UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights Committee to consider a Statement on Women's Rights

From time to time, an interpretation statement of a particular issue or right which are intended to guide governments is passed by committees of the United Nations. In twenty-five years the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights has never issued a statement that sets out how the treaty applies to women, and what the obligations of governments are to women. The Women's Economic Equality Project (WEEP), an initiative of three Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) - the Centre for Economic and Social Rights, the Centre for Equality Rights in Accommodation (CERA), and the National Association of Women and the Law - appeared before the Committee in Geneva on April 23, 2001 to urge the Committee to adopt a General Comment on Women.

WEEP's Submission to the United Nations Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights

Presented by Shelagh Day to the 25th Session April 23, 2001

"Thank you Madame Chair. My name is Shelagh Day and I am here today, on behalf of the Women’s Economic Equality Project, to thank the Committee for its important contributions to the advancement of women’s economic, social and cultural rights, and specifically, in furtherance of that work, to request the Committee to develop and adopt a General Comment on Women.

First, let me introduce the Women’s Economic Equality Project. The Project is a new human rights initiative currently being supported by three NGOs, the National Association of Women and the Law of Canada, the Centre for Economic and Social Rights and the Centre on Housing Rights and Evictions. The project has two integrally connected goals: 1) to improve understanding, recognition and implementation of women’s right to equality, as a right that encompasses economic, social and cultural rights as well as civil and political rights, and 2) to infuse the understanding of economic, social and cultural rights with a women’s perspective.

The Project held its first consultation in Capetown, South Africa in December 2000. It was attended by thirty women leaders in the economic and social rights movement. The participants included women involved in domestic litigation regarding economic and social rights, women working in organizations dedicated to advancing rights to food, housing, and development, and women engaged in grassroots anti-poverty work. The participants included academics, lawyers, Members of Parliament, trade unionists, and human rights activists. The participants discussed, among other issues, the contribution that a General Comment on Women and the ICESCR, adopted by this Committee, could make to advancing the understanding of women’s equality and women’s social and economic rights. The Committee can play a key role in the realization of these rights for women now.

Madame Chairperson, this is an important moment to raise the profile of women’s social and economic rights, and to increase understanding of what constitutes a violation of those rights. Despite fifty years of human rights commitments to women’s equality, women of all ages, in all countries of the world, continue to experience gender inequality and violations of their economic, social and cultural rights within and outside the home.

Economic inequality is a central fact of women’s lives in every country in the world, and a central manifestation of discrimination against women. Women’s economic inequality includes a range of conditions – from utter destitution to the overall inequality of women’s share of wealth, property, income and resources. Women are 70 percent of the world’s poor and they own 1 per cent of the world’s wealth. In every country in the world, women are poorer than men, and their poverty and economic inequality affects every aspect of their lives – their basic survival and the survival of their children, their access to food and housing, their physical security, their ability to escape from violence, their sexual autonomy, their health, their access to education and literacy, their access to justice, their ability to participate in public life, their ability to influence and participate in decisions that affect them. Women’s economic inequality is integrally connected to their sexual exploitation and to their lack of political power. As long as women as a group do not have an equal share of the world’s economic resources, they will not have an equal say in shaping the world’s future.

There is growing evidence that the standardized economic agenda now being implemented globally - which encourages diminishing the size of governments, cutting social programs, privatizing public services, and deregulating markets - is having a negative impact on the economic and social conditions of women. In fact, women’s inequality is deepening, as evidenced by the increasing poverty of women, and the proliferation of sweatshops and other forms of economic exploitation, including trafficking in women. On a global level, economic policy is being treated as though it is unrelated to the human rights of women.

