challenge obstacles to female participation in political life, and invest resources to fight sexism and harassment.
In the discussion on how the Convention made a difference, speakers said that going through a review process before the Committee was not comfortable but it was a good thing because it put the spotlight on national circumstances. In Canada, for example, the Committee’s recommendations had led to an investigation into the missing and murdered indigenous women and girls, the creation of a gender ministry that had made a huge difference in the lives of women, and the adoption of the law on gender budgeting. The Committee was the first guardian of the universality of rights, especially women’s rights.
In terms of areas of improvement, the panellists noted the need to create a new narrative to validate and assert women’s skills and experiences, particularly those gained in civil society organizations. Temporary special measures were important, however, it was important to look at other issues that created obstacles to women’s effective participation and representation: discriminatory laws and practices, marital rape, or lack of women’s economic empowerment, among others. By 2030, a political culture of equity must have spread at all levels, and women’s presence in peace processes must have become a priority and must have garnered greater attention in the international community.
Documents relating to the Committee’s work, including reports submitted by States parties, can be found on the session’s webpage. The webcast of the Committee’s public meetings can be accessed at http://webtv.un.org/.
At 4.10 p.m. today, 8 July, the Committee will meet with civil society organizations from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Austria, Cabo Verde and Guyana, whose reports it will review this week.
Women’s Political Participation
OREST NOWOSAD, Chief, Groups in Focus, Human Rights Treaties Branch, Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights and panel moderator, remarked that women’s political participation was one of the targets under the Sustainable Development Goals 5 and 16; a specific provision under the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women and other international treaties; and an element of the women, peace, security and development agenda.
Statements by Panellists
ROSEMARY MCCARNEY, Permanent Representative of Canada to the United Nations Office at Geneva, said she had worked in every part of the economy: profit and non-profit, law and technology firms, and now public service, which had given her insight into the situation of gender. The situation was almost equally depressing in most of those sectors - there was no nirvana out there that worked, except perhaps in civil society, which was heavily women-dominated, from top to bottom. Numbers mattered, she said, that was why participation was essential to enabling the critical mass of women and creating change. In terms of advice to other women, she said that having formal credentials could really help them get in the door, they should take on tough jobs, especially early in the career, and be consistent in what they were in order to establish credibility. The Ambassador encouraged all women to write, blogs for example, and share their learning and their experiences.
NICOLE AMÉLINE, Member of the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women, said that women’s leadership was key, not only for themselves but for their societies, their countries, and the world confronted with complex challenges such as migration, the digital economy, or climate change. This was a concept that the Committee referred to as “co-decision” or “co-governance”. The Committee must go even further and make the most out of the Sustainable Development Goals; it should focus efforts on the co-decision concept, and substantially increase the participation and representation of women and girls. This was particularly important in the area of peace and security, given that only two per cent of peace builders were women and three per cent were peace negotiators, while only 11 per cent of peace negotiations included gender dimensions. And yet, democratic societies could not be built if peace agreements did not include women.
MARTIN CHUNGONG, Secretary General of the Inter-Parliamentary Union, on different governance approaches and different views on the participation and representation of women, agreed that indeed, progress had been achieved in women’s political participation. Since the Beijing Conference in 1995, women’s representation in parliaments had increased from 11.3 to 24.3 per cent in 2018. There was ample evidence that where positive measures had been taken, women’s political participation had increased. One hundred and thirty countries across the regions had adopted some form of quotas, indicating that this had become almost a universally accepted way to correct historical imbalances. Progress was there, but it was not fast enough and not deep enough. States should not aspire to gender equality but to gender parity and equal participation of women, he said, highlighting the positive examples from Rwanda, Egypt and Canada.
NICOLE AMÉLINE, Member of the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women, stressed the need to accelerate the progress that a number of States had already made, and especially to protect it from a backslide. Quotas indeed represented a paradigm shift. In many countries, they were adopted with some difficulties, while some States were still to be convinced of the benefits of co-governance and the participation of women in the government and in parliament. Other countries showed great bravery in this respect. Governments must be proactive and be clear in their objective, which was to build democracy, and this required participation and decision-making by women.
MARTIN CHUNGONG, International Parliamentary Union, emphasized that women’s greater participation was not only women’s fight, but men must take part too. In Rwanda, for example, there existed a women’s parliamentary caucus, members of which were also men. The role of civil society organizations was of great importance in raising awareness about the benefits and importance of gender parity. Political parties, gateways to women’s political participation, must walk the talk and not only pay lip service to gender parity.
