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    The human right to economic equality


    International Trade Forum - Issue 3-4/2008 

    Governments have committed to eradicating all forms of descrimination against women. Enlightened trade policies take the gender dimensioninto account.


    In the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, Article one includes economic equality of women as a human right:

    "The term 'discrimination against women' shall mean any distinction, exclusion or restriction made on the basis of sex which has the effect or purpose of impairing or nullifying the recognition, enjoyment or exercise by women, irrespective of their marital status, on a basis of equality of men and women, of human rights and fundamental freedoms in the political, economic, social, cultural, civil or any other field."

    By adopting the Universal Declaration of Human Rights on 10 December 1948, the relatively small United Nations (UN) family of 56 states concretized their belief in the "equal rights of men and women". But despite the charter's noble commitment to upholding the inherent dignity of every human being, the UN General Assembly noticed that women continued to lag behind men in their enjoyment of economic, social, cultural, political and civil rights.

    This realization led the United Nations in 1979, over 30 years later, to adopt the Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW).

    The UN is now a much larger family of nation states and, to date, 185 of them have ratified CEDAW and 95 have ratified the Optional Protocol to the Convention. The majority of world governments have, therefore, committed themselves to respect the spirit of the women's human rights treaty, and implement policies that will guarantee that women can participate in ensuring sustainable development.

    Such a momentous commitment can only be fully realized when politicians and policymakers, in both the private and the public domains, internalize the idea that women's rights are human rights.

    Trade policies within a human rights framework

    In order to effectively integrate women into mainstream trade policies, policymakers must fully understand the economic implications of the Convention and engage in a "constructive dialogue" with gender experts.

    Over the years CEDAW has noted that women in all countries continue to lag behind men in important areas: political decision-making; power-brokering in the boardrooms that control the economic capital of societies; and access to financial resources and the means to ensure economic independence as individuals and as members of groups.

    In developed countries, there are some remarkable examples of women gaining a strong foothold in the economic corridors that were once controlled by their fathers, brothers and husbands. But most women in developing societies are still outside of the arenas in which economic decisions and trade policies are conceived and implemented.

    In fact, CEDAW's periodic examination of states party to the Convention reveals that there is a global trend in:

    • The feminization of poverty
    • The erosion of the physical and social environments that sustained women in traditional sectors of society
    • Rising incidences of gender-based violence that create fear and personal insecurity among women and girls
    • An increase in teenage pregnancies
    • The feminization of the HIV/AIDS pandemic in areas such as sub-Saharan Africa and the Caribbean and Latin American regions.
    Progressive trade policies must be articulated against this background. When pursuing trading opportunities, every attempt must be made to address the patriarchal barriers that continue to rob women of their right to equality.

    Documenting economic marginalization

    In July 2008, the committee raised concerns about women's continuing economic marginalization in a number of societies located in different areas of the world.

    In Nigeria, CEDAW was concerned about the widespread poverty among women, particularly in rural areas and female-headed households. They pointed out that women's poor socio-economic conditions are among the causes of continued discrimination and human rights violations against women. The committee recommended that Nigeria implement gender-sensitive rural development strategies and programmes, and ensure the full participation of women.

    In Slovakia, the CEDAW committee noted the measures taken by the country to "eliminate gender segregation in the labour market". However, it pointed out that traditional stereotypic roles are still systemic barriers to women's achievement of true equality in Slovakia. To this end, the Committee urged the government to develop policies and programmes that would ensure the eradication of traditional sex-role stereotypes "in the family, labour market, the health sector, academia, politics and society at large".

    In Geneva in November 2008, the committee examined the reports of ten states party to CEDAW. Among them was Canada, a developed economy. Despite this country's status in the global age, CEDAW raised concerns about the number of women engaged in part-time work and the continuing employment rate gap between men and women.

    Concerns were also raised about the situation of aboriginal women who "continue to live in impoverished conditions, with high rates of poverty, poor health, inadequate housing, lack of access to clean water, low school completion rates and high rates of violence".

    To end marginalization of women in the economic sphere, policymakers should revisit the articles of the Convention. Articles one and two clearly define what discrimination against women includes. Article four recommends necessary temporary measures that must be applied in any attempt to integrate women into trade policies. Article five calls upon states to make every effort to remove gender stereotypes rooted in traditional practices and world view. When countries review and apply all of these guidelines, women will be able to take their rightful place in the world's economic sphere.

    For more information go towww.un.org/womenwatch/daw/cedaw/