Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Older Women’s Rights are Human Rights

The Women:
Judy Lear, Gray Panthers; Ferdous Ara Begum, Gender Issues Specialist

The Question
: Where is the inclusion of older women in CEDAW? 

“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”
-- Margaret Mead.

Ms. Judy Lear opened her speech with this Margaret Mead quote to preface discussions around the inclusion of the protection of older women in the international Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination against Women, CEDAW. Ms. Lear provided the opening remarks for Ms. Ferdous Ara Begum, a CEDAW Committee Expert from Bangladesh who was intimately involved in the process. 

What is CEDAW?

CEDAW is the UN Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination against Women. It was adopted by the United Nations General Assembly in 1979, and it is referred to colloquially as the “International Bill of Rights for Women.” Out of 193 UN member states, 186 have ratified all or part or all of it. Unfortunately, the United States, largely for economic and political reasons, is one of seven countries to have not yet ratified CEDAW. 

What does CEDAW do? 

CEDAW is an international declaration holding governments responsible, and partially accountable, for the equality of women and girls. In countries that have ratified CEDAW, groups have often been able to partner with the government to change laws and policies targeting women and girls. These include: creating economic safety nets, increasing access to healthcare and education, encouraging laws around violence and domestic violence, ensuring rights around voting and inheritance, and many, many more. 

However, CEDAW is not without its faults. Because the United States has not ratified CEDAW, its legitimacy on the international stage is mitigated. Additionally, countries can partially ratify the Convention, which often removes some of its strongest articles. 

Why target older women specifically? 

Older women are often invisible in societies. Former CEDAW Committee member, Ferdous Ara Begum, discussed the negative stereotypes towards women as they age. Deeply rooted cultural and social biases marginalize this group; older women are often viewed as a burden to their families as they are no longer economically or reproductively useful. Furthermore, as a group, older women are more likely to be homeless, have unattended chronic health issues, or limited access to property and land. 

How does CEDAW protect older women? 

In October of 2010, CEDAW adopted Recommendation No. 27 to protect older women and their human rights on issues related to access to social pensions, education, adequate housing, inheritance laws, violence, and social biases (among other).  It compels, “State parties [to] recognize that older women are an important resource to society, and have the obligation to take all appropriate measures, including legislation, to eliminate discrimination against older women.”

Going forward. 

Including older women in CEDAW is an important step in protecting marginalized rights. However, and perhaps more importantly, this inclusions encourages governments -- and societies -- to recognize and appreciate the contributions of older women.

Click here to read the full recommendation on the protection of the human rights for older women, available in six languages. 

Melissa Sandgren is a MPP1 at the Harvard Kennedy School and a participant in WAPPP's From Harvard Square to the Oval Office program.

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