By Grace Pattison

CEDAW: To fight against or collaborate with culture?

There are many definitions and aspects of culture; Kroeber and Kluchhohn synthesised these to form a useful, overall definition: “Culture consists of patterns, explicit and implicit, of an for behaviour acquired and transmitted by symbols, constituting the distinctive achievements of human groups, including their embodiments in artifacts; the essential core of culture consists of tradition (i.e., historically derived and selected) ideas and especially their attached values; culture systems may, on the one hand, be considered as products of action, on the other as condition elements of further action.”

Culture plays one of the most important roles in translating gender norms created by the international community into regional and national norms. But is this role in opposition to or enhancement of achieving gender equality? This blog will examine the significance of culture in implementing the United Nations Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW). This particular international Convention is commonly equated to an “international bill of rights for women” and even a “Magna Carta for women”.  One hundred and eighty-nine out of one hundred and ninety-three member states have ratified the Convention, making it the United Nations (UN) treaty with the most ratifications.


CEDAW, Member States & Culture

The Convention was adopted by the United Nations General Assembly in 1979 and entered into force in 1981 after decades of planning and mobilising in an aim to unify a global effort against gender discrimination. Particularly noteworthy is the treaty’s overt prioritisation of absolute rights of women over cultural customs and practices, which had not been so explicitly seen before, as observed most poignantly in Article 2(f);

“State Parties condemn discrimination against women in all its forms, agree to pursue by all appropriate means and without delay a policy of eliminating discrimination against women and, to this end, undertake:

(f) To take all appropriate measures, including legislation, to modify or abolish existing laws, regulations, customs and practices which constitute discrimination against women…” (emphasis added)

and Article 5(a);

“States Parties shall take all appropriate measures: To modify the social and cultural patterns of conduct of men and women, with a view to achieving the elimination of prejudices and customary and all other practices which are based on the idea of the inferiority or the superiority of either of the sexes or on stereotyped roles for men and women…” (emphasis added).

It was these articles that were often the motivations and causes of the many reservations that were submitted by the varying member states which is granted through Article 28. Reservations often included articles that addressed marriage, women’s freedom to choose their own residence and rights relating to the movement of persons as well as family planning. Member states including Algeria, Egypt, Lesotho, Libya, Mauritania and Niger submitted reservations due to “being at odds with Islamic Sharia law”, “religious reasons” or “being contrary to existing customs and practices”. Most recently, in April of this year, Sudan ratified the Convention but “declined to endorse the notion that women are equal with men at all political and social levels and have equal rights in marriage, divorce and parenting”. Furthermore, many of the country reports, required by the Convention to be submitted every four years, cite cultural traditions and long-standing practices as the predominant obstacle to achieving equality. After conducting six regional consultations in Africa, the Convention’s Committee concluded that “there remain serious barriers in respect to the full enjoyment of rights by women… as a result of patriarchal cultural norms”.


Scholarly Conceptualisations of Culture as a Barrier

In addition to member state governments and the Committee, many scholars argue that culture is the biggest hurdle to translating CEDAW’s norms into national contexts. Whilst many states have ratified the Convention and introduced new policies and legislation, such as increasing the minimum age for marriage or enshrining equality in constitutional revisions, the discrimination against women persists. So, are the varying cultures of the member states the most significant opposition to eliminating discrimination? Simmons highlights religious and cultural values as “difficult barriers to the full implementation of the CEDAW” despite eager ratifications,

“…women’s rights are highly conditioned by the strength and nature of a polity’s religious commitments. The statistical tests reveal that ratification of the CEDAW has consistently led to the most important improvements in more secular polities (in the area of girls’ access to education and women’s access to modern forms of birth control); in countries experiencing some degree of regime transition during the time period (access to education); and where the rule of law was well enough developed to make the courts a reasonably good bet for rights enforcement (girls’ access to education and women’s share of public employment).”

Simmons explains her findings to identify that, whilst women may be motivated to employ CEDAW, formal religion denies them the means to use the Convention to its full potential. El-Masri elaborates by arguing that, particularly in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA), “culture” has influenced how religious texts are interpreted by Muslim and Christian religious scholars to deny women their rights in states with official religions. She gives the example of domestic abuse: whilst “many MENA countries” have “passed domestic laws denouncing domestic abuse…they are generally not implemented as they should”. The gender biases of the religious courts and their judges are one element of this. El-Masri affirms that there are other significant flaws of CEDAW including its:

- “weak and vague provisions”

- “failure to address crucial violations of women’s rights in various parts of the world”

- “frail monitoring mechanisms to ensure the proper implementation of the convention”.

However, ultimately El-Masri concludes that it is the domestic cultural prejudices which motivate the governments and their societies to use these weaknesses not to actively eliminate discrimination against women.


