Henry Parr interviews NAELA GABR, chair of U.N. Committee on CEDAW

UNITED NATIONS, Jul 30 (IPS) - For the last 10 days, experts from the U.N. Committee on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) have been reviewing the status of women's rights in 11 countries.

The process, which ends o­n Aug. 7, assesses how well states are meeting their obligations under the treaty, and to suggest ways in which they can improve.

The 11 countries up for review this year are Argentina, Azerbaijan, Bhutan, Denmark, Guinea-Bissau, Japan, Lao People’s Democratic Republic, Liberia, Spain, Switzerland, Timor Leste, and Tuvalu.

IPS correspondent Henry Parr sat down with the committee chairperson, Naela Gabr of Egypt, to discuss the process and the emerging challenges to women's equality today. Excerpts from the interview follow.

IPS: Could you outline the review process that's being going o­n since Jul. 20?

NAELA GABR: The implementation is seen in many parts. There is the legal part - how the country is organising the national legislation to be in conformity with the text of the convention and the spirit of the convention, the practical part, the operational part, which is the basic social services, health, education, employment, rural women, etc.

And there is also an important part dealing with stereotypes, because stereotypes are the starting point. If you cannot change the harmful traditional practices in some countries, and the negative image of women in some societies, you cannot enable women to enjoy their rights.

Of course, things are evolving. Now, because of globalisation, there is a very important [newer] cause, [human] trafficking. Trafficking is becoming o­ne of our main issues because really it's an issue all over the world now, and we can see it.

IPS: In your press conference you emphasised discrimination against older women and the economic consequences of divorce. Why are these issues particularly pertinent now?

NG: We have realised that, because of medical progress, the minimum age of women is rising in many societies. Older women are more vulnerable because they depend o­n the pensions of men. When they are widowed, they sometimes lack financial resources. In rural areas of some parts of the world, they cannot inherit, neither from their family or from their husband, so it's a bad situation.

Now, concerning the economic consequences of divorce: Of course, in this modern society, women have the opportunity of working, of having excellent jobs, and an excellent position in society. But sometimes they make the choice to pay attention to the kids, to the family, to the husband's career.

There is a problem concerning diplomats for instance. The wife of a diplomat cannot have a career traveling with the husband. If the husband should someday decide to just abandon her, what will the situation be?

IPS: The committee reviews developed countries and developing countries, for example, Switzerland and Timor Leste are two very different countries with very different economic situations. Is there then, anywhere in the world where women's rights are not an issue?

NG: No, I don't think so. Every society has its problems and it specificities and it's a fluctuation. Every society has its particularities.

IPS: Why then do you believe there are five or so countries that are reluctant to ratify the convention?

NG: It's internal, of course. It's clear that it's an internal situation, and they need, first of all, to have a societal discussion among themselves, in their society. There is also the question of the parliament, the congress. What is the majority in the legislative body?

This is a choice for the society, and when you have pressure groups and you have NGOs, there is a kind of awareness in society, they can push countries to ratify.

IPS: Do you think religion has played a role in deterring countries from ratifying the convention?

NG: Look to the United States [which has signed but not ratified the treaty] and at the same time, to Iran [which has not signed] o­n the opposite. Somalia [also not a signatory] has a special situation because they are still are some difficulties, but mainly it is Iran and the United States and Sudan [not a signatory].

I've studied the issue of religion, and when I was studying in my own country the question of religion we see that in Muslim countries - and I'm coming from a Muslim country - look to the countries of the [Organisation of the] Islamic Conference, 57 countries.

Of course, most of them had ratified with the exception of two or three, and recently the latest is Qatar who has joined. Some of them had ratified without any reservations, some with too many, and some with less reservations, and there is a fluctuation. It depends o­n the interpretation of the text and o­n the interpretation of the religion.

But from my own point of view, as a Muslim, I don't see at all that there is difficulty in being a Muslim country or being a Muslim and adhering to the convention. o­n the contrary, Islam has been very avant-gardiste.

Islam is enabling a woman to keep her own family name, to keep her own financial independence, to work. Islam is not asking for this niqab (veil), it is asking for a decent way of dressing, enabling women even to go to war, and to work and to participate fully in society. So I don't see any problem with being a Muslim and ratifying and adhering to the convention.

IPS: You said in your press conference that CEDAW "has been considered o­ne of the most successful treaty monitoring bodies". How would you measure this success, and what would you attribute it to?

NG: Because, of course, to the adherence. We are number two after the o­ne o­n the rights of the child, o­n the visibility of the convention in society, and how countries are responding to our interaction. Most of them are coming to us with many achievements and in conformity with our recommendations, and from this I can detect and assess the level of progress.

IPS: So do you think there has been considerable progress, globally, concerning women's rights?

NG: Yes, of course, there has been, you cannot deny that. But at the same time there are some difficulties arising in the modern world, for instance, using and misusing women in publicity as an object, and the nudity of women. It's degrading.

There are new forms of discrimination arising, unfortunately, but, in the global picture, things are improving, and we are here to detect what the new difficulties are.