Understanding the Implications of CEDAW General Recommendation No. 35
“Removing the barriers that keep women and girls on the margins of economic, social, cultural, and political life must be a top priority for us all — businesses, governments, the United Nations, and civil society.”
– Mr. Ban-Ki-Moon (United Nations Secretary-General, 2007–2016)
The United Nations has always been at the forefront to promote equality for women since its inception in 1945. In order to create awareness and sensitise the world towards inequality experienced by women worldwide, the Commission on the Status of Women was founded in 1947, which is supported by the Division for the Advancement of Women (DAW) in the UN Secretariat. In 1979, the legally binding Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), drafted by the Commission, was adopted in the UN General Assembly.
Although we have come a long way in our endeavour to create a level playing field for women in all walks of life, it’s needless to say that we have a long way to go. In 1992, the UN Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women adopted the path-breaking General Recommendation no. 19, which recognises gender-based violence as discrimination, within Article 1 of the UN Convention on Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women. However, the situation is still dire.
According to the statistics collected by UN Women, it is estimated that about 35% women globally have experienced physical or sexual assault by a non-partner while up to 70% women have experienced the same by an intimate partner.
According to research, 26 million women undergo unsafe abortion procedures because the laws of their countries do not grant them the right to abortion. In five countries, abortion is completely banned under all circumstances, including rape.
According to a report published by UNICEF, 200 women and girls alive in 2016 had undergone Female Genital Mutilation.
These statistics by no means summarise the discrimination and violence that women are subjected to. Nevertheless, they compel us to question- with such a large proportion of humankind under the constant risk of assault and trauma, with so many million voices suppressed and silenced, where is our world headed?
The pressing need to address these issues, is precisely why, on the 25th anniversary of the adoption of the General Recommendation no. 19, the Committee has updated it through the introduction of General Recommendation no. 35.
The following section highlights the key aspects of General Recommendation No. 35 in the context of its contribution towards complementing the understanding of gender discrimination presented in General Recommendation No. 19 and in identifying the causes underlying discrimination.
The Committee believes that gender-based violence against women is a barrier to the achievement of gender equality, because violence is one of the fundamental social, political and economic means to suppress women and deny them their right to grow to be at par with their male co-equals. Further, it acknowledges the fact that gender-based violence can be inflicted upon women of all ages and hence, all the propositions of General Recommendation no. 35 is applicable for girls as well.
General Recommendation no. 35 recognises that gender-based violence may be accentuated by political, social, religious, technological, environmental and economic factors and succours women human rights defenders, activists, politicians and journalists by including any act of violence against them due to the mentioned factors as gender-based violence.
This recommendation also illumines the fact that gender-based violence against women is a case of violation of human rights because women’s right to a life free from gender-based violence is inseparable from her basic human rights, including the right to health, equality, safety, freedom from cruelty and violence as well as the freedom of speech and movement. The Committee also extends gender-based violence to include violation of women’s sexual and reproductive health and rights and hence, deems forced continuation of pregnancies, sterilisations as well as encroachment of the choice of abortion, as gender-based violence and hence discrimination. Moreover, it also encapsulated the fact that gender-based violence may occur in all spaces- private or public, including family and community spaces, workplace as well as any virtual or technological space. One of the most striking features of General Recommendation no. 35 in this regard is that it emphasises on adopting a gender-sensitive approach, with empathy towards the pain and suffering of women in the determination of when gender-based violence amounts to cruel and inhuman treatment of the victim.
Further, General Recommendation no.35 also outlines how gender-based violence is fundamentally rooted in rigid social norms concerning gender roles, conventional ideas about masculinity, acceptance of the dominance of male members over their female counterparts, resulting in impunity for gender-based violence in various circumstances.
Thus, General Recommendation no. 35 significantly expands the scope of what is regarded as gender-based violence to include more implicit forms of violence against women and to recognise how technology has to lead to the evolution of the nature of gender-based violence, leaving no leeway for the justification of any act of violence against women on any social, economic, cultural, religious, environmental or technological grounds.
General Recommendation no. 35 also recommends the immediate enforcement of a policy of elimination of gender-based violence at the legislative, executive and judicial levels for the prevention and protection of women against the same as well as the delivery of adequate reparations to victims and punishment to the perpetrators.
The hope is that with the introduction of General Recommendation no. 35, no impunity towards gender-based violence will be tolerated, that religious, cultural or social ideas will not justify any gender-based violence, that women will be given the opportunity to exercise their reproductive, sexual rights and freedom, that girls will not be oppressed and will grow up in a world, where dominance and control will not be synonymous with masculinity. Only through the achievement of equality can the human race progress like it has never before- harnessing on the capabilities of all human beings, not the privileged half, as put forth by Nobel Peace Prize Winner Malala Yousafzai:
“We cannot all succeed when half of us are held back.”
Sara Sethia is a Research Associate (Gender Justice) at One Future Collective.