CEDAW and Sexual Assault

Elahe Amani – April 2022

April is the sexual assault awareness month.  It is an annual campaign to raise public awareness about sexual assault and educate communities and individuals on how to prevent sexual violence.  During this month, States, territories, community-based organizations, rape crisis centers, government agencies, businesses, campuses, and individuals, plan events and activities to highlight sexual violence as public health, human rights, and social justice issue and reinforce the need for prevention efforts.   

Few words about the history of April as the sexual assault awareness month.  During the 1970s we saw significant growth in prevention and awareness of sexual violence across the United State, following the general trend of social activism throughout the decade. Moving beyond awareness of the issue, the Bay Area Women Against Rape opened in 1971 as the nation’s first rape crisis center offering immediate victim services. With this heightened awareness of sexual violence, state coalitions began to form, beginning with Pennsylvania Coalition Against Rape in 1975.

As early as 1976, Take Back the Night marches rallied women in an organized protest against rape and sexual assault. These marches protested the violence and fear that women encountered walking the streets at night. Over time these events coordinated into a movement across the United States and Europe. Because of this movement, broader activities to raise awareness of violence against women began to occur.

As we know these national efforts, were the context for valuable contributions of American women in the language of CEDAW, as an International Convention, a convention is also known as the “Bill of rights for women and girls “. 

In the early 1980s, activists used October to raise awareness of violence against women and domestic violence awareness became the main focus. In the late 1980s, the National Coalition Against Sexual Assault (NCASA) informally polled state sexual assault coalitions to determine the preferred date for a national Sexual Assault Awareness Week.

A week in April was selected. By the late 1990s, many advocates began coordinating activities and events throughout the month of April, advancing the idea of a nationally recognized month for sexual violence awareness and prevention activities. SAAM was first observed nationally in April 2001.

Survivors, advocates, and state coalitions mobilized around the creation and implementation of the Violence Against Women Act in 1994.  I was part of the movements in 1991 the Coalition of Women from Asia and the Middle East CWAME was established and I was co-chair of it.  The focus of CWAME was on violence against women in the political framework of Women’s Human rights.   We were very active in representing the women in immigrant communities of Asia and the Middle east in the efforts leading to enacting and implementation of VAWA.  This bill was the first national law requiring law enforcement to treat gender violence as a crime rather than a private family matter. VAWA was also designed to strengthen legal protections for victims of domestic violence and sexual violence as well as expand services to survivors and their children

The National Sexual Violence Resource Center was established in 2000 by the Pennsylvania Coalition Against Rape and the Center for Disease Control. In 2001, the NSVRC coordinated the first formally recognized national Sexual Assault Awareness Month campaign and still facilitates it today. In 2005, the campaign shifted to the prevention of sexual violence, and the first tool kits were sent out to coalitions and rape crisis centers across the country. Awareness for the campaign culminated in 2009 when Barack Obama was the first president to officially proclaim April as Sexual Assault Awareness Month. 

While we all hear the terms sexual harassment, sexual assault, sexual misconduct, and sexual abuse ARE often lumped together and interchangeably used, the severity of the crime, the punishment, and the law each fall under different categories.  

While sexual harassment falls under civil law, sexual assault falls under criminal law. Sexual assault is any type of intentional physical conduct that the victim has not consented to.  Any form of sexual violence, including the four terms above, are violence against women, a major public health concern. 

Now what does sexual assault has to do with CEDAW?

since the general assembly voted on CEDAW in 1979, The UN Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW Committee), which is charged with reviewing the performance of each state under the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), CEDAW provides a well-developed framework for addressing violence against women globally and locally.

As I shared CEDAW was the outcome of the serious global conversation on violence against women particularly THE ANTI VIOLENCE and women’s human rights in the United State. However, the text of CEDAW does not refer explicitly to gender-based violence.    That is why the CEDAW Committee went on record in 1992 when it adopted a General Recommendation that explicates the core issues with respect to gender-based violence and the required remedies. Moreover, CEDAW country reviews consistently address violence against women, and the topic has been the subject of a number of individual communications under its Optional Protocol.

