The CEDAW convention provides a positive legal framework for women’s rights but it will not automatically confer rights on women. It legitimises women’s claims for rights; women can be transformed from being passive beneficiaries to active claimants. It creates the space for women’s agency.
The CEDAW convention is largely dependent on the political will of governments. This political will can be created through a strong and highly conscious constituency, not only among women and women’s groups but within government bureaucracy as well. The urgent need is to raise awareness and develop skills at various levels in relation to the CEDAW convention among women, government functionaries, lawyers and members of the judicial system. At the ground level, advocacy for the application of the norms of the CEDAW convention has to be linked to the international mandate of equality and non-discrimination.
What NGOs can do
NGOs can play a crucial role in alerting States to their obligations, collaborating with States on their programmes where NGOs are better placed to forge links with communities and households, developing alternative models to State models of intervention, and monitoring State activities and their impact. Importantly, NGOs can serve as a facilitating link with communities and individuals, and feed information to and from State institutions to citizens.
NGOs become particularly vital centres of advocacy around women’s interests and rights given State resistance to implementing change. This may arise in different contexts from a combination of factors: the ideology of governing parties or rulers, the resources that a State has and how it chooses to distribute them, the people who staff state institutions and their biases and prejudices, their distance from communities and field realities, the size of implementing agencies and so on. NGOs offer a viable organisational alternative, particularly where they may be smaller in size, and located within communities. NGOs, particularly where staffed or influenced strongly by feminist agendas, can play a particularly effective role in addressing issues of women’s rights and empowerment at local levels, and feeding insights from the field into national and international advocacy.
NGO interventions and advocacy in relation to specific processes of the CEDAW convention can have several spin-off effects. At the international level, NGO involvement in the CEDAW convention reporting process can help to feed important information to other bodies of the UN and ultimately influence international processes, policies and programmes. It can also work its influence domestically, where it helps to bring NGOs together to discuss important aspects of State action, emphasise collaborative work in expanding ideas and activism around rights, create greater media awareness, and ensure that state interventions are being monitored and assessed for effectiveness. NGOs can also publicise State reports and the concluding comments of the CEDAW committee to a wider national audience, where States may avoid doing so. At the local level, discussions around concepts and practice of women’s rights can provide a very sound basis for influencing policy and creating spaces for change.
Working with governments on the implementation of CEDAW
There is a very wide range of areas in which NGOs may be called on to work with governments:
- Participation in government committees or commissions
- Membership in advisory councils (in a consultative capacity)
- Organisational participation in providing technical assistance to government programmes
- Participation as an NGO member of government delegations to world conferences, CEDAW
- Bill drafting
- Preparation of state party reports to treaty bodies, particularly CEDAW, which could take place in several contexts:
a) Participation in the drafting committee set up by government to which NGOs are invited to sit as part of the committee;
b) Contracting of individuals with expertise to write the report/facilitate the process of writing the report as consultants;
c) Consultation process where NGOs are brought in to give feedback and recommendations.
- Service delivery projects
- Provision of capacity building and trainings
- Support for national human rights institutions
- Drafting policy/plan of action formulation
As there are many ethical and strategic implications of working with the state, we include here some points to consider when considering working with governments:
- Why do governments want to work with NGOs? Why do they seek these kinds of collaborations?
- Why do NGOs work with governments? What is the impetus (globally)?
- What are the dilemmas, benefits and costs? These will of course differ according to the category of work.
- On what basis should NGOs make a decision on when to participate, withdraw or refuse? Some suggestions for consideration are:
- Who is the NGO accountable to? How should it work out its position on things and where to draw the line?
- If governments ask for a coalition of NGOs, how does one position oneself with other groups? What if there are right-wing groups within the coalition? How does one retain one’s own agenda?
- In which situations might a conflict of interest arise? For example, if there is a demand of confidentiality, the NGO might be unable to disclose/share vital information with other NGOs.
Providing technical assistance to governments
NGOs are increasingly being seen as a resource group which is able to provide technical assistance to governments. We however need to be able to draw the line between showing governments how to do something and taking over the government’s work (i.e. being co-opted). We need to know how to move between these distinctions without becoming compromised.
Sometimes IWRAW Asia Pacific is asked to recommend a local activist and sometimes to recommend someone from outside the country. There is a difference between NGOs getting involved in their own country and NGOs going to another country to work with a foreign government – and consideration needs to be paid to how the national groups and NGOs in that country feel about that having external NGO resource persons advising their state on CEDAW.