ROSEMARY MCCARNEY, Permanent Representative of Canada to the United Nations Office at Geneva, said that Canada, for a long time, had had parity in parliament, which had indeed brought benefits to all Canadian women, including women from first nations and visible minorities. In early 2016, Canada had completely opened up Government appointments, making them transparent and fully merit based, which had resulted in 1,100 new recruitments of which 53 per cent were women and nine per cent indigenous Canadians. Recently, Canada had passed a bill which required all federal entities and boards of private companies to disclose information about the participation of women, visible minorities, indigenous peoples, and persons with disabilities in decision-making posts.
In the discussion that followed, speakers stressed the importance of the role of the media in calling out discriminatory discourse against women and how educational systems contributed to preparing women for leadership positions and breaking the glass ceilings and sticky floors. The year 2020 was critical for the Beijing 20+ in terms of setting new benchmarks such as accountability, speakers noted, and asked about steps to be taken to strengthen the links between preparatory activities in New York and Geneva. Women’s political participation was an area which easily suffered setbacks, one speaker said, while another asked about what could be done to increase women’s interest in participating in politics.
Responding, the panellists stressed the fundamental role of youth in many countries. In Canada for example, the Prime Minister had also made himself the Minister of Youth, which had sent a powerful symbolic message about the importance of this population cohort for the country. It was essential to pay particular attention to the General Assembly’s Fifth Committee in New York to ensure continuity, adequate follow-up there to decisions taken in Geneva, and the leadership of the Committee therein. A gender emergency must be declared and it was fundamental to promote the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women from an early age. Indeed, the role of the media was essential, not only in traditional media but in social media as well.
Women’s Human Rights at Risk
OREST NOWOSAD, Chief, Groups in Focus, Human Rights Treaties Branch, Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights and panel moderator, said that, while progress had been made globally, no corner of the world was immune from setbacks, in particular when it came to gender-based violence and sexual and reproductive health rights.
Statements by Panellists
NICOLE AMÉLINE, Member of the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women, said it would be ideal for the Committee to assess national plans. Women’s rights had not been sufficiently consolidated in the world to withstand conflicts and crises. Today, it was necessary for women to be represented everywhere -- in the armed forces, on the transitional justice entities, for instance – as well as be an integral part of peace negotiations. They should not be merely consulted on some issues, such as gender equality issues; they had to be consulted on all issues, notably those related to peace. The United Nations had made considerable efforts in that regard, but it was clear that there could not be peace without the full and effective participation of women at all levels. In Afghanistan, for instance, a mechanism had been requested in that spirit, so as to prevent a situation in which women would bear the brunt of peace after having borne the brunt of war.
ROSEMARY MCCARNEY, Permanent Representative of Canada to the United Nations Office at Geneva, said it was important to get on with efforts despite the controversy surrounding some gender-related issues. Canada’s national action plan on women, peace and security was a powerful document to which the Government was really committed. An Ambassador at large had been named to ensure the Government stayed true to the objectives outlined in this document. Gender was a core focus of Canada’s feminist foreign policy. On sexual violence in conflicts, the job was not done, she said. It was important to stay on the front foot, even though, in the past few months, there had been pushback coming from different places. Better than holding the ground, it was important to make advances. It was important to ensure that children were aware of, and indeed understood, human rights, she emphasized, citing the positive role of children’s books.
MARTIN CHUNGONG, Secretary General of the Inter-Parliamentary Union, said that the Inter-Parliamentary Union was dedicated to advancing women’s human rights, not by asking parliaments anything out of the ordinary but rather by using the powers that constitutions and organic texts bestowed upon them. They could ensure that parliaments ratified the Convention, for instance. They had the power of oversight and could monitor the way in which the government implemented the Convention. Parliamentarians were also role models and opinion shapers who could play an instrumental role in fostering a gender equality mentality. Further, they could implement gender sensitive budgeting measures, challenge obstacles to female participation in political life, and invest resources to fight sexism and harassment.
In the discussion that followed, speakers underscored the importance of mentorship. It would be important to better understand how the Committee could ensure that obstacles to women’s empowerment and full economic participation were taken down, they said. They enquired about the Inter-Parliamentary Union’s role in ensuring the effective implementation of legislation and highlighted the role that technology could play in bolstering human rights. Some said every State party should be encouraged to implement a 50-50 quota in its parliament and enshrine this principle in its Constitution.
