July 28th, 2011

AWARE’s fruitful week at the United Nations

After years of preparation, the AWARE’s CEDAW team saw our hard work pay off with our successful lobbying efforts at the United Nations.

By Nadzirah Samsudin

After 10 intense days in New York, AWARE’s CEDAW team is back home and geared up for the next phase of making CEDAW real in Singapore. Here’s a short recap of what happened during our trip:

Our CEDAW team at the UN comprised: team leader Braema Mathi, Chair of AWARE’s CEDAW Committee; Halijah Mohammad, AWARE Vice-President and CEDAW Committee member; Dana Lam, AWARE’s immediate Past President; and myself, AWARE’s Research & Advocacy Executive.

We arrived in New York on July 14, jet-lagged after a long haul flight. We grabbed as much sleep as we could, as training was due to start the next day at 9am. This three-day training was conducted by International Women’s Right Action Watch (IWRAW) Asia Pacific, to prepare us for the week ahead. It included practice sessions for our 10-minute oral presentation to the United Nations’ CEDAW Committee, how to prepare for our one-hour lunch briefing with the UN experts, tips for effective lobbying and how to ground the CEDAW framework in national realities.

There were 10 representatives from Singapore NGOs at this training session: The 4 of us from AWARE; Jean Chong, Kelly Then and Vanessa Ho from Sayoni, a group representing LGBT rights; Bridget Tan from the Humanitarian Organisation for Migration Economics (HOME), a group representing migrant workers’ rights; and Laura Hwang and Malathi Das from the Singapore Council of Women’s Organisation (SCWO), the national co-ordinating body of women’s organisations in Singapore.

The first big event for all NGOs at the UN happened on July 18 – the day of our oral presentations. Singapore’s NGOs got a total of 10 minutes for our presentations, and this time was divided equally among AWARE, HOME, Sayoni and SCWO.

It was decided that our line-up would be strategic, with the groups representing more marginalised women going first. So the oral presentation was started by Sayoni, followed by HOME, and then AWARE and SCWO. AWARE lobbied for the removal of reservations, the importance of national machineries, issues relating to women’s employment and the discrimination of vulnerable groups. SCWO lobbied for healthcare for ageing women and economic and social benefits for women.

Each group had only 2.5 minutes to speak and we tried our very best to fit in all the issues we wanted to highlight. After the presentation, the UN’s CEDAW experts asked questions to clarify the issues that they needed more information on. Questions posed to the Singapore NGOs included:

  • Does the electoral process protect women?
  • Do female candidates running for elections suffer from sexual and physical violence?
  • Is the law gender-neutral when it comes to regulating the status of foreign spouses?
  • What is the process for a foreign spouse to become a citizen?

As the Singapore government was due to report to the UN CEDAW Committee on July 22, the AWARE team had a bit of a breather after our oral presentation. We decided to spend some time observing how the NGOs from South Korea and Nepal lobbied the UN experts in order to influence the UN CEDAW Committee’s questions and recommendations for their respective governments.

The AWARE team also did some lobbying of our own. We introduced ourselves to the UN CEDAW Committee members, and passed them updated information on issues like sex trafficking. We also lobbied for the following issues:

  • The need for constitutional amendments to include sex and marital status
  • The importance of making the Office For Women’s Development an independent body. (Formerly known as the Women’s Desk, this unit is currently part of the Ministry of Community Development, Youth and Sports’ (MCYS) Family Division Unit
  • The process of citizenship for foreign women married to Singapore men
  • The vertical and horizontal segregation of women at the workplace

Days passed quickly and everyone was eagerly anticipating July 21, the day when the Singapore NGOs would host a lunch briefing for the UN experts. The Singapore NGOs collectively agreed to spend a total of 11 minutes during this session talking about issues like the removal of reservations, sexual orientation and gender identity, trafficking and female leadership (this worked out to 1 minute per issue) .

The remaining time was used for a discussion. We encouraged the UN CEDAW Committee members to ask us questions – and boy, did they ever! One of the experts, Victoria Popescu, wanted more information on violence against women, particularly with respect to disadvantaged groups; Niklas Brun wanted to know more about sexual harassment in the workplace and how it was dealt with. Patricia Schulz asked if the Singapore NGOs present had done any lobbying for other treaties. All these questions, and more, were deftly answered by members from the Singapore NGOs.

D-Day arrived on July 22. After a week’s worth of lobbying, it was time for the constructive dialogue between the UN CEDAW Committee and the delegation from the Singapore government. Led by Madam Halimah Yacob, the Minister of State for MCYS, the government delegation of 15 people were well-prepared and very co-ordinated in their responses to the questions raised by the CEDAW experts.

This five-hour session saw the UN CEDAW Committee asking the Singapore government delegation 116 questions on the measures taken to ensure the non-discrimination of women in Singapore.

The AWARE team is proud to note that our lobbying efforts were successful – the UN CEDAW Committee members took heed of the issues raised by the Singapore NGOs during our oral presentation and lunch briefing. Some experts gave great comments about AWARE’s 2011 CEDAW Shadow Report, and how we took pains to make it more user-friendly. One expert described it as one of the best Shadow Reports she had read in her 5 years on the UN CEDAW Committee. We also hear that IWRAW trainers will be sharing AWARE’s lobbying approaches and briefing documents with NGOs from other countries.

At the end of the week, there was one more IWRAW training session to attend. It was a discussion on what we should do next: How are we going to make CEDAW more palatable? How are we going to spread the word? How are we going to use it to fight discrimination against women? This is only the beginning of a very exciting journey!

The UN CEDAW Committee members are now in closed-door meetings to discuss the constructive dialogue they had with the Singapore government delegation. In three weeks time, they will issue a Concluding Observation – recomendations to the Singapore government on how it can further improve its efforts to prevent discrimination against women in Singapore.

If you would like to join us in our efforts to make CEDAW real in Singapore, come for the CEDAW 101 Workshop on August 16. Sign up for this event here.

The AWARE CEDAW team is grateful to AWARE for supporting our work at the UN and for helping to sponsor our attendance at the UN’s 49th CEDAW Session. We are also grateful to IWRAW for sponsoring Braema Mathi’s trip and for off-setting the training cost for Halijah Mohammad.

One Comment ...

  1. Dana Lam

    Great Job, Nadzirah!

    Allow me one elaboration – Ruth Halperin-Kaddari said our Shadow report and accompanying notes and lobby were “really the most exceptional and exemplary” she has seen in her five years on the CEDAW Committee.