Naela Gabr, CEDAW chairperson, at the 44th session

UNITED NATIONS (WOMENSENEWS)–It was all very low-key and cordial, but the questioners at Japan’s women’s rights review session here didn’t mince words.

“You have many highly capable women. Too little has been done.”

That was Meriem Belmihoub-Zerdani, a prominent Algerian attorney and women’s rights activist. She was addressing members of the Japanese delegation last week at a session of compliance reports by some of the nations that have signed the United Nation’s Convention to Eliminate All Forms of Discrimination Against Women–known as CEDAW.

Belmihoub-Zerdani’s question referred to Japan’s female political participation at the local level. For instance, she said, only 1 percent of the country’s mayors are women.

Japan’s delegation responded by pointing out plans to increase the number of women serving at the decision-making level to at least 30 percent by 2020, and said that women are already active in some sectors–they comprise 22 percent of personnel at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

Xiaoquiao Zou, the committee’s assigned expert on Japan, told Women’s eNews that although progress “has been slow,” inroads have been made in the prevention of discrimination, violence and other areas.

This 44th U.N. meeting on CEDAW began on July 20 and is being held at the U.N.’s New York headquarters through August 7.

During the meeting, delegations of government representatives face questions posed by the CEDAW panelists on how they are ensuring that women exercise their rights in the 30 areas included in the pact.

Countries Reviewed Regularly

The committee will then draft recommendations to the countries’ governments on how to improve compliance, a document that will be used as a benchmark the next time the country comes up for review. CEDAW sessions, held two or three times a year, review a country at least every four years.

The global women’s rights convention, adopted 30 years ago, has been accepted by 186 countries. The United States is not one of them.

Japan was one of four industrialized countries up for review this session, among a total of 11 nations. Four countries submitted CEDAW reports for the first time this year: Guinea-Bissau, Liberia, East Timor and the tiny Polynesian island nation of Tuvalu.

The other industrialized countries whose women’s rights record came under the microscope were Switzerland, Denmark and Spain. These four so-called developed nations had progressed on women’s rights by many measures since their last reviews in 2003 (Japan and Switzerland), 2004 (Spain) and 2006 (Denmark).

Some general areas of progress: reformed labor laws to discourage indirect discrimination against women and measures to combat human trafficking.

However, the countries tended to fall flat when it came to the treatment of immigrant women who come from less-developed countries where women’s rights are weaker.

“The women from Canada, North America, Europe, they are alright,” said Elisabeth Keller, general secretary of the Swiss Federal Commission for Women’s Issues, a department of the Swiss government’s Federal Office for Gender Equality. Her agency briefed the U.N.’s evaluation committee ahead of its session with the government delegation.

Switzerland Falls Flat on Discrimination

Switzerland’s report says a high percentage of the country’s married women–nearly 33 percent–are of foreign origin, married to Swiss and immigrant men. Yet according to the Swiss government’s report, “women of foreign origin are more often put up in shelters than Swiss women and they are often victims of domestic violence, calling for intervention by the police.”

Belmihoub-Zerdani, the U.N. expert assigned to evaluate Switzerland, said she was “a little” surprised at the Swiss lack of progress on some discrimination issues.

“It is not at the level of their possibilities,” said Belmihoub-Zerdani, who is halfway through her second term as an elected CEDAW expert. These experts, many of whom are lawyers, former judges and women’s human rights specialists, are elected for four-year terms.

The report on Switzerland identified academia as another area where women are underrepresented.

“Switzerland is so highly developed,” said Patrizia Mondini, member of a Swiss women’s advocacy group that also briefed the expert committee before the Swiss delegation’s review. “But it’s very strange that the stereotypes are still there, especially with having children and a job.”

Mondini, part of Post Beijing, an organization named after the 1995 U.N. conference held in Beijing that established goals for women’s equality worldwide, said that Switzerland did not have enough preschools for its children, discouraging many women with young children from pursuing or maintaining paid employment.

In addition, schools send all children home for lunch, which also often forces an adult–usually the mother–to be there.

Facing Public Scrutiny

The CEDAW meeting is focusing on a number of topics, including domestic violence, discriminatory family laws, human-trafficking prevention and the elimination of stereotypes. Special sessions are spotlighting the financial consequences of divorce and the rights of older women.

Jane Connors, the U.N. human rights commission officer who provides advice and guidance to the CEDAW chairperson and committee, said that 97 countries had allowed women to submit complaints to the CEDAW proceedings.

This demonstrates that countries are taking women’s concerns more seriously, she said, and are willing to hold themselves up to public scrutiny.

Theresa Braine covers women’s issues, business, public health, international affairs and other topics as a New York City-based reporter.

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For more information:

CEDAW 44th Session Documents

CEDAW, Convention to Eliminate All Forms of Discrimination Against Women





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