Gender disparity remains one of the dominant concerns of women in the world. To ensure the protection of women's rights, the Convention for the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) was adopted by the United Nations on December 18, 1976 and entered as an international treaty on September 3, 1981. The convention aims to promote women's equal status and rights in the areas of domestic violence, reproductive rights, legal and political rights, among others.
Bangladesh is one of the 160 countries which signed their commitments to the said convention. On the 6th of November 1984, Bangladesh ratified CEDAW with reservations on Articles 2, 13.1[a], 16.1[c] and [f] (Please see notes below), on the basis of religious sentiments. While the Government feels that these provisions conflict with religious Islamic laws, women feel these reservations infringe upon the protection and promotion of their rights.
The unequal treatment of women in Bangladesh sanctioned by the constitution reflects gender-based discrimination in mainstream society. In marriages and separations, for example, women's right of choice is governed by the personal laws that give more importance to social obligation than personal choice. This reality pushed many women to join forces with other women's groups and organizations as they feel separate initiatives cannot create any change in the status of women. Their demand is for the government of Bangladesh to withdraw reservations on specific provisions of CEDAW.
A strong network of women's groups started advocacy at the national level, hoping to mobilize other women to push for implementation of CEDAW provisions in domestic legislation. A CEDAW Forum was formed and launched in 1992, composed of individuals and organizations dedicated to the women's cause and the implementation of CEDAW. Bangladesh National Women Lawyers Association (BNWLA), Mahila Parishad, and Nari Pokkho frontlined the said Forum. With the help of the International Women's Rights Action Watch (IWRAW), workshops, training, and CEDAW forums were conducted for different groups, from lawyers to journalists to ordinary citizens. These were to raise public awareness on how to incorporate the convention with emphasis on Articles 2, 13.1 [a], 16.1[c] & [f] into their domestic laws.
Advocacy for the withdrawal of Bangladesh reservations forced the government to call on several women's groups to discuss their opinions about the country's CEDAW Report. The UN CEDAW Committee fixed 1997 as the year for reviewing the report of the Bangladeshi Government. The three frontline organizations jointly prepared a commentary report. Embodied in the report were women's sentiments on state policies and programs that do not reflect women's agenda and the government's inability to remove reservations on specific CEDAW provisions. The government even chose two women activists as their consultants for the said report.
Triumphs and Learnings
A unified effort is more effective than several isolated approaches. This the women learned after proving the success of their advocacy efforts. They were successful in urging the government to withdraw its reservation on articles 13 [a] and 16.1 [f]. The other provisions remain the top priority of women's organizations and NGOs in their lobbying and advocacy activities. Women have begun to be vigilant and participative in political decision-making. The government's action to consult with women's groups and activists for the preparation of the country report to CEDAW and the integration of CEDAW in domestic legislation proves that women's voices can no longer be ignored. This involvement in the law reform process is by far a great achievement for women. Finally, the effort has united women and other NGOs in articulating the promotion of women's equal rights.
Article 2. States Parties condemn discrimination against women in all its forms, agree to pursue by all appropriate means and without delay a policy of eliminating discrimination against women.
Article 13.1. States Parties shall take all appropriate measures to eliminate discrimination against women in other areas of economic and social life in order to ensure, on a basis of equality of men and women, the same rights, in particular:
[a] The right to family benefits.
Article 16.1. States Parties shall take all appropriate measures to eliminate discrimination against women in all matters relating to marriage and family relations and in particular shall ensure, on a basis of equality of men and women:
[c] The same rights and responsibilities during marriage and at its dissolution;
[f] The same rights and responsibilities with regard to guardianship, wardship, trusteeship, and adoption of children, or similar institutions where these concepts exist in national legislation; in all cases the interests of the children shall be paramount.