Worldview Commentary No. 240 on Chicago Public Radio, 91.5 FM WBEZ

“Women’s Rights: First Case Under New UN Treaty”

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Some 182 nations – the United States is among only ten hold-outs — have now joined the United Nations Convention on Elimination of Discrimination against Women. In the quarter century since its adoption this treaty – infelicitously known as “CEDAW” – has proved useful in stimulating governments to reform discriminatory laws and to focus official attention on moving toward equality for women.

Like most laws ambitious enough to challenge entrenched biases, CEDAW rarely changes behavior directly or immediately. But by helping to change public consciousness, and by legitimizing the demands of groups fighting for equal rights, CEDAW undermines sexist practices indirectly. It undercuts discrimination gradually, but decidedly.

The treaty does not by terms prohibit domestic violence. However, the UN committee of women’s rights experts, who monitor how countries meet their obligations under CEDAW, interprets the treaty ban on discrimination “in all its forms” to cover domestic violence against women.

As a result, participating governments must act to curb domestic violence. Under the treaty they commit to take “all appropriate measures” to eliminate discrimination “by any person” – such as husbands who batter wives. Governments also agree to work to “modify the social and cultural patterns of conduct of men and women,” where based on prejudice or stereotypes, and to take steps to eliminate discrimination “in all matters relating to marriage and family relations.”

Until recently the only way the UN monitoring committee could push governments to live up to these promises was through a process of reports and oversight hearings. Governments must submit detailed reports on what they have done, by law and practice, to fight discrimination. Women’s groups and others are invited to submit “shadow reports,” which often unmask the typically upbeat government reports.

The CEDAW monitoring committee then holds public hearings. After politely grilling the government representatives, the committee makes recommendations for improvements. Since governments are usually represented at these hearings by their top officials in charge of women’s or family issues, the committee’s message is heard.

Recently the committee has been given a new tool – an optional protocol by which participating governments agree to allow victims to complain to the committee in individual cases. The committee hears both sides and publishes its “views,” which make findings of fact and recommendations for redress.

So far 77 CEDAW member countries have also joined the optional protocol. Last year, in a case against Hungary, the committee issued its first “view” on the merits of a case.

The case was brought by an allegedly battered wife who chose to be identified publicly only as Ms. “A.T.” According to her complaint, confirmed in large part by the reply of the Hungarian government, this mother of two children, one of whom is severely brain damaged, has been regularly beaten by her common law husband for four years. Doctors issued ten medical certificates to document the beatings, one of which left her hospitalized for a week with a serious kidney injury.

Although her tormentor moved out of the family apartment, he returned at least twice, kicking in the door, and still threatens to kill A.T. and to rape their children.

Until she complained to the CEDAW committee, the Hungarian government, police and courts had done little to protect Ms. A.T. The country has no law authorizing courts to issue temporary orders of protection for battered wives. Nor does it have shelters to accommodate a woman and two children, one of whom is disabled.

Although the hospital brought criminal proceedings and a fine was imposed on her husband, he was never detained, and the state did nothing to protect her from him. On the contrary, after she changed the locks, a court in Budapest authorized her husband to return and use the apartment. His battering was not sufficiently proved, the court ruled, and his property right to use the apartment could not be restricted.

Once she complained to the CEDAW committee, Hungary’s national Office for Equal Opportunities got involved. It retained a lawyer experienced in cases of domestic violence to represent her, and persuaded the local government’s child care office to take measures to protect the children. But letters from the national office asking local officials to take further steps went unanswered.

One year ago the CEDAW committee issued its views. It recommended that Hungary protect not only Ms. A.T. and her children, but also victims of domestic violence generally. It urged Hungary to adopt a law authorizing courts to issue orders of protection and exclusion of wife beaters from the family home, and to provide support services, including shelters for battered women and their children.

Although the government proposed such a law, it failed as of August 2005 to pass in parliament, reportedly because of concerns about the property rights of men. By that same month, the newsletter, “Women’s enews,” reported that Ms. A.T. told its correspondent that her personal situation was unchanged, except that her husband stopped harassing her after she asked a friend to act as her bodyguard.

CEDAW’s first individual case, then, was not exactly a triumph. But the committee did right by women. And sooner or later, when Hungary improves its laws to protect battered women, part of the credit will go to CEDAW. Human rights treaties do not work miracles, but they can help to spur improvements.


Doug Cassel’s commentaries are broadcast Wednesdays during the noon hour of the Worldview program on Chicago Public Radio, 91.5 FM. Views expressed are personal views of the author and not necessarily those of Notre Dame Law School, the Center for Civil and Human Rights or Chicago Public Radio.