International Women’s Day is often a sobering reminder of the systemic challenges women face and examples of the global gender gap in politics, pay, and prospects. Challenges which have been exacerbated by the current COVID-19 pandemic.
Scotland though, provided some welcome news in March 2021. After the impending Scottish parliamentary elections in May 2021, Holyrood (Scotland’s parliament) aims to enshrine the United Nations Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) into Scot’s Law as part of the New Human Rights Bill. If this happens, Scotland will become the first UK nation to integrate CEDAW into national law.
Attempts to incorporate the Convention have previously met resistance in the other UK nations. This article will examine how Scotland has prioritised CEDAW’s implementation and how CEDAW is a hopeful step towards a safer Scotland for its inhabitants.
What is CEDAW?
Born out of the second wave of western feminism, CEDAW is an international treaty adopted by the UN General Assembly in 1979 and instituted in 1981. CEDAW is termed the bill of rights for women. Whilst the International Bill of Human Rights (adopted in 1948) laid out the human rights that every person is entitled to, “the fact of women’s humanity proved insufficient to guarantee them the enjoyment of their internationally agreed rights”.
From the 1960s, a growing awareness of injustices towards women, propelled organisations and activists to argue that the Human Rights Bill did not offer enough protection and support to women. CEDAW emerged from this dissatisfaction.
CEDAW has 30 articles, grouped into categories that deal with specific elements such as: sex stereotypes, respect for women’s work in the informal economy, and women’s political representation. It is the most comprehensive framework for supporting women and advancing their societal position to date. Out of the UN’s 195 recognised (and observer) countries, 189 countries have signed and ratified the Convention, two (the Vatican City and the USA) have signed but not ratified the Convention, and the remaining countries have neither signed nor ratified CEDAW.
Countries that ratify CEDAW are legally bound to incorporate it into national law; which should enable the “aims and principles of international standards” to benefit citizens. Countries also need to submit national reports, at least every four years, outlining the measures they have introduced to support the Convention’s articles.
Challenging Times: CEDAW’s Reception in the UK
The UK has signed and ratified CEDAW. However, it has not yet been incorporated into national law. As Dr. Sandra Fredman, from the University of Oxford, highlights, “since the UK has a dualist system of international law, treaties are not binding unless” integrated into national legislation.
The CEDAW Committee has consistently encouraged the UK to incorporate the Convention. Their argument has mainly focused on the fact that the UK law does not sufficiently protect women and their rights as it currently stands. The CEDAW Committee, as recently as 2019, has bolstered this argument through examples such as the Equality Act 2010 failing to “protect women from discrimination, including intersecting forms of discrimination” and cuts to Legal Aid, as well as additional criteria to gain access to Legal Aid, negatively “impact on women’s access to justice and effective remedies in areas such as family, housing, immigration and welfare benefits law.”
The Convention remains largely unknown in the UK. This lack of recognition is also evident in many women’s groups, who advocate for the government to tackle systemic discrimination against women. One of the CEDAW Committee’s recommendations in 2008 was that the UK takes active measures to make it “widely known amongst the general public and all branches of Government”. Without knowledge of CEDAW, and the benefits it intends to provide, it is impossible to advocate for its need.
Every government that has led the UK since 1979 has rejected implementing the Convention. Fredman has also noted that tackling the systemic issues and the consequences of measures like austerity, which disproportionately affect women, have not been considered cause for concern by Conservative or Labour governments.
Matters are further complicated by the internal politics of the UK nations. Each of the four nations: England, Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales, have their own national law (although Wales does not have a separate legal jurisdiction from England). The Northern Irish government, Stormont, have come into conflict with CEDAW, particularly over abortion rights. In 2018, a CEDAW Committee report deemed the Northern Irish abortion ban as “gender-based violence against women” and reported that it was contradictory to CEDAW. Whilst abortion is now legal in Northern Ireland, the DUP, the majority party in Stormont, believes that legalising the procedure violated the Good Friday Agreement. Now, they are bitterly fighting to ban abortion again.
