This presentation aims to highlight the situation of female headed households, albeit briefly. In a largely patriarchal world, the female headed household, and in particular the widow demographic, is underappreciated and underutilised, despite forming around a quarter of households globally*. For the purpose of this presentation, we can define widows as those women whose husbands have passed away and also include de facto widows, whose husbands have disappeared or not returned from conflict, or are missing due to internal or external displacement. The presentation shall focus on case studies from Rwanda, Ukraine and Sri Lanka.
On a personal level, an example of this would be my own mother. Around five years ago, she was left a widow, and in a short space of time she felt her support network dwindling as she became an increasingly isolated single parent. In addition, she found it difficult to work, as the responsibility for her two children fell entirely on her. Thankfully, she was able to restore her own confidence and find success both at home and within her career, but it must have been a lonely, and frightening situation, and may not have been possible if she hadn’t had the luck of finding help from caring friends, as well as a sense of community. Seeing her struggle and her strength in this situation first hand helps me to recognise how being left a widow can provide seemingly insurmountable challenges. This situation is exacerbated in cultures where the wife is considered property of a male, and passed from father to husband, so when he dies she has no place in society, or when widows are young due to forced and early marriage, yet widows and female headed households can be empowered and create change when allowed to thrive in a supportive environment.
When discussing this topic on a larger scale, there are many challenges facing widows that my mother did not encounter. For example, the 1994 genocide in Rwanda left 70% of the population as women and girls**, and currently 31% of households are headed by females*** . The spread of HIV/AIDS, and the use of rape as a weapon of war, also meant that older women had to step forwards in order to raise children and rebuild the country after the chaos and horror of the genocide.**** While these circumstances are horrific, they also created dramatic social change. The systems of the country were essentially rebuilt*****, and this created opportunity for capable women to gain power within government and other Rwandan institutions, as well as within households. For example, Rose Kabuye was immediately appointed as Mayor of Kigali, Rwanda’s capital city, and the proportions of women in Parliament have changed drastically: 64% of MPs are women, compared to 17% in 1990******. Rwanda did actually introduce quotas in 2003 for 30% of governmental positions to be taken by women, as encouraged by CEDAW Articles 4 and 7, and they have completely surpassed this goal. Networks for other widows, rape survivors and parentless children also grew out of the violence, such as ABASA (or We are all the same)*******, a group made up of 60 survivors of the genocide who had all been victimes of rape. While women’s rights issues still exist in Rwanda, efforts in these fields are commendable.
However, other countries with high proportions of female headed households do not necessarily also have a high proportion of women in governmental positions. For example, Ukraine is comprised of 49.4% female headed households*, yet only 12% of the seats in their national Parliament are held by women**. Ukraine committed to getting 30% of women in Parliamentary seats by 2015 in the Millenium Development Declaration in compliance with CEDAW Articles 4 and 7, yet this quota was not reached. Another example of women’s employment rights seemingly being of low priority can be seen in Ukraine’s last UPR, where the recommendation about temporary special measures was one of two relating to women’s rights not approved. Ukraine is falling short in meeting Articles 4 and 11 of CEDAW, by failing to meet or create quotas relating to women in employment. This correlates with the lack of governmental support for widows and female single parents, especially in recent years of austerity where women are disproportionately affected by cuts in public spending, and notably rural women, where Ukraine falls behind in complying with Article 14 of CEDAW.
The wage gap in Ukraine remains at around 25%, although few statistics are disaggregated, which makes it difficult to identify these issues. It seems that, unlike Rwanda, the same provisions for women do not exist*** that allow support for those with children, or are widowed; recent austerity measures have meant that childcare provisions are being cut even further, meaning it is difficult for these women to work and support themselves and their families, also contributing to higher poverty rates for female headed households. As well as this, households headed by LGBT couples are not provided the same legal protections that are available to heterosexual couples, and the maternal rights of non-biological mothers in LGBT couples are not protected in that if the biological mother passes away there are no ties between the remaining parent and child, another area where female headed households face discrimination from the government.
