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Underrepresentation of African Women in UN Human Rights Bodies.*

By: J. Jarpa Dawuni, Ph.D.

 


On October 20, 2020, the Institute for African Women in Law (IAWL) convened a regional high-level consultative meeting of experts, in conjunction with the Gender Equality Campaign (GQUAL), the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (UNHCR), and the American University Washington College of Law Academy of Human Rights and Humanitarian Law. The goal of the consultative meeting was to identify some of the major obstacles to gender parity on UN Human Rights Bodies and provide recommendations for addressing the identified challenges.


The findings from the consultative meeting contributed to the work of Professor Elizabeth Salmon Garate, Executive Director of the Institute for Democracy and Human Rights at the Pontifical Catholic University of Peru, who was charged by the UN Human Rights Council Advisory Committee to produce a final report on the underrepresentation of women in UN Human Rights Bodies.


The convening brought together experts across Africa, including past and current women judges on international courts, former diplomats, academics, and human rights activists, to discuss the state of gender diversity in UN Human Rights bodies from African perspectives. The dialogue generated rich data from the discussion of existing international treaties, norms, and practices, and how they affect the outcome of the nomination, and election of women to international bodies and treaties.


While the African context mirrored global trends in women’s under-representation on treaty bodies, the consensus from the panel of experts was that “when compared to men from the African continent, women from the African continent were underrepresented in the treaty bodies.” As of September 2021, Europe leads by the number of women at 27, followed by Africa at 18 and Australia comes in last with the lowest number of representatives at two. The purpose of this current discussion is to present the main findings from the report Gender Parity in UN Human Rights Bodies: A Regional Consultative Meeting.


What the Data Tell Us


Human rights treaty bodies play important roles in monitoring the implementation of international human rights treaties. Consisting of independent experts, these bodies monitor the implementation of treaty obligations by state parties to these treaties for their citizens’ enjoyment of their fundamental human rights. Considering the important roles these bodies play, there must be opportunities for the representation of a variety of expertise, voices, and lived experiences. Women are not a monolithic group, research has shown that women may possess peculiar experiences and lived realities that are critical in counterbalancing the dominant heteronormative voices long considered as the expert voices in international law.


An example of an attempt to address the heteronormativity, can be found in the Rome Statute (2002) that established the International Criminal Court (ICC). Article 36 (8)(a)(iii) provides that in the selection of judges, gender representation must be considered, in addition to the traditional requirements for expertise in international criminal law, and the need to have geographic representation.


Members of UN Human Rights Treaty Bodies are selected first through national nomination, then election at the UN. Given that the selection process mirrors the pattern used to election judges and other high officials in international courts and tribunals, it comes as no surprise that women are still treading water to gain adequate representation.


The data presented below provides evidence that women are still underrepresented in UN Human Rights bodies. A GQUAL report noted that the Committee on the Rights of the Child (CRC) and the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) are the only two UN Human Rights Treaty Bodies that have 50% or more women out of the 10 Bodies that exist. The lack of gender diversity among the remaining eight bodies undermines the legitimacy of the justice delivered from these treaty bodies, and requires a universal approach to address this gender gap.


Explaining the Underrepresentation of Women in Treaty Bodies

The panelists were in consensus that the underrepresentation of African women on treaty bodies mirrored the global pattern of women’s underrepresentation. However, when compared with the African regional body charged with monitoring human rights compliance, the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights (ACHPR), Africa leads all the world regions. For instance, as of September 2021, women account for five (56%) out of ten Commissioners on the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights (ACHPR). There are some lessons to be learned from the African context, a subject I cannot adequately address in this blog due to word constraints.


When it comes to Human Rights Bodies, women are still underrepresented, except for the two bodies-CEDAW and CRC. When compared to other regions, women from the Africa region have the highest representation on CRC (56%) for all women and surpass men by 71% of all African members. For the CMW African women make up 50% of all women, and 33% of African representation. Bodies without any African women represented include the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (CESCR) and the Committee on Enforced Disappearances (CED). As a total of all Africans represented on these bodies, women account for 40% (18 women compared to 27 men). While 40% appears close to parity, the number is high because women are overrepresented in the two bodies- CEDAW and CRC.


