The UN Committee on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) Representative, Ferdous Begum Visits Sakhi

Sakhi would like to thank Ferdous Ara Begum for visiting Sakhi offices to talk about her experiences in the work to advance women’s rights and the role of the United Nations (UN) in these efforts. Throughout her professional career Ms. Begum has worked towards the elimination of discrimination against women and she believes that meaningful change is possible. Ms. Begum is currently a member of the Committee that oversees compliance of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW).  CEDAW was adopted by the United Nations in 1979, and is the most comprehensive international agreement on the basic human rights of women. The Treaty provides an international standard for protecting and promoting women’s human rights and is often referred to as a “Bill of Rights” for women.  We at Sakhi are honored by her recent visit.

Ms. Begum’s talk focused on the CEDAW Committee’s mandate to monitor women’s advancement and the progress made by countries that have ratified CEDAW. We came to realize how important the work that Sakhi and other community-based organizations are in contributing to the global movement to eliminate gender-based discrimination and violence against women in all societies.Although countries may claim to enact measures that comply with the treaty, it is civil society that ensure that these claims are true, and that true impact and progress is being made.

Sakhi staff and interns learned of the various mechanisms the UN CEDAW Committee uses to address issues such as violence against women and issues that affect the life cycle of a woman. One tool is the question and answer sessions held by CEDAW where representatives of various countries submit reports on the advancement of women. The Committee reviews national reports submitted by a member country during each of its sessions. There are 3 sessions every year. These reports describe national actions taken to improve the situation of women in the country. CEDAW members engage in discussion with these representatives. National NGOs and other community organizations like Sakhi can present their reports on the countries under consideration as well.  All these deliberations provide a more complete picture of the advancement of women in the country. According to the UN, “This procedure of actual dialogue…has proven valuable because it allows for an exchange of views and a clearer analysis of anti-discrimination policies in the various countries”[1]. Ms. Begum agreed, mentioning that she had witnessed change firsthand during her tenure as a committee member.

The Committee can also make recommendations regarding ways in which governments should devote more attention to specific issues affecting women [2]. According to Amnesty International, “The Treaty for the Rights of Women is a tool that women around the world are using effectively to bring about change in their conditions. In nations that have ratified the treaty, CEDAW has proved invaluable in opposing the effects of discrimination, which include violence, poverty, lack of legal protections, along with the denial of inheritance, property rights, and access to credit” [3].

The United States is among the small minority of countries that has not yet ratified CEDAW. This means that not only is the U.S. not obligated to appear in front of the Committee to discuss the various types of discrimination that women face in this country, but the lack of U.S. ratification also serves as a disincentive for other governments to uphold CEDAW’s mandate to end discrimination against women [4].

This is one reason why Sakhi’s work and commitment to ending violence against women in the South Asian community of New York City, and empowering women against the multiple oppressions they face based on class, immigration status, religion, and sexual orientation is crucial. Even though our government has not ratified CEDAW, we at Sakhi can use its language and its mechanisms to advocate on behalf of the survivors we work with daily and highlight the stories of the survivors we work with.

We also learned from Ms. Begum, that as an organization that works on behalf of immigrant women, Sakhi could submit shadow reports when the countries of their origin are before the CEDAW Committee. When countries like India, Pakistan, Nepal, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Guyana, Trinidad, and Tobago – all of which have ratified CEDAW and all of whom are represented in the immigrant population  we serve at Sakhi – appear before the Committee, we can file a report showcasing the oppressions and hurdles that survivors of domestic violence who have immigrated from those countries experience in the United States.  These countries can then, for example, engage with the US to enact measures that adequately protect this immigrant class of women and advocate for the US to ratify the treaty. Gathering the stories of our survivors and appearing in front of the Committee to push for change on their behalf is one small step that Sakhi can take to give voice to the voiceless and advocate for for larger, systemic progress in the global movement to end violence against women.