Writing the government’s periodic report to CEDAW
In working with the government on its CEDAW country report, it is important to identify the dilemmas that need to be worked out, modes and lines of engagement clearly drawn and long-term considerations before embarking on the endeavour. These include questions around who works with whom, what forms of advocacy we take up, and at what levels we engage in advocacy and using what methods? Individual and institutional identities and potential identities with the state should be clearly defined beforehand.
Resolving these dilemmas is an individual process grounded in the realities of the national women’s groups’ experience. It helps to ask, to what end are we engaging in such a fashion? What is the objective of the partnership with government? In situations where we do not see it as conflicting for us, it is an easier decision to work with the state, for example, on the implementation of a programme, to be on a government committee or commission. When NGOs are involved in the drafting of the country report, there is also a level of comfort, because you are in there as a group. But when one is invited as an individual, then the comfort level becomes difficult to handle.
Sometimes the reasons given by the state for its selection of an NGO or individual are that they have done advocacy from within the state on issues of political participation, have strong research backgrounds (from a research organisation), are apolitical, and/or that someone recommended their names. This is all right to some extent, but there is still a dilemma.
There are also some benefits to this process:
- Providing NGOs one small space to expand out advocacy
- Opportunity to work on setting up a mechanism within the government
- Bringing NGO experience and ideology to influence and advocate with the state to look at every programme, policy and law through the lens of CEDAW – this can help break resistance.
Some non-negotiable terms with the state are a good idea. From the experience of an NGO which had written the state report, some of these non-negotiables included:
i) Requiring cooperation of the Department of Women and Children, and the importance of all departments coming in as part of an interdepartmental committee.
ii) Requiring involvement of senior officials not holding a lower rank than the secretaries of the ministries on the inter-ministerial committee.
iii) Commitment of the interdepartmental committee to vibrantly engage in the collation and analysis of information. The members of the inter-ministerial committee were to go through a training session on CEDAW and how to collect and analyse data. Most did not know about CEDAW and the NGO managed to get all departments in for training.
iv) Requiring the report to be owned by the state, not by the writers, who would only work on the analysis of the data, putting it into perspective. They could suggest action plans but the onus of committing to action was that of the state. Commitments had to be made by the inter-ministerial committee.
v) Requiring the report to be shared widely, regionally with NGOs and the state governments (which had not been actively engaging in the process of writing the report). It was mandatory to hold consultations to disseminate information before submitting the report. The facilitation of the consultations was to be by the state government and they would finalise the report based on the consultation.
Writing a shadow or alternative report
The purpose of the shadow/alternative report is to provide the CEDAW Committee with information on the substantive rights outlined in the CEDAW convention. So, for example, since Article 10 of the CEDAW Convention is on the right to education, the report would include information on the right to education. And since Article 9 is on the right to nationality, the report would include information on the right to nationality; and so on. In relation to each of these rights, the report explains what the status of this right is in your country and what can be done to improve it.
There is an added element to a shadow report – it also compares the status of that right as compared to the information provided by the government. So, for example, the shadow report would discuss the status of the right to education in your country, plus compare it with the information on the right to education provided by the government in its own report. It is a critique of the government’s report.
What is the difference between a shadow report and an alternative report?
This distinction is important. When an NGO writes its report, with access to the government report submitted to the CEDAW Committee, this is called a shadow report. When an NGO writes its report where no government report is available (either because their government has not written one, or it is written too late), this is called an alternative report.
How should I organise my report?
The best way to organise your report is by article. So, for example, each subheading in your report will be an article of the CEDAW convention. Subheading one would be on Article 1 of the CEDAW convention (the definition of discrimination in your country), subheading two would be on Article 2 of the CEDAW convention (policy measures that have been undertaken to eliminate discrimination in your country), etc.
The broad structure of the CEDAW convention is as follows:
– Articles 1 – 5 provide the general substantive framework of the convention.
– Articles 6 – 16 provide specific substantive areas of the convention.
– Articles 17 – 23 outline the role of the CEDAW Committee and the procedures pertaining to the convention.
– Articles 23 – 30 outlines the administration and interpretation of the convention.
- The shadow/alternative report need only provide information on the substantive articles of the CEDAW convention, i.e. Articles 1 – 16.
