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Credit:  Arjan Almekinders on Flickr, under Creative Commons

AMSTERDAM (WOMENSENEWS)–Do women’s rights documents that get signed and ratified with diplomatic fanfare at the United Nations ever change things for women in the real world?

The answer is yes.

The greatest global women’s rights treaty of them all–the U.N. Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, or CEDAW, adopted in 1979–can give women leverage in clashes with traditional religious principles.

For proof, look at what just happened here in the Netherlands to the oldest political party in the country. The orthodox Christian Party, or SGP, is a small party founded in 1919 that has long held the position that it was against God’s will, as expressed in the Bible, for women to occupy a political post or run as candidates. (The party did not object to be voted upon by women, which became possible in the very same year, 1919.)

Last week that changed when Lilian Janse became the first woman to represent the SGP in the Vlissingen town council of Zeeland province in the South West. (Previously the party was not represented on this town council.) “A dream comes true” Janse said on the night of March 20, after her election.

(Unfortunately the legal benefits of CEDAW cannot be used by women in the United Sates, one of the few U.N. members that has not yet ratified the convention.)

The party’s rule against female candidates was broken by the persistent pressure of women’s rights activists who used CEDAW to fight it for many years in the courts.

CEDAW is the major international rights treaty available to the world’s women. It often lies fallow in parts of the world where women’s rights activism is dormant. But when activists start reaching for a powerful legal tool, there it is.

Violation of Article 7

According to Article 7 of CEDAW, which the Kingdom of the Netherlands ratified in 1991, state parties must ensure that discrimination against women in the political and public life is eliminated. This applies to the right to vote and the right to be eligible for election.

Women’s rights groups first raised the issue of the discrimination of women by the SGP in its “shadow report” to the U.N. committee that monitors countries’ compliance with CEDAW. (It’s called a shadow report because it accompanies the official reports submitted by governments under review.)

The U.N. review committee in 2001 recommended the Dutch government act to end the violation of Article 7. Some years later, in 2007, the committee urged the Dutch government to do so.

When nothing happened, 10 women’s rights nongovernmental organizations decided in 2003 to take legal action against the government.

In 2010 the Supreme Court ruled against the government’s argument that it was entitled to inaction. The court ruled that citizen’s right to stand for election is key to democracy, even when it uproots a principle rooted in religious or ideological beliefs. In 2012 the European Court for Human Rights confirmed the opinion of the Supreme Court.

Now, Janse is to be sworn in as an elected official, a small but important victory for all those who lobbied for CEDAW and the Dutch citizens who insisted on its implementation.

This Dutch case of the exclusion of women by a small Christian party shows us that CEDAW can uphold women’s right to equal participation. It can also give women’s rights to citizenship primacy over freedom of religion, a matter of broad importance for women in legal clashes around the world.

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