The CEDAW Committee took these steps before the concluding report of the World Conference on Human Rights placed women’s human rights front and center in the global quest for equality in 1993. In that year, feminist activists including American women were instrumental in the adoption of the “World Conference Declaration and Program of Action” statement that “Gender-based violence and all forms of sexual harassment and exploitation, including those resulting from cultural prejudice and international trafficking, are incompatible with the dignity and worth of the human person, and must be eliminated.” At that time, however, neither the Conference participants—almost all the countries in the world—nor the nongovernmental organizations that lobbied for the issue, recommended adopting a treaty specifically focusing on violence against women.

CEDAW Committee has always updated the concept of CEDAW by issuing “general recommendations” to make the treaty more effective in its approach to gender-based violence. CEDAW Committee General Recommendation No. 19 from 1992 was historic as it clearly framed violence against women as a form and manifestation of gender-based discrimination, used to subordinate and oppress women.  It unequivocally brought violence outside of the private sphere and into the realm of human rights.

It was on 14 July 2017, that the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW Committee) adopted General Recommendation No. 35 on gender-based violence against women, updating General Recommendation No. 19.

General Recommendation No. 35 elaborates on the gender-based nature of violence, building on the work of the Committee and other international human rights mechanisms, as well as developments at national, regional, and international levels.

General Recommendation No. 35 is also a milestone in the below-referenced items :

  • “It recognizes that the prohibition of gender-based violence has become a norm of international customary law;
  • It expands the understanding of violence to include violations of sexual and
  • It calls for the repeal of all laws and policies that directly and indirectly excuse, condone and facilitate violence; and
  • It emphasizes the need for approaches that promote and respect women’s autonomy and decision-making in all spheres of life. “

Cities/ counties for the CEDAW campaign or any other efforts are to create a framework for improving the status of women and girls locally, to make women ‘s rights and dignity a reality in our communities, and hold the people in a position of power accountable to take action, to address all barriers and allocate new and additional resources to accomplish for eliminating all forms of discriminations against women and girls.  

1998 San Francisco CEDAW Ordinance, required action in the form of preventive and forward-thinking efforts to ensure that city resources, policies, and actions do not intentionally or unintentionally discriminate against women and girls from any community.  

the San Francisco CEDAW Ordinance in 1998 proved that an ordinance on CEDAW and the cities and counties’ commitment with the support of civil society organizations can tremendously improve the safety and security of women and in particular reduce gender-based violence.  Here are some of the highlights:

1.   44 Months Without Domestic Violence Homicide – Cross-agency approach to

domestic violence response led to a record 44 months without a single domestic violence homicide.

2.    Gender Equality Principles Initiative – Seven gender equality principles ranging from employment and compensation to supply chain practices support more productive workplaces for both women and men.

    3. Developed Proper Police Codes – Collaboration between the Department on the Status of     Women, the Police Department, 911 response team, Office of the City Attorney, and other agencies to adopt new codes for stalking, child abuse, and elder abuse.

    4. Expanded Language Access – Trained 150 emergency personnel in basic Chinese and Spanish     phrases for responding to domestic violence and partnered with local foundations to provide     phones to access 170 different languages at crime scenes.

    5. Family Violence Council – Addresses family violence across the lifespan by bringing together advocates working against child abuse, and domestic violence, and proposes policy reforms to improve the criminal justice, social service, and community-based programs.

    6. San Francisco Collaborative Against Human Trafficking – A coalition of community-based organizations and government agencies to eliminate modern slavery.

    7. Mayor’s Task Force on Human Trafficking – A holistic effort, staffed by the Department on the     Status of Women, with participation from law enforcement, public health, child welfare, the school district, and community-based organizations that work with trafficking survivors.

    8. Gender Analysis of City Agencies – Government agencies examined their policies, programs, and services to ensure that they are non-discriminatory and fully serve all communities of women and girls. Nine city agencies have undergone such analysis.

    9. Violence Against Women Prevention and Intervention Grants Program – The Department on the     Status of Women distributes grants totaling $3 million to 24 community-based organizations.

    10. Family Friendly Workplace Ordinance –Working parents and caregivers have the right to request a flexible or predictable work schedule without fear of retaliation.  

May we have CEDAW implemented in every city and county of our state and the entire United States.  

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