On September 29, 2016, the AUWCL Women and the Law Program hosted an open discussion about women’s and LGBTI rights at the United Nations. Guest speakers delved into three main issues the U.N. must address to advance the rights of women and LGBTI persons around the globe: torture and inhumane treatment, reproductive health, and the working conditions of domestic workers.
Daniela Kraiem, the Associate Director of the Women and the Law Program, and Janie Chuang, professor of international law at AUWCL, expressed excitement about recent developments at the U.N. regarding reproductive rights (such as the right to abortion and contraceptives) and the rights of domestic workers to better wages and working conditions. Kraiem stated, “The U.N. has, for the most part, not taken the question of sexual and reproductive health square on and has not, up until now, really articulated a position about the rights of people to sexual and reproductive health.” She went on to explain that over 350,000 women die each year due to either the complications of pregnancy, delivery, or unsafe abortion. She also emphasized that reproductive and sexual health is an issue not only for women, but also for people of all genders and sexualities.
In March, the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (CESCR) issued an authoritative statement interpreting the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights’s stance on reproductive health. “For the first time ever a U.N. body articulated that there is clearly a right to access contraception, including abortion, as part and parcel not only of the right to health, but as a component of gender equality,” Kraiem explained. Chuang also expressed enthusiasm regarding another statement issued by the CESCR that “expounds upon the contents and interpretation of Article 7…which establishes a right to just and favorable conditions of work. And one of its goals was to address the gender [pay] gap.”
Chuang recounted many provisions that focus on female workers and the intersectionality of gender, race, and class, including a provision that deals specifically with domestic workers. “Domestic work is one of the lowest paid occupations,” Chuang explained, “much of that having to do with stereotypes about what domestic work entails, as being generally undervalued as unskilled work.” Kraiem and Chuang agreed these statements alone would not address the issues of reproductive health and working conditions for women. Despite this, both concluded the U.N. made a “strong statement” to the global community on how to proceed with addressing these issues.
The statements referred to, General Comment No. 22 on the right to sexual and reproductive health and General Comment No. 23 on the right to just and favorable conditions of work, outline specific obligations for states to follow in achieving gender equality in these areas. For example, States are obligated under General Comment No. 22 “to repeal, and refrain from enacting, laws and policies that create barriers in access to sexual and reproductive health services.” Additionally, States under General Comment No. 23 “should not introduce salary scales that discriminate, directly or indirectly, against female workers, or maintain a promotion system in the public sector that favors, directly or indirectly, the overrepresented gender at higher levels.”
These statements are only binding on the States that have signed the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. While most States have signed this treaty, the U.S. has not yet ratified it. In the States that have ratified the treaty, human rights lawyers will still face unique difficulties arising from each country’s social, cultural, and economic circumstances. Now, at least, the U.N has given their authoritative approval behind these efforts.