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Women human rights defenders

Women’s rights in political transitions

07 August 2013


Political transitions can offer unique opportunities to address violations of women’s rights and promote the transformation of traditional and societal norms that promote a subordinate position of women.

However, a recent report of the United Nations Working Group on discrimination against women in law and in practice, states that political transitions do not always lead to inclusive democracy and long-lasting peace and may erode key gains in the quest for gender equality.

The report records current achievements in women’s political representation and describes the further challenges to women’s equal, full and effective participation in political and public life in the context of democracy and human rights, including in times of political transition.

At a side event organized in June by the UN Human Rights Office and DAWN, Development Alternatives with Women for a New Era - a network of feminist scholars, researchers and activists - a group of leading human rights advocates shared their views on political transitions and women’s rights in their respective countries.

“The involvement of women in political transitions can impact on advancing human rights for everyone,” said Pregalxmi Govender, Deputy Chairperson of the South African Human Rights Commission. She said that in South Africa women’s political participation dates back to slavery and the apartheid system and “that involvement has laid the basis for the women’s national coalition that infused the Constitution with human rights, gender equality and integrity.” The coalition ensured that women’s voices were heard.

In Egypt, women who had taken to the streets to demand change have become “role models” to the young generation, said Fatma Kafagy, Ombudsperson of Gender Equality. She stressed that there has been a change in culture as more men are calling for women’s rights than ever before and highlighted that women are “forming power in numbers and being organized” to fight for women’s rights.

In Croatia, twenty years after independence, there is still a “democratic deficit, which can be seen in patronage politics, corruption and ineffective state response to (gender based) violence,” said Ivana Radačić, a legal academic. Radačić added that the financial crisis also had a negative impact on women. “Women carry the double burden of taking care of their children and working, and there is still an unequal division of labour between women and men, so women often do not have time and energy to engage in politics,” she said. Radačić stressed that economic empowerment, women’s involvement in political parties, and the prevention of violence against women are key in ensuring a better future for women. “We need to rethink our current economic and political systems,” she concluded.

Carolina Davila, a programme officer at the Corporación de Investigación y Acción Social y Económica (CIASE), said that, in Colombia, women were not included in peace negotiations, thus makingt the inclusion of women's rights in peace agreements more difficult and contributing to “the invisibility of their proposals on political transition and peace building.” She stressed that women remained in a vulnerable situation and they were not part of any decision-making processes. “The conflict has seen the displacement of women and lack of reparation and justice,” she said. "The conflict has affected women’s rights and it has worsened the economic situation" she said.

Moving to the post-war situation in Sri Lanka, Kumudini Samuel, Executive Committee Member of DAWN, said that “women’s roles have changed and this needed to be reflected in laws and policies at the decision-making level.” “Women’s voices need to be heard,” she stressed. She said that women need to be part of rebuilding the future of the country to ensure that there is political restructuring and a transition to peace. Samuel stressed that social transformation is imperative, as is a change towards equitable gender relations.

The side event was chaired by Kamala Chandrakirana, Chair of the Working Group on discrimination against women in law and in practice.

The mandate of the Working Group, established in 2011, is to identify, promote and exchange views, in consultation with States and other actors, on good practices on the elimination of laws that discriminate against women.

The report of the Working Group was presented at Human Rights Council in May 2013.

2013 marks the 20th anniversary of the World Conference on Human Rights, which led to the adoption of the Vienna Declaration and Programme of Action and the establishment of a High Commissioner for Human Rights. Its creation gave a new impetus to the recognition of human rights principles which has seen fundamental progress in the promotion and protection of human rights.

The 1993 World Conference recognized women’s rights as human rights.

The Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) came into force in 1981 and its Committee was established in 1982. The Convention, often described as an international bill of rights for women, has almost achieved universal ratification. An Optional Protocol to the Convention was adopted in 1999.

The Working Group on discrimination against women in law and in practice was appointed in 2011. The establishment of the Working Group was a milestone on the long road towards women’s equality with men.

7 August 2013