By Alicia Wallace
The Convention on the Elimination of All forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), commonly known as women’s bill of rights, was adopted by the United Nations General Assembly in 1979. The Bahamas ratified the Convention in 1993 and, 25 years later, we still do not have a national understanding of it and its implications. No administration has seen fit to deliver public education on this or any other UN instrument while representatives have made commitments on the nation’s behalf. This has led to scepticism about tools intended to assist us in accessing and promoting our own human rights.
It can feel as though the government is making decisions and commitments in secrecy, deliberately leaving us out. When issues are raised by international bodies about our failure to meet the standards we agreed to, acronyms like CEDAW are read as threatening because they are not understood. This has been a large component of my advocacy this week as the CEDAW Committee review The Bahamas through study and questioning of its report, shadow reports by non-government organisations, oral statements and questions to the delegation lead by the Minister of Social Services and Community Development Frankie Campbell.
The referendum of 2016 is the perfect example of our resistance to that which we do not understood, and all that appears mysterious and is interpreted as top-down. I, of course, am not suggesting it was the only issue that led to the referendum results, but acknowledge the part it played.
Because many people’s introduction to CEDAW was during a conversation about constitutional reform, it was understood as an outsider’s agenda rather than an international standard The Bahamas agreed to through its decision to ratify. The country was not forced into agreement, nor was it faced with consequences of not ratifying. The same is true for the Convention on the Rights of a Child (which people are less likely to dispute, possibly because it easier to see children as human beings with human rights than it is to see women in the same way).
When it signed CEDAW, the Bahamian government reserved on Articles 2 and 9 which are specific to sex-based discrimination and nationality because it is not able to make make changes through legislation to bring the country to compliance.
It is important to note that a reservation does not mean the country is exempt from meeting the obligations set out in the articles. For The Bahamas, meeting the demands of these articles requires a referendum — a majority vote of participating citizens — due to the way the constitution is written, requiring this measure to change the related Articles. This is directly connected to the bills that went to referendum. A “yes” vote on the bills would have led to the constitutional reform that would have put The Bahamas in line with the Articles that ask for protection against discrimination against women defined as any distinction, exclusion or restriction of rights as compared to men’s and equal rights with men to acquire, change, or retain their nationality and that of their children.
The referendum took place because it was recommended by the Constitutional Commission as a priority issue and our commitment to CEDAW required the attempt to make the changes necessary to address discrimination and nationality issues.
CEDAW is a powerful tool for women because it requires state action, in concrete terms, to eliminate discrimination against women. This includes the elimination of laws, policies, procedures and structures that limit women’s access to and enjoyment of their rights. It also encourages the use of temporary measures — also known as affirmative action — which are helpful in addressing imbalance of power and opportunity while interrupting “norms” through the creation of a new normal that will eventually take root as we outgrow the need for the temporary measure.
For example, a political quota could be instituted to create more space for women in frontline politics and as we become accustomed to women as representatives and leaders, we come to expect and encourage women to participate more and, when the proportion improves along with the general attitude toward women in politics, the quota will become unnecessary.
The convention, while helpful, is not magic. Ratifying does not automatically improve circumstances in the country, and the act of signing does not translate to real, substantive change. It does not even necessarily prove commitment to gender equality. For that and other reasons, there is a CEDAW Committee of experts. The 23 people on this committee have exceptional knowledge of the Convention and work together to conduct formal reviews of the States that have ratified. States must submit their first report the year after ratification and, after that point, must submit every four years. In its reports, it must clearly state its actions relevant to each of the articles.
Article one is on the definition of discrimination. How does The Bahamas define discrimination? We know that Article 26 of the Constitution defines it and lists prohibited grounds of discrimination which include race, creed, and political opinion, but not sex. The Bahamas must speak to this, and its explanation would include the attempt to add sex to Article 26(4) through the referendum exercise. Its initiation of the referendum, however, does not excuse the State. The Committee is likely to ask about the timing of the referendum, the public education undertaken, the support (or lack thereof) from Members of Parliament at the time, and other relevant details.
As mentioned, this is a reporting year for The Bahamas, and the State delegation is now in Geneva. Its report has been submitted and it will face the CEDAW Committee tomorrow beginning at 4am EST. Equality Bahamas, The Bahamas Crisis Centre, and Rights Bahamas are also in Geneva and have submitted shadow reports. The Committee does not only review the report given by the Government and take it at its word, but looks to alternate reports to get a fuller view of the state of affairs in each country. In our case, it has received three shadow reports from nongovernment organizations, and has heard oral statements from each one. The members also had the opportunity to ask questions based on the reports, oral statements, and their own research and findings.
We have put a significant amount of attention on discrimination and nationality because they were the issues brought to the public and most widely discussed, but CEDAW has a broader scope. It addresses sex stereotypes, trafficking and prostitution, political and public life, education, employment, healthcare, rural women, and marriage and family among other key areas. Committee members will ask questions about the CEDAW Articles of particular interest and relevance, taking all reports into consideration. Based on the dialogue it has with the State as well as information and views shared by non-government organizations, the CEDAW Committee will share Concluding Observations which are recommendations for State action to bring it in line with its obligations under CEDAW.
It is critical we pay attention to the concluding observations and ensure they are actioned. CEDAW is for us, and we have the responsibility of watching, reminding, and pressuring the government to keep its commitments.