In England and Wales, abortion is not an issue. However, there is not a strong incentive to incorporate CEDAW into law. Many of the leading feminist groups have looked towards the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) instead. The UK, as a member of the Council of Europe, is bound to the ECHR that protects the rights of citizens in Europe and gives assurance that they can appeal human rights abuses at the European Court of Human Rights. The ECHR should also be incorporated into national law. Thus, with the English and Welsh governmental and women’s rights focus on the ECHR, CEDAW is often overlooked. This means very few expert bodies advocate for its benefits.
The eighth periodic report (in 2019) that the UK handed to the CEDAW Committee appeared the most hopeful yet. It was the largest delegate response in recent history, with around 40 NGOs from the four UK nations. However, in 2021, CEDAW has still not been implemented. There is no suggestion from Westminster that this is changing any time soon.
Scotland’s Socialist Approach
Scotland has broken the mold. Whilst the UK, as a whole, has disregarded CEDAW, Scotland has not. In 2018, Professor Alan Miller published a report outlining ways Scotland could expand human rights and equality. After the report, Holyrood established the National Taskforce for Human Rights Leadership. The taskforce outlined 30 recommendations for Scotland in March 2021. Recommendation 3 was that CEDAW is incorporated into Scot’s Law.
The taskforce is made up of the public, civil servants, NGOs, activist groups, academic experts, and UN representation. This wide-ranging group embodies various opinions and approaches to determine what Scotland’s future needs. Unlike the feminist and women’s group in England and Wales, Scotland’s feminist and women’s groups have promoted CEDAW.
Unlike ECHR, CEDAW is an official framework in which women’s rights are central. ECHR is a comprehensive human rights convention, and it talks about humans as equals. But as the founders of CEDAW highlighted, this intrinsic equality was not enough to secure women’s support and protection. Scottish feminist groups have reiterated this key point throughout the years and have argued for CEDAW’s need over ECHR incorporation.
Engender, Scotland’s leading feminist group, has been lobbying for CEDAW’s incorporation for several years. They have organised workshops, written extensively about CEDAW and implementation, as well as cooperating with Holyrood. Engender has also campaigned for other measures that have aided women. One recent example is The Period Products (Free Provision) (Scotland) Bill.
While feminist organisations in Scotland have consistently advocated for CEDAW, the Convention’s potential introduction into Scot’s Law also fits well with the more socialist agenda that Scotland adopted since Devolution in 1997, which particularly favours public health.
Scotland was the first UK country to introduce a raft of public health measures to make Scotland safer. Two examples are banning smoking in public and introducing a ban on physical punishment of children. Scotland’s parliament is also notably supportive of women’s representation and protection. Between 2015-2017, all the major Scottish political parties were led by women. The introduction of CEDAW, alongside the other recommendations supported by Holyrood, is part of a pattern of behaviour.
The aligning of feminist groups, and the receptive nature of Holyrood towards human rights and public health, has allowed CEDAW to advance to its current stage. This union has enabled women’s rights to be considered a key issue, as opposed to a secondary concern in Scotland.
Sowing the Seeds for Change
Considering Scotland’s past successes and the welcome reception of CEDAW, the prospect of its incorporation into Scot’s Law after the May 2021 elections looks promising. Whilst CEDAW’s implementation will be a future success for Scotland, there is a strong chance that Holyrood’s decision will lay the foundations for CEDAW’s incorporation in the other UK nation’s laws. Historically, when Scotland has successfully implemented actions like the smoking ban and free period products, the other nations have followed.
In March 2006, Scotland introduced the smoking ban; by April 2007, Wales and Northern Ireland introduced the ban, and in July 2007, so did England. A similar pattern occurred in 2020 with the free period products. England and Wales have adopted a plan, and Northern Ireland now has a pilot scheme underway. There is hope, therefore, for the future of CEDAW across the UK.
Whilst it remains to be seen what will happen after the Scottish parliamentary elections, the UK has witnessed a hopeful development for the realisation of women’s rights within its territory.
The views, thoughts, and opinions expressed in this article belong solely to the author, and do not reflect the views of Conversationally Speaking Magazine
Phoebe is an International Master’s student of Central and East European, Russian and Eurasian studies between the University of Glasgow, Tartu University, and Jagiellonian University. Her Master’s dissertation, is about Slovakia’s President Zuzana Čaputová and women’s participation in Slovak politics. Phoebe's research interests include modern Native faiths, women’s rights and women in politics, and Central and Eastern Europe. Currently, she is based in Scotland.