- Information relating to Articles 1 – 5 of the CEDAW convention should be written differently than Articles 6 – 16 since they cover broader issues as opposed to the specific ones enumerated in Articles 6 – 16.
What language should my shadow/alternative report be in?
Whilst the shadow report can be prepared in English, Spanish or French, you are strongly advised to provide an executive summary of the report in English. The executive summary would include:
- a summary of the main critical points of the shadow/alternative report;
- a summary of the recommendations on the critical points and to the challenges encountered in the implementation of the CEDAW convention.
Being involved in the formulation of General Recommendations
Another role women’s groups can play in the CEDAW process is contributing to the formulation of General Recommendations (GRs) by the CEDAW Committee. This way, women can infuse their perspectives into the development of jurisprudence on the human rights of women within the international human rights system.
Once the CEDAW Committee decides the subject matter of the General Recommendation, they invite written inputs from the NGO community. These can be sent to the Division for the Advancement of Women. During the CEDAW sessions, the Committee will sometimes hold a dialogue with NGOs eliciting ideas for the General Recommendation.
The Committee decides well in advance the subject matter of the General Recommendation and takes at least two to three years to finalise it. So it must be noted that suggestions for the drafting of a General Recommendation may not be taken up immediately.
General recommendations adopted by the CEDAW Committee have interpreted rights progressively and developed new standards. For example, GR 19 establishes that all forms of violence against women are prohibited. To date, the Committee has adopted 37 General Recommendations (as of August 2019).
NGOs are also able to influence the creation of General Recommendations. They can lobby the Committee and as part of their recommendations suggest the Committee develop a GR that deals with their issue/context. When the Committee has decided to develop this GR, it will establish a working group to draft it, and hold a one-day consultation for interested parties, to which NGOs can send and provide information and inputs in the discussion. In this way NGOs obtain a space and opportunity to influence the substantive text of any GR.
Voting for the composition of the CEDAW Committee
Women’s groups can also play a role by lobbying their governments to nominate to the CEDAW Committee individuals who are familiar with issues of concern to women, have the grounding, or are progressive. It is very important for women’s groups and women’s rights advocates to continue advocating for the inclusion of independent feminist experts in the CEDAW Committee.
Representation in the CEDAW Committee needs to take into consideration regional balance, rather than nationality per se. This is because at the end of the day, these regional experts will play an important role in bringing your views forward. Given this, it is imperative that interested NGOs contact their Ministry of Foreign Affairs and/or UN missions to receive updated information and lobby for support of particular independent experts, even if they may not be from your country.
As the CEDAW convention is the only UN human rights treaty that focuses on gender issues, it is important that the 23 experts of the CEDAW Committee have an understanding of the realities of women’s lives. The 23 members are elected for four-year terms, with only half the members being replaced each time elections take place. It is important to monitor these elections, as the independence and expertise of the CEDAW Committee members contributes to the progressiveness of this body. Since the Optional Protocol entered into force, there is some concern that governments may be more cautious in nominating candidates, and instead, bring forward candidates from the ‘establishment’.
Members of the CEDAW Committee are elected pursuant to article 17 of the CEDAW convention by States parties from among nationals of that country. However, it is important to note that these members serve in their personal capacity and not as representatives of that States party. Members are elected for a term of four years.
Each CEDAW Committee member has the potential of advocating for women’s rights at three levels:
1) to uphold the notion that States are accountable to women;
2) to continuously further rights contained in the CEDAW convention along feminist principles;
3) to ensure that women’s NGOs are included in CEDAW-related processes.
What to do
Before March of the election year
At the national level, before the nomination period in March, begin to propose names of women’s rights activists and feminists for the election with your government. Obtain their support for your candidate by creating publicity and support for her candidacy.
Once the list of nominees has been released mid-year
If you are in contact with progressive representatives of your government in your home country or in Geneva, contact them and let them know that women’s groups and women’s rights advocates globally want independent experts from all over the world to be elected to the Committee. Let them know that they are responsible for ensuring that the CEDAW Committee process continues to strengthen national efforts towards the realisation of women’s rights. In some cases, it would be useful to send a letter stating what you know of the existing nominees and give reasons as to why you are recommending specific names to be considered (both in your region and in others).
States parties meeting in June-July
Ensure your state votes for your candidates.