Many of us are signing up for self-taught crash courses on law and treaties. With terms like “optional protocol” floating around, we have to become on-the-spot legal experts or lose track of key debates. The demystification of professional language is absolutely necessary, even desirable, when it comes to issues like violence against women. The Optional Protocol of the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) can enhance women’s political presence only after it has been unfolded from UN baggage and made to fit the average person.
As I understand it, the document gives women a means to enforce CEDAW with a procedure for complaints. I found that many of my friends shared my misconceptions. When I first heard about the Optional Protocol, I was quite confused. My first question was: what is optional about the Optional Protocol? I assumed that it would be a useful “escape” clause, allowing governments to qualify their commitments to CEDAW’s provisions and make it less binding, otherwise optional. In fact, this is way off the mark. The document is supposed to give CEDAW bigger teeth.
I also misunderstood the use of protocol in this instance. I assumed that it would contain significant statements about the importance of women’s rights. Wrong again. Much to my surprise, the document was almost entirely about the rules by which complaints can be lodged and how to respond.
Below are some lessons that I have learned about the Optional Protocol:
Lesson #1: Governments that have signed and ratified CEDAW have the option of adopting this additional process. Signing the Optional Protocol was a sign of sincerity and opened the way to self-criticism. It would also grant a higher enforcement influence to the Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) and more weight to the words of the CEDAW document.
Lesson #2: The Optional Protocol is not about new rights. It is about how to make violations known. It describes who can file, how to do it properly, and other such operational details. Individual women or possibly groups may take their own governments to task and make their cases known to the CSW.
Lesson #3: Since the Optional Protocol is subordinate to CEDAW, only those countries that have signed and ratified the convention will be allowed to sign onto this portion. Unfortunately, this means that there is no possibility that the United States will be a party to this document. This is a loss for American advocates to end violence against women and girls.
Lesson #4 is yet to be learned. That lesson is how to finance, manage, and respond quickly to a barrage of cases. With the majority of the world’s poor women deprived of the rights to adequate food, safe water, and clean environment, the complaints concerning economic rights alone should create an instant backlog.
With this in mind, it is essential that governments provide funding for human rights education on how to access national and regional mechanisms before reaching the CSW. In the long run, human rights should not be the sole responsibility of the legal systems but part of good global citizenship.