Our visit to Geneva to attend the 66th session of CEDAW began on Friday 10th February 2017, as we started with a meeting with Anna-Therese McGivern from UPR-info. Here we gained an understanding of the process of peer review used at the UN, and the various forms of preparation material and technology that UPR-info provides to enable this platform for human rights work to run smoothly. We were then joined by Mohinda, who shared with us both her work, and personal experience, regarding forced marriage. Meeting someone with first-hand experience immediately put into perspective some of the issues we were discussing. We then headed to the UK mission to the UN in Geneva to meet Chris Lomax, a Secretary of Human Rights. This meeting gave us an insight into the more diplomatic approach taken by government officials in comparison to the more informal exchange with NGOs.
Our weekend was predominantly spent getting to know Geneva, by visiting the Botanical Gardens, walking by the lake, going ice skating and climbing to the top of St. Peter’s Cathedral for a fantastic rooftop view of the city. We did not, however, forget the purpose of our trip as our weekend included a breakfast meeting with Mohinda, Nicola Spafford Furey from Earth Focus and Mahmud Samandari from EBBF, as well as time spent on preparing our presentations.
On Monday CEDAW officially began. The opening ceremony included declarations by members of the Committee in regards to their achievements towards the work of CEDAW over the last few years. After filling our spare time with a visit to the Human Rights Council and a meeting with Daniela Buchmann from the CEDAW Secretariat, we returned to witness the committee’s meeting with NGOs. At this point, NGOs from the four different states briefed the committee on their perspective of their country’s progress and outlined their main areas of concern. For example, some areas of focus included the protection of internally displaced women in Ukraine, criminalisation of abortion in Ireland and El Salvador, and the rights of refugees in Jordan.
The next day the detailed review of the countries began, beginning with Ukraine, and we gained our first experience of the insightful and constructive questioning procedure that was to continue for the rest of the week. In the space of 5 hours the Committee addressed issues from human trafficking and domestic violence to LGBT rights and the participation of women in politics and peace negotiation. The question and answer system was concise and focused, allowing us to immediately witness the level of scrutiny that is catered for by the structure of the CEDAW articles.
On Wednesday we returned for the review of Ireland. Main areas of interest for this day’s 5 hours of discussion included criminalised abortion, the rights of Traveller and Roma women, and the problem of women living in poverty that has been exacerbated by recent austerity. In the morning I had the good fortune of meeting a woman from Rape Crisis Ireland, who gave me further insight into the work of NGOs at the UN by allowing me to manage their twitter account during the session.
The same format was repeated on Thursday for the review of Jordan. As the country with the second largest intake of refugees in the world, Jordan faced problems very different to those we’d previously heard about. The protection of these refugees, including provisions for women’s economic independence, preventing violence, ensuring access to justice, and clarified rights to citizenship gained particular attention, along with consideration for cultural attitudes and practices that were potentially inhibiting the state’s progress. During lunchtime we also managed to squeeze in a visit to the Red Cross Museum, giving us a different perspective of responses to humanitarian crises.
Our final day at CEDAW was spent attending the review of El Salvador. Although seemingly a state with very progressive intentions, it soon became clear that gang culture, human trafficking and high rates of violence are currently effective barriers to progress in El Salvador. Reproductive rights were also a pertinent issue, with some of the strictest possible regulations over abortion and harsh punishments, coupled with astonishing rates of rape and teenage pregnancy. During out final exploration of the Palais des Nations, we came across the UN library, where we were lucky enough to land a guided tour around the safes, and see with our own eyes the original documents from the Nuremburg Trials and part of the Magna Carta, whilst passing by the Treaty of Versailles and essentially the entire history of the League of Nations n the form of official documentation.
Throughout this process we also had the opportunity to produce and present our own reports on UN work to various different people, including to a Human Rights Officer in the original building used by the League of Nations. Our understanding of this international platform grew explosively over the week in Geneva, as well as our confidence to participate in all forms of work furthering rights for women on a global scale, making it an invaluable experience that I would happily recommend to anyone with even the slightest bit of curiosity.