Upholding women’s rights at the United Nations

Upholding women’s rights at the United Nations

July 17, 2018

By Jackie Blue, Equal Employment Opportunities Commissioner.

I arrived in Geneva for an appearance at the CEDAW Committee on 7 July after a 26-hour nonstop journey from Auckland. I was feeling quite upbeat that I had travelled so well until I realised I had left my laptop and phone on the train on the way to the hotel. It would be three long days and $120 later before I was to be reunited with my lost devices. But it became an opportunity. I had to use the computer in the hotel’s business centre and was forced to learn how to use Google Docs. I am now a fan.

The reason for my journey? It was to attend the CEDAW* Committee’s examination of New Zealand on how our government is upholding women’s rights. The Committee last looked at New Zealand in 2012. The opportunity to participate in this process happens only once in an EEO/Women’s Rights Commissioner’s term. 

In the months leading up to CEDAW, the Human Rights Commission consulted widely on what the key human rights issues are for New Zealand women.  We had to compress these complex issues into a 3,000-word document which meant that the context and details were lost. When we arrived we just had three days before the examination to lobby and provide the context for the Committee members on our priority issues. 

To their benefit, many New Zealand NGOs had arrived early to attend a training programme on how to lobby the CEDAW Committee and advance their issues 

We were able to attend a key meeting with Professor Ruth Halperin-Kaddari, who was appointed by the CEDAW Committee as the Rapporteur for the New Zealand examination.  She is a Family Law Professor from Israel. Her mind was terrifyingly sharp, absorbing the often complex issues like blotting paper and relentlessly firing back questions to us till she understood an issue in a truly three-dimensional way. There is no doubt that New Zealand struck gold when Ruth was appointed as Rapporteur for New Zealand.

On 9 July the CEDAW Committee held an open session for NGO’s and National Human Rights Institutes. I gave a speech outlining some of the recommendations in the Human Rights Commission’s report on key issues including gender-based violence, inequality in the labour market for market, the need to close the gender pay gap, legislate for pay equity, have temporary special measures to achieve equality for women in leadership roles, deal with systemic issues of sexual harassment in the workplace, update anti-trafficking and worker exploitation measures. I also endorsed the Backbone Collective’s recommendation that the Special Rapporteur on Violence against Women be invited to New Zealand to investigate the impact of family court decisions and apportionment of legal aid on victims of violence.

Examination day for New Zealand was 12 July. The Parliamentary Under-Secretary for sexual and family violence, Jan Logie, led the Government delegation. She was, according to the CEDAW Committee members, a breath of fresh air compared to some of the other Government heads of delegation they have dealt with.

One by one the articles of CEDAW came up for review and the CEDAW member in charge got busy and fired questions off to the Government. It was clear that they had read all the submissions and listened to us. We gave a mental fist pump when our priority issues came up as targeted questions to the Government - and there were many! But it will be as Ruth who I will forever remember as the champion for women in New Zealand. 

Over the five hours of examination no stone was left unturned. It was intense and draining and we were just the bystanders. The Government delegation answered the best that they could but with a minority of responses there was a bit of ducking and diving going on. Very rarely did they resort to the “we will get back to you with a written response”. They had a decent and honest response to most of the questions. Then it was finished. 

We felt proud of the way Jan handled herself. We were proud of the CEDAW Committee who had fired the bullets we gave them. We were all in awe of Ruth in her ability to frame her concerns and questions which went to the heart of the issue. She held the Government firmly to account when their response was less than adequate.

After Jan finished speaking, we all stood up and sang Te Aroha, a tribute to her in taking this work on with a clear intention to move the women of Aotearoa forward towards equality. The CEDAW Committee were stunned at our response, but it was symbolic of the feeling in the room from all the women representing New Zealand that we are all on this journey together. It was so appropriate.

The day felt very special. I believe that the New Zealand women have been well served by this process and we now await the Committee’s recommendations. Then it will be up to the NGOs and the Human Rights Commission to hold the Government to account to ensure the recommendations are enacted for the benefit of all women in New Zealand.

* The CEDAW Committee is the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) is the body of independent experts that monitors implementation of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women. There are 16 key articles which cover the economic, social, cultural, civil and political rights of women in relation to all aspects of life. CEDAW Committee consists of 23 experts on women’s rights from around the world.