To confront their inequality women around the world have formed networks and coalitions to educate the public and give greater exposure to women's problems. The international women's movement has been successful in gaining recognition of women's human rights. However, this success has not been without some costs. Until recently violations of human rights have been male-defined, and precedence has been given to civil and political rights concerns, such as torture and infringements of free speech. Because of this, to break into the human rights framework, women have highlighted the part of their life experience that best fits the traditional paradigm of a human rights violation -- namely, their experience of violence. As a result, mirroring the pattern within the human rights movement overall, women’s civil and political rights have eclipsed their economic and social rights. This has occurred even though abuses of economic, social and cultural rights underlie women’s growing inequality and they are integrally connected to every other violation of human rights that women experience. The need to emphasize women’s civil and political rights in order to break into the human rights paradigm has led to an impoverished understanding of women’s right to equality, that is stripped of economic and social rights dimensions.

Although the economic and social rights movement has been successful in putting specific rights such as the right to food, housing, and health on the human rights agenda, this movement has failed to consider the particularity of women’s experience and consequently failed to incorporate a gender perspective into the interpretation and treatment of these rights.

It is important at this juncture to confront these issues:

  • Gender-neutral treatment of economic, social and cultural rights does not advance women’s equality. Programs designed to improve economic and social conditions often work best for men because they do not consider or account for the gendered character of poverty. Women are poorer than men in every society, and they are poor for different reasons. Women’s persistent poverty and economic inequality are caused by a number of interlocking factors, including: the social assignment to women of the unpaid role of caregiver and nurturer for children, men, and elderly people; the fact that in the paid labour force women perform the majority of the work in the ‘caring’ occupations and this ‘women’s work’ is usually lower paid than ‘men’s work’; the lack of affordable, safe child care; the entrenched devaluation of the labour of minority women, including indigenous women, migrant workers, women in the informal sector and women with disabilities; the economic penalties that women incur when they are unattached to men, or have children alone; and laws, policies and traditions which treat women as adjuncts to men and deny women independent entitlement to credit and loans, and to own, rent, or inherit land, property and housing
  • Also, systemic discrimination is a barrier to women’s access to the enjoyment of their rights to food, housing, health and education. This discrimination places men’s needs first, structures society in terms of those needs and shapes women’s lives in relation to those needs.

    Women’s poverty and economic inequality cannot be addressed unless these realities are taken into account.

  • Traditionally, the right to equality has been interpreted 1) as a civil and political right which cannot encompass the economic and social rights dimensions of women’s inequality and 2) as a right whose paradigm is gender neutrality. This version of equality, which ignores the social and economic dimensions of women’s inequality, and ignores women’s long-standing social and economic disadvantage, is out of date and incapable of addressing and remedying the real material inequality that women experience.
  • Economic policy and human rights commitments are too often being treated as unrelated matters by national governments and by international financial institutions. Respecting or advancing the human rights of women is not a central goal when national budgets are constructed or national social policies, such as health care, are redesigned. This compartmentalization of societal concerns results in governments making decisions for “budgetary”, “deficit” or “trade” reasons that exacerbate the social and economic inequality of women, without assessment, or regard for this effect.

A General Comment on Women adopted by this Committee can make a significant contribution at this time. First, this Committee can foster a gendered understanding of the rights contained in the ICESCR. It can bring to the attention of States parties the gendered character of poverty, and the often harmful impacts of apparently gender neutral economic and social policies on women. The Committee can encourage States parties to measure, analyze and report on women’s conditions with respect to the enjoyment of their economic, social and cultural rights. This will enhance understanding among States parties of the nature of their obligations to women.

Second, this Committee is in a key position to foster a substantive understanding of the right to equality, which is guaranteed to women in both Covenants and in CEDAW. In particular, the Committee can ensure that equality for women is understood to require the full implementation of their economic, social and cultural rights.

Thirdly, by adopting a General Comment on Women, the Committee can give women a tool to assist them in advancing their equality and their enjoyment of their economic, social and cultural rights.

I thank you for your generous attention. The Women’s Economic Equality Project looks forward to further consultation with the Committee, and to providing support to the Committee in its crucial work."