By Jane Connors
We celebrated 70 years of the United Nations (UN) on 24 October, with landmarks all over the world, including Uluru, controversially, turning UN blue in commemoration.
The few human rights provisions of the UN Charter form the basis of international legal standards, established in the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and institutions for the promotion and protection of the human rights of women. In 1952, the UN adopted the Convention on the Political Rights of Women. It adopted the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, obliging States parties to eliminate discrimination against women in all fields, including public and political life, in 1979. Negotiation of these instruments was contentious: States expressed reservations on many provisions on adoption, which they confirmed on ratification or accession.
The Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women is now accepted by 189 States. Where public and political life is concerned, it obliges States parties to take all appropriate measures to eliminate discrimination against women in public and political life, so they can vote in all elections and public referenda, be eligible for all publicly elected bodies, participate in the formulation of government policy and implementation, hold public office and perform all public functions at all levels of government, and participate in non-governmental organizations and associations concerned with the public and political life of the country on an equal basis with men. The Convention allows for temporary special measures aimed at accelerating de facto equality between women and men, and the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), which oversees its implementation, considers that these may include affirmative action, such as quotas. Additionally, States are required to take all appropriate measures to modify the social and cultural patterns of conduct of women and men to eliminate prejudices and customary and other practices based on ideas of the inferiority or superiority of either of the sexes or on stereotyped roles for women and men. This requires transformation of States, communities, and families to achieve full gender equality.
UN Women’s ‘Facts and Figures: Leadership and Political Participation’ provides a snapshot of how far women have come in achieving equality with men in public life since the UN was created. In August this year, 22% of all national parliamentarians were women, an increase of only 11.3% from 1995; 11 women were head of State and 13 head of Government; in 37 States women number less than 10% of parliamentarians in single or lower houses, and in six chambers there were no women at all. In January, only 17% of government ministers were women, and these generally oversaw sectors related to education, social services, or the family. The Nordic region leads the world with 41.1% participation of women across all chambers of parliament; Rwanda has the highest number of women parliamentarians worldwide: women are 63.8% of members in the lower house.
These are disappointing figures, especially as they don’t take other status, such as disability, into account. We have no official statistics on the political participation of women with disabilities, although UN data shows that unemployment rates are high amongst women with disabilities, and that gender disparities exist in education. Women and girls with disabilities face disproportionately high rates of gender-based violence, sexual abuse, neglect, maltreatment, and exploitation. A case decided by CEDAW last year shows that frequently stereotypes and other barriers stand in their way if they complain. Women and girls with disabilities are often denied reproductive health care and subjected to enforced sterilization, even in countries with good human rights records. As to political participation, women with disabilities are affected by stereotypes based on their sex and ability.
In September, the Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD), the body which oversees the 2006 Convention of the same name, expressed disappointment that the EU had not mainstreamed a disability perspective in its gender policies, nor adopted a gender perspective in its disability strategies. It was deeply concerned that across the EU persons with disabilities, especially those deprived of their legal capacity or residing in institutions, cannot exercise their right to vote in elections, and that participation in elections is not fully accessible. CRPD sees persons with intellectual disabilities as being at particular risk. In 2013, it considered a case where six people were removed from the electoral register because they were judicially placed under guardianship. It concluded that this was discriminatory and a breach of the Convention’s article 29, which requires States to adapt their voting procedures so they are appropriate, accessible, and easy to understand and use, and, where necessary, allow persons with disabilities to be assisted if they wish.
The World Bank’s Women, Business and the Law 2016: Getting to Equal shows that the cost of exclusion of women and girls, irrespective of ability in any country, is high, socially and financially for women themselves, as well as for their families and countries’ economies. Discrimination on any grounds is an obstacle to democracy and full citizenship, and is erosive of societies. Discrimination against those most at risk is especially divisive.