Culture Itself is Not the Problem

However, these negative and static characterisations of culture are heavily criticised by other researchers, arguing that culture itself is not the biggest challenge. Instead, how CEDAW and its parties interact with and perceive culture is the most significant barrier to realising its aims nationally and internationally. Zwingel critiques the dichotomous global human rights discourse, which details “a normal-abiding international community of (liberal) states and a number of deviant (authoritarian) states that need to be socialised into desirable behaviour”. The former “provides a set of progressive norms to improve the backward cultural practices that discriminate against women”. She goes on to show how some of the methodologies of CEDAW impose international norms through this trickle-down approach which has consequently not effectively translated or been welcomed in domestic contexts.

Similarly, Merry proposes that the CEDAW Committee “has an old vision of culture as fixed, static and bounded”. This is “juxtaposed to a more modern understanding of culture as a process of continually creating new meanings and practices that are products of power relationships and open to contestation among members of the group and by outsiders”. Others add that the dichotomy between these two attitudes towards culture, represented in cultural relativism and universalism, “leaves no space for culture to change, creating a deadlock in dialogue”. Ultimately this deadlock has real world consequences, significantly affecting the advancement of women’s human rights. Furthermore, Bond argues the Convention does not focus sufficiently on the intersectionality of other forms of discrimination other than gender; such as ethnicity, sexual orientation or religion and particularly focuses on rights clashes in the context of varying cultures. Therefore whilst “the CEDAW Committee’s understanding of intersectionality theory and its impact on women around the world is evolving…the Committee still appears somewhat reductionist in its view of women as one-dimensional victims of custom and culture”.

Merry goes on to explain how the Convention was premised on and continues to operate in the culture of transnational modernity. She argues that the leaders of this framework of culture, as the opponent of reform, distance societies and minorities that are not represented at the global conference tables. Merry highlights the irony of this attitude and approach,

“The appeal of global modernity is reminiscent of the appeal of civilization during the era of empire. In the postcolonial era, the glamour of the modern is still juxtaposed to backward others, but now it includes those who are ‘developing’ but still burdened by culture. Transnational legal settings are producing culture, but it is a culture that relegates culture to the margins. The fight against ‘culture’ is a deeply cultural one”.


Culture as a Driving Force for Gender Equality

The above comparisons on the varying discourses of culture and gender equality within CEDAW allow us to see that the challenges of culture in translating international norms are real. However, it also shifts us away from the universalism versus cultural relativism dichotomy towards viewing culture as evolutionary and subsequently an effective mode of norm translation. But how can this be achieved? Zwingel provides the foundation of this question. She concludes that “the key to norm translation is that gender equality norms are, to the largest extent possible, cross-culturally negotiated rather than imposed”. Zwingel states that change should start from domestic mobilisation and that CEDAW’s “impact as an instrument is dependent on contextualised agency”.

 Merry affirms and expands upon this process by illuminating the success of transnational activists, feminist activists, social workers, academics and NGO leaders in their appropriation of global human rights frameworks and translation of them into their distinct situations. This process involves translating global ideas into local situations and then retranslating local ideas into global frameworks. This cyclical process can effectively “foster the gradual emergence of a local rights consciousness among grassroots people and greater awareness of national and local issues among global activists”. A good example of this is the alternate rites of passage which are being created and championed by local leaders of various tribes in East Africa to replace the practice of FGM without losing the cultural and communal significance of rites of passage or diminishing the roles of cultural leaders, elders and parents.  

Thus, it is these localised actors who are to be encouraged, resourced and celebrated to embody the nuanced appreciation of culture and its role in successfully translating norms between the local, national and international spheres. Global policy research finds that women’s autonomous organising within civil society are in fact the best actors of progressive political and policy change in regards to gender-based violence. These autonomous women actors are able to:

- articulate the social perspectives of marginalised groups,

- transform social practice,

- change public opinion and

- ultimately drive sweeping policy change through applying pressure through different actors and leading policy makers themselves to become sympathetic.

It is reported that this is often in fact more pivotal than women’s descriptive representation in legislature or political parties and economic factors. It is these groups who are key to catalysing norm translation which is then continually negotiated by them in partnership with other civic movements. Across the African continent, there are hundreds, if not thousands of such autonomous, women-led groups and actors, some of whom can be found here.


Therefore, to realise CEDAW’s norms, each state’s ratification and review process must neither dismiss nor impose upon culture but instead use it as the key to eliminate discrimination against women. Additionally, the international community’s conception of culture must be reviewed and diversified. Whilst this attitude shift and process may seem more arduous and require perhaps even more time, it is demonstrated to be the most effective mode for lasting, transformative change for gender equality.

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