Ruth Halperin-Kaddari

UNITED NATIONS (WOMENSENEWS)–Guardians of the U.N.’s treaty on women’s rights have begun to address one of the most daunting challenges for women the world over: financially surviving divorce.

Setting international standards on this issue strikes at the core of cultural identity and even into people’s personal sense of self, says Marsha Freeman, who heads a nongovernmental organization that is working with the committee currently reviewing the treaty’s position on divorce. And that, she says, is “the hardest place to make these changes.”

Freeman, an expert on women’s rights and equality in the family, is the director of International Women’s Rights Action Watch, a human rights group based at the University of Minnesota Law School that promotes worldwide recognition of the tenets of the U.N. Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, or CEDAW. Her organization is supporting the CEDAW working group that is studying the issue of divorce and its economic consequences for women.

Freeman helped draft the statement given by Ruth Halperin-Kaddari, vice president of the U.N. committee overseeing implementation of CEDAW, during the most recent review session on CEDAW, which took place from July 20 through August 7 this summer. During the meeting the committee began airing current research and findings on the economic consequences of divorce on women.

While revising the treaty’s criterion for divorce won’t be easy, CEDAW overseers consider it necessary. That’s because although women the world over lead vastly different lives, most of them invariably lose out financially in divorce.

States party reports, nongovernmental organizations and the U.N.’s own research has determined over the years that in many countries laws and customs do not support either women’s accumulation of property during marriage or equal division of marital property upon divorce, says Freeman.

Growing Concern

“The economic consequences of divorce have been of growing concern to social scientists and policy makers,” said Halperin-Kaddari in her statement.

Halperin-Kaddari, the main presenter before the CEDAW committee, said research in industrialized countries has demonstrated that while men usually experience minimal income losses after divorce, most women experience a substantial decline in household income and an increased dependence on social welfare where it is available. “Throughout the world, female-headed households are the most likely to be poor,” she said.

Women’s median income drops by 20 percent or so in the United States and 24 percent in the European Union, studies show. But the financial impact on men isn’t as drastic. According to 1996 U.S. Census data, 21 percent of recently divorced women were living below the poverty line, while only 9 percent of men were.

In many parts of the world the penalty is far worse, with women cast out of their in-laws’ homes with nothing but the clothes on their backs.

Halperin-Kaddari told Women’s eNews that the CEDAW committee will continue collecting information on legal issues and data on the situation of women around the world after such family relations are dissolved.

Based on this and other material, the committee next year will issue a new general recommendation that creates a global standard that gives divorcing women a fair economic shake.

CEDAW Silent on Aspects of Divorce

Adopted in 1994, CEDAW’s current text addresses the social and legal aspects of a woman’s right to choose a spouse and enter freely into marriage but does not delve into family life, power structures or the economic consequences of divorce for women. The treaty grants women and men the “same rights and responsibilities during marriage and at its dissolution” and touches on divorce’s aftermath, but it does not get specific about how to lessen the economic impact on women.

The committee has said that any new recommendation will take into account the effect of globalization and development on family relations and divorce.

Halperin-Kaddari said the goal is to set up a framework that can guide CEDAW member countries to create “an egalitarian legal regime under which the economic benefits of marriage and the costs and economic consequences of marital breakdown are equally borne by men and women.”

The recommendations aren’t binding, but countries can use them as a guide in dealing with issues related to divorce and dissolution of the family unit.

A few nongovernmental organizations and advocacy groups had their say as well.

Women Often Give Up Claims

Laurel Eisner, executive director of the New York City nonprofit Sanctuary for Families, noted that in the United States women often opt for an uncontested divorce, giving up their claim to property, because it is quicker to file a no-contest divorce that seeks nothing but the dissolution of the marriage. Such women may want a quick exit because it can help free them from an abusive relationship or avoid a costly legal battle, Eisner told Women’s eNews.

Women often don’t know how to safeguard their rights, nor can they circumvent corruption that’s built into the legal and judicial professions, said Silvia Pimentel, a CEDAW committee member from Brazil.

Pimentel said that Brazil and other Latin American countries have passed a number of laws that benefit women. One example is Chile’s legalization of divorce in 2004.

But she said judges and lawyers don’t necessarily respect CEDAW nondiscrimination principles when it comes to putting the laws into practice.

“They always find ways of perpetuating stereotypes of women’s inferiority,” Pimentel said. And this means that women are often not given their fair share of assets or financial provisions for children in their custody.

Theresa Braine is a freelance journalist based in New York City.

Women’s eNews welcomes your comments. E-mail us at [email protected].

For more information:

International Women’s Rights Action Watch

Full CEDAW treaty text

General Recommendation No. 21, 1994 addendum to CEDAW that expands on family and marriage

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