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World's Women Make Strides and Suffer Setbacks in 2005


CEDAW 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 given women's rights activists around the world a legal framework to push for equality in national constitutions and local laws.

"So we have seen this being played out even in post-conflict societies, like, in Afghanistan. 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," he told us.

CEDAW has also allowed women to challenge in court governments that have ratified the treaty .

Despite 180 nations ratifying the treaty, women do not have equal education and property rights. The horror of dowry burnings and honor killings continues, often in countries that are signatories. UN statistics show that half a million 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,” Ms. Walsh says, “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 is an extraordinary number of countries that have carved out exceptions for themselves, she added.

UNIFEM, S.K. Guha says, 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. 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, S.K.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. Yes, we have progressed to some extent, but we need hard resources now," says Mr. Guha.

The United States is funding 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 treaty, citing the failure of some signatory governments to implement the treaty's obligations as one reason for not ratifying it. 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.

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. We hear a lot about this in Pakistan and elsewhere. It actually relates a lot to another phenomenon I'm sure you've heard about, honors crimes,” she says. “And then, on the other hand, 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 situations, 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.