There is little publicly available information on NGOs or social services in Ukraine working specifically with female headed households or widows , which indicates a challenge for those women in the Ukraine seeking help or information. It appears these services may not be sufficiently available to provide support and help initiate social change. Therefore, the importance of support for women, especially in areas experiencing high levels of conflict such as Rwanda and Ukraine, to empower female heads of households , is evident.
The trend shown in Ukraine of low support for female headed households relating to low rates of women in employment is also shown in other countries, such as Sri Lanka. Around a quarter of households are female headed, yet women’s participation in politics is at less than 6%. While Act No. 1 of 2016 has established a 25% quota system, it only extends to local authorites and not to Parliament and other political bodies, and also means that as a list system is submitted by political parties, women can be more easily exploited as the parties can move female candidates further down lists so, due to proportional representation they are unlikely to be successful in the election. As well as this, no temporary special measures have been taken that prioritise helping women, and notably female headed households with children, affected by conflict after the civil war, all issues under Article 4 of CEDAW. The apparent correlation between progress towards gender equality and support for female headed households means increased childcare and economic provisions are urgently required.
In conclusion, as when the CEDAW committee found inheritence law in Tanzania was in violation of women’s rights in the landmark case of 2012, the committee can make a huge difference in the lives of these widows and female heads of households. By recommending State Parties to implement further temporary special measures and legislation relating to childcare and encouraging female heads of households to take more active roles in employment, CEDAW, with support from NGOs and from the law, both de jure and de facto, can empower this underutilised demographic to help create real social change.
Geneva Trip Report
When my alarm woke me at 2:30AM on the Friday morning, the sheer scale of our CEDAW trip struck me, and I finally began to truly realise what the week ahead might bring. After an uneventful flight, and dropping our bags off at the hotel, during which time my nerves kicked into overdrive, we went down to the UN buildings and picked up our CEDAW passes (including a minor scare due to a typo in the spelling of my name). Then, we visited the UPR (Universal Periodic Review) offices in order to learn more about this system within the UN, which was fascinating. We also discussed child marriage with Dr. Mohinder Watson, who gave an insight into these issues on a more personal level to bring context into change that the UN tries to create. After this, we visiting the UK mission in Geneva, and were able to discuss many topical issues relating to women’s rights, and the UK’s positions and involvement with international relations. All in all, it was a very interesting day, and provided a wealth of opportunities for learning, and CEDAW had not even yet started.
Saturday was a more relaxed day, which we started by visiting the botanical gardens in Geneva, which was wonderful. We then came across Lake Geneva, and its waters, which are almost shockingly clear. Being more used to the Thames, it was surprising not to see a layer of scum, but instead see ripples on the water that looked like bottle glass. As well as this, we stumbled across The History of Science Museum in Geneva, where there was a fascinating exhibition named ‘t’es ou?’ which involved lots of information on the past of scientific instruments relating to position in the world, such as cartography and the like. After that, it was back to the hotel for the three of us NAWO youth delegates (the others being Nina Perry and Amelia Haslett) to work our presentations. Mine was about female headed households, their value and under utilisation within societies around the world, and how CEDAW can make a positive impact in regards to supporting these women. It was inspiring to think that, even in some small way, our week in Geneva may impact positive social change within the world.
Sunday was another busy day, and as informative as ever. We started the day off with a ‘business breakfast’ meeting, and spoke to a member of ebbf (ethical business building the future), Mahmud Samandari, as well as the Founder and President of Action on Child, Early & Forced Marriage and independent Research Consultant Dr. Mohinder Watson, and Vice President of the Earth Focus Foundation, Nicola Spafford Furey. The discussion around the table was very interesting: education, compromise, opposition, and so forth… Then, after visiting the Russian Orthodox Church, we headed on to the Museum of Art History, another useful and enjoyable experience. Also, we climbed to the top of the North and South towers of Saint Peter’s Cathedral, a moment of personal growth overcoming my fear of heights! We also had a very pleasant lunch at a place in the University Quarter, and dinner with Guilmette, who works with the BIC (Baha’i International Community).
