The Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) was adopted in December 1979 as a bill of rights for women. Till date, it has been ratified by 188 countries of the world. It is the principal treaty on women's human rights setting out a framework for achieving equality as well as putting obligations on states to eliminate discrimination against women and girls. The Convention is based on three important principles: (1) Substantive equality which covers not only the formal equality of treatment but also a strategy that evaluates results of gender responsive laws, policies and programmes.(2) Non-discrimination—the convention defines discrimination and intends to eliminate both intended (direct) and unintended (indirect) discrimination. To this end, the Convention covers actions of all - from the government to private sectors, from individuals to families and communities – but the prime responsibility lies with the government. This is linked with the third principle. (3) State obligation – under the Convention, the State is to ensure both de jure (legal) and de facto equality as a result.
Bangladesh ratified CEDAW in 1984 with initial reservations on four articles of which two were withdrawn later. The Government of Bangladesh (GOB) has been reasonably regular in submitting its periodic reports to the CEDAW committee. The combined sixth and seventh report submitted in 2009 was considered by the UN CEDAW Committee in 2011. GOB has submitted its eighth periodic report on April 14, 2015.
The vibrant civil society of the country has also been actively engaged in meeting its obligations, either in the form of preparing and submitting the shadow/alternative reports or in monitoring the status of implementations of concluding observations. Community Service Organisations (CSOs), in the name of Citizens' Initiatives on CEDAW Bangladesh (CIC-BD), are supporting the implementation as partners and also in constant advocacy with the GOB in implementing the provisions of CEDAW. Currently, the CSO platform (CIC-BD) is preparing the shadow report complementing the State Party Report.
Bangladesh is one of the early countries which ratified the Convention and is an active member of the CEDAW committee. The committee has had representation from Bangladesh with three distinguished women personalities for a number of years since its ratification, which highlights the government's commitment to the provisions of the Convention.
The state also has adopted many women-friendly laws and policies over the last few decades which include, among others: the Women's Development Policy followed by an action plan, the High Court's directives on sexual harassment and fatwa, Women and Child Repression Suppression Act, Domestic Violence (Prevention and Protection) Act. It is also heartening to note that major policies and planning documents of the government refer to and are based on provisions of CEDAW (e.g., five-year plans, national perspective plan on post-2015, etc).
On the other hand, the GOB has still retained its reservations on two articles: 1) Article 2 and 2) Article 16(1c). Article 2 mandates that state parties ratifying the Convention declare intent to enshrine gender equality into their domestic legislation, repeal all discriminatory provisions in their laws, and enact new provisions to guard against discrimination against women. Article 16 (1c) dictates that state 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 a basis of equality of men and women.
The Constitution of Bangladesh guarantees equal rights for women and men. However, having a reservation on Article 2 contradicts with Articles 10, 19, 27, 28 and 29 of the Constitution of Bangladesh. The government, however, made commitments to withdraw the reservations when it submitted a periodic report in 2004 after it was reviewed by the Ministry of Law, Justice and Parliamentary Affairs. A recent report by the Law Commission also indicates the potential for withdrawal of reservations. Bangladesh is not governed by Sharia law per se; it is only the personal and family issues that are governed by the laws based on religious provisions in the absence of a Uniform Family Code. Besides, about 10 percent of the population of Bangladesh belongs to religious groups other than Islam, whose life is not governed by the Sharia law.
On the other hand, looking at the examples of other Islamic countries, it is noteworthy that 29 out of 57 member countries of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) have ratified the Convention fully without any reservations. Other countries have withdrawn initial reservations after justified review. Therefore, there are instances where concrete steps were taken in countries with a Muslim majority.
The CEDAW committee has repeatedly expressed its concern on the continuing reservation by the government in its concluding observations on the combined sixth and seventh periodic report. The committee called it impermissible as the committee considers Articles 2 and 16 to be “core provisions of the Convention,” and “central to the objects and purpose of the Convention”. These have implications for other articles as well. Later, the committee also requested the government to put a specific time frame for withdrawing the reservations.
The government submitted its eigth periodic report in 2015. The year 2015 will mark a few landmarks in global development agenda, because the world has already redefined the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) this year. The global process of the post-2015 development agenda is already heading toward culmination. The SDG is built upon global initiatives like Rio+20, CEDAW, the Beijing+20 review process and the annual session of the Commission on the Status of Women (CSW). In all these processes, the governments are committed to giving women their rightful voice and choices for shaping the world that empowers them through the development agenda.
2015 will be a year that makes history and during this year, we want to see the government fulfilling its commitment towards the women of the country. In order to ensure substantive equality for women and to eliminate discrimination, it is imperative that the state accepts this obligation and withdraws the remaining reservations from CEDAW, which the government has committed to since 2004. This will make all actors, including the government, more responsible and accountable to women in realising their rights.
CIC-BD is a platform of 54 non-government human rights organisations working for full ratification and implementation of UNCEDAW Convention in Bangladesh.