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The U.N.’s Working Group on Discrimination Against Women, Explained

The Working Group is a relatively new addition to the U.N.’s arsenal against abuses of women’s rights. Hannah Wu of the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights tells us how the group covers its “unique and broad” mandate.

Written by Christine Chung Published on Read time Approx. 4 minutes
Women dressed as prisoners protest against human rights abuses, near the United Nations in New York, Sept. 20, 2016. A fairly new addition to the U.N., the Working Group on Discrimination Against Women is tasked with pushing governments to enact and enforce gender equality law under the umbrella of human rights. AFP/Don Emmert

To the outsider looking at the mass of groups that make up the United Nations, women and girls seem to be well served. U.N. Women, the Committee for the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), the Commission on the Status of Women, and the Special Rapporteur on Violence against Women are just a handful of the bodies focusing on their concerns.

But as ongoing discrimination and widespread violations of women’s rights continue around the world, a relative newcomer to the pantheon has been tasked with pushing governments to enact and enforce effective gender equality laws. Established in 2010 by the U.N. Human Rights Council (the intergovernmental body of 47 elected member states), the Working Group on the Issue of Discrimination against Women in Law and Practice started its work a year later. Since then, it’s spoken out on a range of controversial issues, including its support of the call to have International Safe Abortion Day on September 28 officially recognized by the U.N.

The secretary of the Working Group, Hannah Wu, spoke to Women & Girls Hub about the work the group does to combat discrimination and help empower women and girls.

Women & Girls Hub: What is the Working Group and what does it do?

Hannah Wu: The Working Group is a part of the Special Procedures system of the U.N. Human Rights Council. Special Procedures refers to official “mandates” that are given to independent human rights experts to report and advise on human rights from a thematic or country-specific perspective.

It’s a fairly new and hard-fought mandate with some resistance in the Human Rights Council against its establishment. But it really is much needed, because of the persistence of discrimination against women which exists everywhere in the world. The Human Rights Council gave this Working Group a unique and broad mandate – it covers discrimination both in law and in practice. In short, it covers women’s rights to equality, encompassing all human rights of women.

Not only does the Working Group report to the Human Rights Council annually on thematic priorities – which so far have included political and public participation; economic and social life of women; family and culture; and health and safety – it has also conducted 11 visits to countries, and sent governments some 170 “communications,” basically allegations of human rights violations in either specific cases or general situations.

The Working Group also makes its expert voice heard on issues, for example, against criminalization of adultery and on women’s sexual and reproductive health and rights.

Women & Girls Hub: How does the Working Group fit into the U.N.’s efforts to address discrimination against women?

Wu: The various actors in the U.N. focusing on women’s rights are all different in nature. The Working Group is an independent mechanism of the Human Rights Council. It’s in its mandate to coordinate and cooperate with the others. The relationship is complementary. For example, when the Working Group does country visits, it goes inside a country for an intensive period of time, meeting with a range of stakeholders to come up with recommendations and a comprehensive report.

When CEDAW reviews a country’s report, the Committee has a limited number of stakeholders travel to Geneva for a formal dialogue. While CEDAW reviews a large number of states, the Working Group has the resources to conduct only two or three country visits annually, but can include some that CEDAW doesn’t cover as the Committee only considers countries whose governments have ratified that convention. The Working Group uses what CEDAW has developed through its dialogues and normative guidance, and in turn, the information from the Working Group’s country visits feeds into the work of CEDAW.

Women & Girls Hub: What challenges does the Working Group face in its work?

Wu: It’s a global mandate but with limited resources, and the mandate depends on the cooperation of member states to carry out its key activities. The Working Group has a large number of pending requests for country visits.

There’s also the challenge of follow-up. What happens after a country visit or exchange of communications? Lack of resources for follow-up is one of the limitations of the Special Procedures system.

Another challenge is making its reports and work accessible. Right now, it’s still kind of hidden. We need to make it known so that people can use this mechanism because it’s flexible, quick and has universal coverage. We act right away on urgent situations with a communication – it’s called an “urgent appeal,” where allegations are brought to the attention of a government. This then becomes public information, both the allegation and the response from the government, which can be a useful advocacy tool.

Women & Girls Hub: The Working Group meets in Geneva shortly. What’s the program?

Wu: The Working Group holds three sessions each year, two in Geneva and one in New York, which sets it apart from Special Procedures with individual mandate-holders. These sessions are generally internally focused as opportunities for the experts to brainstorm, plan, see where they are in reporting and priority settings, but another important function is to reach out and engage through its “convening power” with stakeholders, including member states, other human rights mechanisms and civil society.

Women & Girls Hub: Who are the independent experts of the Working Group? How are they chosen?

Wu: The five members of the Working Group, from each of the U.N. regions, are the current chair Alda Facio [from Costa Rica], Frances Raday [Israel/U.K.], Emna Aouij [Tunisia], Kamala Chandrakirana [Indonesia] and Eleonora Zielinska [Poland]. Like with other Special Procedures, they are independent with recognized expertise serving a maximum of two terms of three years each.

The work has benefited greatly from this rich diversity of its membership covering different cultural and religious backgrounds, which is an advantage when compared to a single-person mandate. In 2017, there will be four vacancies in the Working Group. Civil society organizations should actively search and come forward with good candidates. That’s crucial for the success of the mandate.

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