Supporting non-governmental organizations in their use of international mechanisms to press government for change

The United Nations (UN) Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) is a powerful legal instrument for articulating, advocating for, and monitoring women’s human rights. International Women’s Rights Action Watch (IWRAW) offers assistance to women’s rights NGOs in order to help them better advocate at the international level.

Each January and June, the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW Committee) holds sessions to monitor the implementation of the treaty. At each session, eight countries that have ratified CEDAW are called upon to report on their progress. Presentations by government representatives are followed by question and answer sessions during which the CEDAW committee can challenge the government’s testimony. Reports by individual NGOs are extremely valuable in this process because they bring country-specific issues to the attention of the CEDAW committee, which can then question the government representative about them.

In order for NGOs to make effective use of this system, however, they must know how to submit individual reports, called shadow reports, to the CEDAW committee. This can be a difficult process, and many NGOs lack the knowledge necessary to submit a good shadow report. IWRAW addresses this issue by providing information and guidelines about the process to NGOs.

In order to simplify the shadow report writing process, IWRAW has developed a procedural guide on how to organize a report and convey it to CEDAW. The report writing guide follows an instructive, coaching format and encourages the writer to consider questions of audience, specificity of content and argument. The guide is available on IWRAW’s website, as well as sample shadow reports for NGOs that would benefit from a model. IWRAW also compiles its own shadow reports based on research from a broad number of contacts in each country.

In addition to providing support for NGO shadow reports, IWRAW also invites a select number of NGO representatives to attend their country’s CEDAW session at the UN. Organizations generally fund their own travel expenses, but IWRAW is able to assist in some cases. The women who attend a CEDAW session not only heighten their organizations’ visibility but also raise their own individual status and the status of their fellow country women. Upon returning home, the attendee may hold a press conference to present the CEDAW Committee’s recommendations to the public, thereby further expanding the visibility of women’s concerns.

IWRAW was founded in 1985 at the World Conference on Women in Nairobi, Kenya, with the goal of monitoring the implementation of CEDAW. The organization has formed a network of over 5,000 NGOs worldwide that focus on women’s rights. One year before a CEDAW Committee session, the UN announces the eight countries that are to be present at that session. When this information has been released, IWRAW notifies the NGOs within those countries of the upcoming session and offers them flexible assistance in developing a shadow report to present.

New Tactics in Human Rights does not advocate for or endorse specific tactics, policies or issues.

What we can learn from this tactic: 

IWRAW’s tactic points out an important lesson in international human rights work: international mechanisms can seem very far removed from the daily work of local NGOs and the utility of submitting shadow reports may be hard to understand, especially when the process is difficult. Organizations that are trying to raise the visibility of their issue on the international level should be aware of this problem and may consider taking steps like IWRAW in developing a network and a guide to shadow report writing. This sort of information would be useful in many human rights contexts, not just for women, because all UN human rights committees have some kind of reporting mechanism in place.