Monday marked the beginning of the 66th Session of CEDAW ,and so we attended our first ever UN session. On this day, it was the turn of the NGOs to discuss what they thought about the countries under review in relation to their work on women’s rights. It was surprising just how intense listening can be; by the end of the day, we were all exhausted. It was fascinating to learn about women’s rights issues from the perspective of the NGOs, and how constructive as well as collaborative their work can be. It would later also become interesting to compare this to the sessions involving governmental representatives throughout the rest of the week. I learnt a lot more about issues in four of the countries CEDAW are looking at during the 66th session (El Salvador, Ireland, Jordan and Ukraine), and different ways being proposed to tackle them.
On Tuesday, CEDAW held the Eighth Periodic Report of Ukraine. Major recurring topics under discussion were LGBT rights and women in areas of conflict. The format of the day was essentially a 30-minute speech from the head of delegation outlining what advances had been made for women’s rights in Ukraine, and then a series of question and answer sessions between the panel and the delegation, going through all of the articles of the convention. It immediately became clear that the government wanted to appear as if they were doing all kinds of wonderful things to advance the rights of women, which was not in conjunction with the reports from the NGOs on Monday. This would become a recurring theme of the week.
The Sixth and Seventh Combined Periodic Reports of Ireland then followed on Wednesday. The topics most frequently discussed were the rights of Roma and traveller women, abortion laws, changes to laws on prostitution and the government’s acknowledgment of past wrongdoing in relation to symphysiotomies and the Magdalene Laundries. Failure to ratify different conventions (e.g. the Istanbul Convention) was also brought into the discussion, as well as necessary changes to legislation such as using gender neutral language in order to promote women’s rights. These legislation changes are often portrayed in the news, so witnessing part of the process in making these changes happen felt quite empowering.
On Thursday, it was the Sixth Periodic Report of Jordan. The issue of refugees in Jordan was by far the most discussed topic; questions about discrimination against Palestinian refugees in regards to services available, due to their ‘statelessness’, was also raised. The delegation stated that this only happens in rare cases, and the majority of the time all refugees and not just those from Syria are offered the same help. The delegation of Jordan seemed quite unique in that rather than claiming they had done a lot of amazing work with and for NGOs, they instead acknowledged the importance of these organisations and thanked them for their help. The delegation also discuessed quotas relating to women in Parliament. They said that while they do want increased numbers of women in Parliamentary positions, they also want to work on producing a larger number of qualified women with the capacity for these positions before they can do so effectively. The Committee seemed understanding of the Jordan delegation in ways they had not perhaps been for the other governments, as they recognised the challenges Jordan faces as it hosts so many refugees,
Friday was our last day, so unfortunately we could only stay for the morning session from El Salvador. The issue that really came to the fore was that of El Salvador’s extremely strict abortion laws. On Monday, a woman named Guadalupe told her tragic story; she was raped as an underage girl, and became pregnant. After suffering a miscarriage, she was reported to the authorities for having an abortion, and was given a life sentence in jail. Thankfully, the NGO she attended CEDAW with managed to secure her release, but she was imprisoned for seven years before they could do so, and there are countless other women who have suffered and are suffering in the same way. This story was very effective, as it served as a reminder that the issues being discussed do very much impact women in a real way, and we should all strive to help stop these awful violations of rights.
After leaving Room 16 and the 66th session, we walked down to the UN library and League of Nations Museum. We were then both surprised and delighted to receive an unexpected tour. This involved seeing documents from the Nuremburg Trials, a copy of the Pax Romana and Magna Carta, and being in the same room as the Treaty of Versailles. To feel that close to such momentous occasions of the past really brought my experiences here at the UN into sharper perspective; we are witnesses to history both already existing, and to history being made.
Finally, we made our way to Palais Wilson to give our presentations. Seeing all of the people who work so hard to create positive social change made me feel as if I, too, could do my bit, and so I felt much more confident in speaking on my issue of female headed households. This week truly was an amazing experience, as it gave me a glimpse into the real work being done on a global scale so as to better ourselves as a species, and also improved my own self-confidence as a public speaker and in my own ability to get involved.