In a landmark action the North African country of Tunisia has lifted restrictions they had placed on the international women’s treaty in what is being lauded as a key victory for women’s rights in their region of the world. The Human Rights Watch today announced in a press release that the UN had been informed on the 23 April 2014 by the Tunisian government that they would be disbanding all of their previous limitations on the international treaty.
The international women’s treaty is derived from the UN’s “Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women” (CEDAW). Implemented in 1979 it is generally regarded as a list of rights which details the parameters of discrimination in all its possible manifestations as well as outlining a plan for how to combat and end such prejudice. If a country chooses to accept and uphold the terms of the convention then they are duty bound to include protections of women in their legal system against any such discrimination, as well as incorporating the terms of gender equality and dedication to eradicating all forms of gender discrimination. Basic aspects of gender equality include the right to an education, to vote and be elected as well as ensuring equal opportunities in the work place and access to healthcare. However it is possible to technically take on the treaty but place certain “reservations” on various parts if countries wish to do so.
The specific exceptions which Tunisia endorsed meant that even though they had officially accepted the terms laid out by the UN on women’s rights and gender discrimination, they were able to restrict women’s rights on certain issues. Specifically they contested article numbers, 9, 15, 16 and 29 as set out by the constitution, mainly relating to matters in the home and within families. As such women’s nationality, their name and occupation, their rights within marriage and access to divorce as well as the right to own property, were all limited under the reservations placed by the Tunisian government. Thus by lifting these restrictions which they placed on women’s rights, their landmark action sets them apart as one of the leading countries in Africa with regards to gender equality.
Indeed, despite the requirements set forth by the UN every other country in North Africa and the Middle East who did ratify the treaty maintain exceptions to certain articles it contains, while countries such as Iran still take no part in attempting to support the rights of women. Tunisia is now the only country which has fully adopted the terms of the treaty and continues to demonstrate one of the most progressive attitudes to gender equality in the Islamic and African areas. However, despite the optimistic sentiments which this message has sent to both the female inhabitants of the country and the international community, the country did qualify their announcement by saying that they would only uphold the treaty if it did not conflict with the laws of their Islamic religion.
The Human Rights Watch has also pointed out that Tunisia is one of the few countries on the African continent which has not signed and ratified the “Protocol to the African Charter on Human and People’s Rights on the Rights of Women in Africa” (Maputo Protocol), while many other African countries have committed their support. This charter is basically an addition to the CEDAW and outlines further protections and liberties for women. Therefore, if Tunisia wishes to consolidate on the landmark action they pursued by lifting the restrictions they placed on women’s rights, then they need to continue to prioritize the importance of gender inequality within their society.
Commentary by Rhona Scullion