FRIDAY, October 6, marked the 30th anniversary of The Bahamas ratifying the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW). It was marked by a proclamation, printed in both national newspapers, of October 6, 2023, as Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women Day. The Prime Minister called on organisations, businesses, and families to recognise the importance of women’s rights and the elimination of discrimination against women with relevant activities and programmes.
Follow three decades of work by the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women (CSW), CEDAW was adopted by the United Nations General Assembly in 1979. It came into force in 1981. Some may be familiar with CSW as it is a large annual event held at the United Nations in New York City, drawing not only Ministers with responsibility for gender and women’s affairs, but non-governmental organizations that advocate for the rights of women for two weeks of meetings.
In its official programming, CSW results in an outcome document that lays out the commitments made by member states. Side and parallel events give non-governmental organisations and individual advocates opportunities to share knowledge, network, and build solidarity across countries and regions, and they also present opportunities to meet with state representatives and international organisations. It was the cumulative outcome of many years of CSW meetings that made the case for the drafting of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, recognising discrimination against women as a specific issue that needed to be addressed.
Since April 2022, Equality Bahamas has been hosting the CEDAW (Convention) Speaker Series, inviting experts — mostly from the CEDAW Committee — to lead discussions on the Convention, one Article at a time. The series started with Swiss human rights lawyer and former CEDAW Committee member Patricia Schulz leading the discussion on Articles 1 and 2. Article 1 focuses on the definition of discrimination against women and Article 2 focuses on the policy measures that must be taken in order to come into compliance with CEDAW, so those two Articles are discussed together just as they are dealt with together in the constructive dialogue in Geneva. Article 3 on basic human rights and fundamental freedoms was presented by CEDAW Committee member Esther Eghobamien-Mshelia, and it was followed by Article 4 on special measures which was led by Bahamian human rights experts Gaynel Curry. The series continued this way, with one expert discussing one Article (or two when they are handled together by the Committee) each month, presenting the text of the Convention, the relevance of the Article to the rest of the Convention, and the application of the Article to the Bahamian context.
I facilitated the CEDAW Speaker Series sessions, and each one deepened my understanding of the individual Articles and the Convention. Each speaker took time to give context for the Article of discussion, grounding it in the purpose and overall content of the Convention. They also made clear connections to other Articles. We tend to understand almost all of the Articles of the Convention as specific to a thematic area, but the overlaps and the interdependent nature of the Articles became with each session, especially as we considered them within the context of the work we are doing at the national level. For example, Equality Bahamas is currently conducting research on parental leave, and while we considered Articles 11 on employment and 12 on health, we realised that we also need to integrate Article 16 on marriage and family life. Article 14 on rural women is particularly relevant and will feature prominently when, in our report, we delve into the specific experiences of women on the Family Islands and how their maternity leave is impacted by the requirement that they leave their home islands to give birth in a hospital.
I was on a radio talk show yesterday to talk about the 30th anniversary of the ratification of CEDAW by The Bahamas and a caller expressed his concern that women in Centreville and in Bain and Grants Towns do not know about CEDAW because they have a lot of children and would not understand what I was saying. My instinct was to respond to a number of implicit biases and incorrect assumptions. One is that women in townships or inner-city communities are all the same — more than the average number of children and less than the average education among other assumptions. This is, of course, not the case.
He also assumed that I am a “sophisticated” woman, whatever that means, who does not engage at the community level. Instead of responding to these assumptions, I listened to the rest of what he said. The point that he really seemed to want to make was that the people who are supposed to benefit from the international human rights mechanisms that the governments sign do not even know they exist, much less how to use them to their benefit. I can easily agree with that point, while making it clear that it is the responsibility of the government to educate the people, promote human rights, and meaningfully engage people on human rights, domestic law, and international law and obligations.
We have become accustomed to the government, with any administration at the helm, shirking its responsibility to the people. It has normalised and continued its withdrawal from social protection, refusing and/or failing to ensure that people’s basic needs are met. We continue to suffer the effects of structural adjustment programmes, even in the face of multiple crises in recent years.
Despite being urged to do so by advocates and the CEDAW Committee, the government has refused and/or failed to educate the public on human rights, the obligations of the government to promote and guarantee access to them, and the international mechanisms that monitor and hold the government accountable in addition to make clear recommendations that must be implemented. In its Concluding Observations following the sixth periodic review of The Bahamas, held in Geneva in 2018, the CEDAW Committee said it was “concerned that women in the State party, in particular those belonging to disadvantaged groups, are unaware of their rights under the Convention and thus lack the information necessary to claim them”. It called on the Government of The Bahamas to “enhance awareness among women and girls of their rights and the remedies available to them under the Convention, including through awareness - raising campaigns, in cooperation with civil society organisations and community-based women’s associations”.
That the general public, and that women and girls themselves, are not aware of and do not understand CEDAW and its implications for all of our lives is not a failure of the public, women and girls, non-governmental organizations, or advocates. It is not due to an inability to gain new knowledge or to understand the content and application of the Convention. It has been thirty years since The Bahamas ratified CEDAW. The government is well aware of what CEDAW is and what it means for women and girls in The Bahamas. It voluntarily ratified it and it has presented its reports to the CEDAW Committee, the most recent being in 2018 and one in progress now. It has decided that women and girls knowing their rights is either unimportant or disadvantageous to the government and the institutions and people who benefit from the oppression, marginalisation, discrimination, and violence against women and girls. Thirty years is far too long for any excuse to hold.
Equality Bahamas has, with limited resources, run a speaker series in the lead-up to the thirties anniversary of the ratification of CEDAW. The recordings of past sessions are available on its Youtube channel and can be accessed at tiny.cc/cssplaylist. The series will continue during the Global 16 Days Campaign which runs from November 25 to December 10. In those sessions, experts will lead discussion on General Recommendations which elaborate on the Convention and address issues that are not articulated in it.
If you are interested in learning more about CEDAW or you would like to organise a session for a group, contact the Equality Bahamas team at email@example.com. If you would like to see the government step up to the plate and do the promotion and education part of its job as it pertains to human rights, say so. Contact the Department of Gender and Family Affairs to find out what it is doing, and contact the Office of the Prime Minister to urge the Prime Minister to properly resource the Department and transition it to the Ministry so that it can function as a national gender machinery and to build a national human rights institute which would monitor human rights, receive complaints, make recommendations, and provide education on human rights to the public. These have already been recommended by the CEDAW Committee and by member states through the Universal Periodic Review, so it will not be news to them. What would be news, however, is that members of the public are paying attention and have the demand, if not the expectation, that human rights be fulfilled.