September always rears its head with a robust and vigorous discussion around the empowerment of women, as all the various stakeholders look to mark the CEDAW anniversary that falls on September 3rd. That is the date from 1981 on which the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women took effect as an international treaty under the framework of the United Nations, two years after it was adopted by the General Assembly. It is arguably the most impactful and uplifting of all UN conventions, and stands as perhaps the peak of the postmodern feminist movement.
Often regarded as the International Bill of Rights for Women, CEDAW (one must excuse the most ungainly acronym of all time) is a comprehensive treaty on the rights of women and establishes legally binding obligations on the 'State Parties', as countries are referred to in UN treaties, to follow the legal standards set by it to end discrimination against women and achieve equality between men and women.
Bangladesh ratified CEDAW pretty early on, in 1984. In doing so however, it reserved three reservations: against articles 2, 13 and 16 (of a total 30 operative articles, although only 1-16 are said to be 'substantive'). Subsequently in 1997, the return to power of an Awami League-led government saw the country withdraw its reservation over article 13, as well as over a sub-section of 16. After that there has been no more movement on the issue, which is quite incredible when you consider the period of most visible, upwardly mobile change in the country and its people, both their fortunes and attitudes.
Which is why it is profoundly disappointing, that the government continues to rebuff even the recommendation of the country's own Law Commission, to withdraw the two reservations it still retains on CEDAW. Broadly stated, the argument behind retention of these reservations is that the articles contradict the country's Personal Laws, which allows citizens to resort to laws based on their religion for guiding their personal lives. The government has also pleaded being hamstrung in the matter due to pressure from some fundamentalist groups.
None of this really holds any water. Kowtowing to fundamentalist groups should never be part of policymaking in the first place. And if CEDAW indeed impeded on the constitution's provision for citizens to fall back on Shariah-compliant laws in their personal matters, how is it that 29 out of 57 members of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), with Sharia law in force, have ratified the treaty without any reservations? Taking into consideration the examples of these other Islamic nations, which have no reservations against the CEDAW, might provide the clearest path forward for Bangladesh's withdrawal of these archaic reservations.
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