The panellists said that quotas were used to level the playing field at a given time. This did not amount to encouraging the appointment of incompetent women. The playing field was heavily skewed in favour of men, and quotas were a useful tool in that context. On the implementation of the Convention, the Inter-Parliamentary Union was assisting Governments in devising legislation that included gender-sensitive provisions. It did not, however, act as gendarmes and could not punish parliaments for failing to implement the provisions of the Convention. Bearing its moral weight, the Inter-Parliamentary Union would continue to work with parliaments at the advocacy level and, upon demand, on more specific legislation-related issues.
The issue of unpaid work carried out at home by women had to be addressed, the panellists said. The Convention’s integration in the Sustainable Development Goals was a positive accomplishment, and the mobilization of society in all its forms was extremely useful. Subjects like the environment should be tackled by women. Digital technology could be a formidable tool, and access to coding should be increased for women. While women tended to work for, and thrive in, non-governmental organizations, it was also important to encourage them to transfer to the for-profit and public sectors as well. Women who had acquired leadership and advocacy, as well as budgeting skills in non-governmental organizations, had to be encouraged, including through mentorship, to go out of the comfort zone represented by non-governmental organizations.
How the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women made a Difference
MARTIN CHUNGONG, Secretary-General of the Inter-Parliamentary Union, said that the Convention was very clear on how parliaments could make a difference, the only international instrument that did so. Implementing the Convention was the International Parliamentary Union’s strategic objective; it worked with parliaments to prepare reports to the Committee and supported them in implementing the Committee’s concluding observations and recommendations.
ROSEMARY MCCARNEY, Permanent Representative of Canada to the United Nations Office at Geneva, explaining what Canada had done to eliminate discrimination against women as per the Convention and to implement its provisions, said that the Convention was fundamentally important to Canada. Going through a review process before the Committee was not comfortable, she said, but it was a good thing because it put the spotlight on national circumstances. Acting upon the Committee’s recommendations, Canada had, for example, launched an investigation into the missing and murdered indigenous women and girls, it had transformed its Commission into a full-fledged Ministry for Gender, which had made a huge difference in the lives of women, and – because money matters - it had adopted a gender budgeting act ensuring that all budgets had to explain their impact in terms of gender and diversity.
NICOLE AMÉLINE, Member of the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women, said that the Committee’s implementation of the Optional Protocol was very efficient and noted that it had been fully in step in integrating in its portfolio other global processes such as the Sustainable Development Goals, and those dealing with human trafficking, or women, peace and security. The Committee was the first guardian of the universality of rights, especially women’s rights.
A speaker noted that civil society in a country was an indicator of women’s leadership and engagement, since many non-governmental organizations were run by women. But this sector was also increasingly under pressure. Women’s participation in peace processes was virtually non-existent and in many societies, women faced obstacles such as gender stereotypes.
Concluding Remarks: Areas of Improvement
ROSEMARY MCCARNEY, Permanent Representative of Canada to the United Nations Office at Geneva, said that there was a need to develop new narratives to validate and assert women’s skills, both “soft” and “hard”, and their experiences, particularly those obtained in civil society organizations, since women often ran them professionally and efficiently. It was time to stop explaining why inclusive organizations were better organizations, because it was self-evident.
MARTIN CHUNGONG, Secretary-General of the Inter-Parliamentary Union, said that temporary special measures were important, however, it was also important to look at other issues that created obstacles to women’s effective participation and representation. Those included discriminatory laws and practices, marital rape, and lack of women’s economic empowerment. In October 2019, the Inter-Parliamentary Union would launch a call to action and invite parliaments to repeal at least one piece of discriminatory legislation in 2020.
NICOLE AMÉLINE, Member of the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women, said that one timeline was 2020, by which the Committee should strengthen its collaboration with the Inter-Parliamentary Union. The second timeline was 2030, by which the political culture of equity was spread at all levels. The Committee was always available to provide assistance to States. Women’s presence in peace processes must be a priority segment and should garner greater attention by the international community.
OREST NOWOSAD, Chief, Groups in Focus, Human Rights Treaties Branch, Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights and panel moderator, wrapped up the discussion during which many issues were raised, including the need for a holistic approach to the issue; the fact that there were many tools in the toolbox that could be used for that purpose; and that change could be endangered in a few years’ time rather than in decades.
For use of the information media; not an official record