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One of the ‘world’s best-kept secrets’ on women’s rights

Lynne Walsh talks to VIVIENNE HAYES of renowned charity the Women’s Resource Centre about the UN convention known as Cedaw – and why it deserves a higher profile

DEFENDERS for women’s rights have given us some pivotal moments in our history, from suffragettes to advocates for equal pay, to proponents of a woman’s right to choose.

And now we have Cedaw, the acronym which may be a maze of useless red tape, or a vital fulcrum in battling women’s continued oppression. 

Cedaw, the UN Convention on the Elimination of all Discrimination Against Women, had its beginnings in the heady post-WWII years with the newly acquired notion that men and women might have equal rights. 

Drafting started in earnest in 1965, with the paperwork rubber-stamped by the UN in 1979.

Britain ratified the treaty in 1986; the US never has. Other states none too keen on the document include Iran, Somalia — and the Vatican City.

Controversies abound; Mauritania has made it clear that they accede to all the convention’s demands for equality — so long as they accord with existing sharia law. 

This cold water poured on the fires of justice is a “reservation,” of which there are many, picked over by committees, and open to “objections” from other states claiming that reservations undermine the whole purpose of the accord.

One of Cedaw’s greatest advocates in Britain is Vivienne Hayes, CEO of Women’s Resource Centre (WRC), renowned in the charity sector for its championing of women’s organisations. 

As an umbrella body with a network of 600 organisations, its hallmark is a robust position which has sadly been eroded in parts of the third sector.

Says WRC: “We stand by a structural analysis relating to women being oppressed as a group and refrain from current neoliberal positions which focus on individual rights, as we do not see this as a route to transformational change.”

Hayes says the WRC stepped up when the Women’s National Commission (WNC) was abolished by the coalition government in 2010.

“[The WNC] had led what’s known as the Cedaw Shadow Report, and WRC had always submitted a smaller supplementary one to address issues which WNC didn’t, such as women’s reproductive rights. 

“Once the WNC was abolished, WRC subsequently submitted the England report and with sister nation organisations a UK-wide report.”

It’s been one of Hayes’s many responsibilities in her 16 years at WRC.

“I have to say I’d never heard of Cedaw until I started work at WRC. I call it one of the world’s best-kept secrets — and when something is kept secret, that’s never a good thing.”

Does she feel the treaty has teeth?
 
“It does have teeth but not as sharp as we need or should have! Because our government has repeatedly failed to implement the recommendations of the Cedaw committee, recourse to legal challenges is complicated. 

“It is still very effective when women’s organisations work to use Cedaw as a lever. The best-known example is probably the changes to the abortion law in Northern Ireland, which came about as a direct result of women’s organisations using what’s known as ‘the optional protocol.’ 

“After several years of relentless work, and with the growing support for change, Cedaw’s teeth were evident as a critical catalyst for significant improvement in women’s human rights.”

The contradictions among the signatories can baffle — for example, India has signed, yet its record on the rights of women is appalling. Does that make a mockery of this treaty? 

Hayes is pragmatic: “Like any law, edict or instrument, it’s only as good as its use and implementation. 

“Cedaw is a powerful tool for women’s rights. Understanding and quoting and using it brings it to life and better implementation — now you know why it’s a well-kept secret!” 

The Shadow Report submitted by WRC goes straight to Cedaw’s central committee. It’s fair to say that it’s a belter of a document, a detailed picture of women’s rights in Briain.

The hard work is done in meeting rooms, with WRC carrying out consultations which many say should be done by government. 

Last year, fuelled by the voices of hundreds of women’s organisations they listen to, they wrote to Victoria Atkins MP, then minister for women — now minister for safeguarding, which includes responsibilities on violence against women and girls, domestic abuse, sexual violence and prostitution.

One of their concerns — Brexit. WRC and its members wanted to know if there would be impact assessments “to understand what that means for women, to ensure that there is no regression in their human rights.”

In her disappointing response, Atkins said that the government would not consider new domestic laws to take account of Cedaw.

This is one of the major glitches with the treaty. If it doesn’t live in our British laws, where is it?

Nevertheless, Hayes persists: “Even if the government try to close the door on that question, we never close that door and we will keep asking for this. There has been a petition and many representations and we hope that our efforts will bear results eventually.”
 
One of the challenges to the Westminster government’s work on this is that it has been “bereft of data,” according to WRC. 

In the world of Cedaw, civil servants and ministers produce the UKSR — UK State Report.

The WRC Shadow Report says: “[The government report] includes very few statistics showing trends; this reflects a longstanding deficit in the collection of statistics disaggregated by sex, and other intersecting inequalities.

“The systematic loss of such statistics means that impacts have become less visible, and are only identified through specific research or the collation of data from women’s organisations.”

Hence the WRC’s diligent work in consulting, despite having only shoestring resources, says Hayes. 

The UKSR is also weak on data relating to black, Asian, ethnic minority and refugee women, they say.

One of the reasons WRC is held in high esteem in the sector is its determination to make governments sit up and take notice of women’s voices. 

This, in spite of the Lobbying Act which has muzzled charities, now forbidden from campaigning against government policies they consider damaging.

Hayes says: “Our key focus is on a repeated recommendation from the Cedaw committee to ensure what they call a ‘national mechanism’ for engaging with women. 

“WRC fulfils this role to its best ability with no resources at all. We’ve persistently made requests for the government to fund this work, but to no avail.

“But we maintain engagement with women’s organisations who submit the evidence of what it’s really like for women today in our country — as opposed to the government’s version, which is often mistaken and sadly lacking substance and noticeable progress. 

“We’ll be raising the voices of women at the sharp end of systemic discrimination and alarming breaches of their human rights, whether that be in the family courts, at home or work, or as a result of sexist, racist government policy-making.

“The evidence in our report is indisputable. But of course we live within a heterosexist, patriarchal, white supremacist society, so it’s hardly surprising that women’s human rights get so little attention.”

Yet WRC and its many supporters and partners persist, still.

Hayes has no rose-tinted view of WRC’s role in enlivening this treaty: “Cedaw remains a well-kept secret, and that’s probably the biggest threat to its proper implementation. 

“Women’s human rights are currently at risk because of an increase in gender-neutral narratives and policy-making, and the failure of some to differentiate the very real and deadly violations women suffer based upon their sex.

“But, after all, a blueprint for all women’s human rights is a blueprint for everyone’s human rights.”

For more information visit www.wrc.org.uk/cedaw.

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