CEDAW has a gendered pattern of women being overly represented, while CRC has the only two women members coming from the Africa region. The factors explaining the outcomes of the gender stratification of these bodies is a subject for a future study. For now, we focus on what the data tell us at this time of writing, as presented below.

Table 1. African women’s representation on UN Human Rights Treaty Bodies:


Existing scholarship on the paucity of women in international bodies generally, point to endogenous and exogenous factors. Treaty bodies are not immune to some of the underlying factors explaining this paucity. The following summary sheds light on some of the factors for the poor representation of women.


Lack of information: The independent experts who sit on these treaty bodies must be nominated and elected by state parties. As a first step to the process, domestic nominations can be problematic if the vacancy is not widely advertised. One obstacle that was brought up repeatedly throughout the meeting was a lack of information regarding the availability of UN treaty body positions. Furthermore, there is a lack of information about the role of these treaty bodies and how they are structured. The burden of educating the public and potential candidates on these topics often fall on civil society organizations or non-governmental organizations. On the topic of information dispersion, participants noted that potential candidates may lack knowledge on “how to present their experiences and background.”


Gender-related issues: Some participants brought up obstacles that apply specifically to women, such as not applying for positions because they believe they are unqualified or being “concerned about the (unpaid) commitment that would divide their time even further.” Gender bias and “gender-based specialization” within the legal profession was also mentioned as an obstacle. When women get pigeonholed into certain legal specializations that are women-related, it may affect their decision to apply for a position in a treaty body that does not address “women’s issues.” This idea of pigeonholing is evident in that data where women account for 96% of members on CEDAW, and African women account for 100% of all Africans represented on that body. Additionally, when a member state is looking for applicants, the “standard pool of applicants” often comes from more male-dominated fields such as foreign affairs. Women often lack access to these boys’ networks, therefore, limiting their chances of being nominated.


Role of political actors: Political actors play a large role in how well women are represented in international bodies, depending on how involved they are in the nomination and election processes. If women are forgotten in the nomination process, they cannot get elected. Participants noted that “political actors have the power to give women access to information and nominations, but by maintaining the existing personal networks (of men) and rewarding political loyalty, women are unable to make those valuable connections.” Since potential nominees need government support, they need to be politically affiliated to the party in power, an arena that often has less women represented.


Regional and international support: Finally, as with all elections to international positions, candidates need international and regional support. Within the African context, for most elections to international bodies and organizations, the African Union (AU) uses a regional representation model to ensure that all regions have representation in international bodies. One participant noted that “if a subregion is not unified and a woman candidate is seen as “controversial”, a strong male candidate will be pitted against her, greatly diminishing her chances of continuing in the race.”


Suggestions for Fixing the Problem

  1. Transparent processes: To address the issue of poor information dispersion, “participants recommended broader and more public advertising of UN openings”. In addition, they urged CSOs to increase their advertising activity “and to even reach into their networks to find candidates.”

  2. Quotas: Participants suggested using a quota system, not only to improve geographic representation, but gender representation as well.

  3. Transparent screening: Participants suggested that institutionalized screening would help increase the number of women members in the treaty bodies, as well as the use of a “transparent and merit-based” voting process at the election stage.

  4. Gender-inclusive processes: One participant mentioned including “policies that cater to family life” as a way of making women feel more confident in applying.

  5. Personal agency matters: Participants also noted the importance of women expanding their personal political networks. Adopting a proactive approach would benefit them. Additionally, having women in positions of power mentor “those with less experience” would increase the pool of qualified woman candidates who feel confident in applying for positions in these treaty bodies.

  6. Political will: National governments also need to “give women access to government positions”, as these government positions would “prepare them for treaty body participation”.

  7. Body of experts: Governments, and civil society organizations should create a database of qualified women experts “that lists qualifications and specializations”, and provide ongoing training, networking opportunities and career development, to prepare women for international positions.


 

* An earlier version of this post was published in Opinio Juris.