The United Nations adopted the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) in 1979 to protect and enforce the rights of half of the world's population (currently 49.5 percent). The treaty spurred deep and historic changes in the status of women around the world. Yet every day news stories reveal atrocities committed against women and setbacks suffered by the women's rights movement. How far have women come? And how far do women have to go to achieve real equality?
CEDAW grew out of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, created at the start of the United Nations. It is often referred to as the bill of rights for women. S.K. Guha, a senior program specialist with the United Nations Development Fund for Women (UNIFEM) says CEDAW has helped mobilize women's rights activists around the world and given them a legal framework to push for equality in national constitutions and local laws.
"We have seen this being played out even in post-conflict societies, like, in Afghanistan," he said. "When the constitution was being drafted, women's groups, some of them supported by UNIFEM, pushed very hard for some of those provisions of CEDAW to be reflected in the way the constitution was framed. So that's one major thing."
CEDAW has also allowed women to challenge governments that have ratified the treaty in court.
To date, 180 nations have ratified the treaty. Yet across the globe women are fighting for health and human rights, access to education and property rights, frequently against great odds. The horrors of bride burnings and honor killings continue, often in countries that are signatories. U.N. statistics show that 500,000 women die every year in childbirth. In every region of the world, the number of women and girls infected with the HIV/AIDS virus is growing, often as a result of rape and violence.
Janet Walsh is deputy director of Human Rights Watch, the largest U.S.-based human rights monitoring group.
"You have got extraordinary forms of physical and sexual abuse, you have got women raped in war, beaten in their homes, sold into forced labor and trafficked into prostitution, and then you've got the day-to-day, I think, extremely disturbing abuses of their economic rights," she said. "The things that keep women poor, that keep them dependent on men, sometimes in violent relationships, so things like sexual harassment, or discrimination in the workplace."
Part of the problem, Ms. Walsh says, is that many participating governments accept abusive and discriminatory treatment as normal or as part of private family or cultural matters.
"There are an extraordinary number of countries that have carved out exceptions for themselves. So, for example, Saudi Arabia, has even ratified the CEDAW Convention, but they say, well, it doesn't apply in the realm of family matters, or, where it might interfere with religion," she explained.
Abuse and inequality, Ms. Walsh says, know no geographic or ethnic bounds.
S.K. Guha says UNIFEM has initiated various strategies to help women overcome discrimination and violence.
"We have provided support to very innovative and successful strategies to bring judges on board in addressing violence against women through a judicial system," he added. "We have supported mobilization efforts at the community level to address the issue of honor crimes in some countries. We have supported specific interventions by women at the grassroots level in conflict situations."
Policies and strategies are fine. But without the resources to implement them, SK Guha says UNIFEM's ability to make real change is limited.
"To galvanize the international community, to get the international community to commit to those resources, is a problem because as we see that this is a deficit being acknowledged, it has not received the kind of resources that areas such as environmental and HIV/AIDS has received," he said. "Yes, we have progressed to some extent, but we need hard resources now."
The United States has undertaken many initiatives to promote women's rights around the world, including more than 200 projects to benefit women and children in Afghanistan. The U.S. Congress set aside $27 million for special programs benefiting Iraqi women. In 2004, the United States devoted $82 million to programs to combat human trafficking worldwide and the U.S. State Department-operated Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons works to bring international traffickers to prosecution. The U.S. government considers women particularly vulnerable to the HIV/AIDS virus and has made a five-year, $15 billion commitment to international prevention and treatment efforts.
Still, the United States is one of only a handful of nations that has not ratified the CEDAW treaty, citing as one reason the failure of some signatory governments to implement the treaty's obligations. The United States also objects to some of the 23 members of the convention's implementation committee who represent nations with poor human rights records.
Janet Walsh says the United States also has some economic objections.
"I think a lot of what we are concerned about is the enforcement of standards that exist, and sometimes it is improvement to the standards," she said. "So, I think that, on every front, you do have sexual harassment, and the laws aren't necessarily, adequately applied. You do have a pay differential, something like $ 0.76 on $1, is what women earn compared to men."
As abuses such as human trafficking, forced labor, gang rape, bride burnings for insufficient dowry and so-called honor killings gain worldwide attention, some governments are initiating change. Singapore, for example, has instituted tough penalties for abuse of workers and Morocco has changed its family code to improve the plight of women. But Janet Walsh says others are doing little to break the barriers of abusive traditions.
"We are still seeing burnings in the south Asia region in general, not just India," she added. "It actually relates a lot to another phenomenon I'm sure you've heard about, honor crimes. The so-called honor crimes situation where perhaps the family has not paid enough and then the retribution is that the woman would be killed rather than continue to be the wife. And then you've got women who are suspected of having done something that would put a stain on the family's honor and this is often suspicion of having had sexual relations. It is considered so embarrassing for the family that they prefer to kill the woman or injure her so greatly that she's out of their lives."
Some of the worst news for women in 2005 came out of civil conflicts in Africa, where women have been kidnapped, gang raped and forced into sexual slavery, often by both rebel and government soldiers.
At the same time, African women provided some of the best news of the year when they initiated and ratified a groundbreaking protocol obligating governments to change cultural and religious practices that violate the rights of women. It is a sign, experts say, of the increasing power of women's activists around the world to mobilize and push for change.