Washington, D.C., March 5, 2021.- In the lead-up to International Women’s Day, the International Institute on Race, Equality and Human Rights (Race and Equality) held a webinar on Thursday, March 4th to launch the report “CEDAW and its Impact on Women’s Lives: an intersectional approach.” Representatives from organizations that defend the rights of Afro-descendant and LGBT women served as panelists alongside Gladys Acosta, president of the UN Committee on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW).
Marisa Hutchinson, program official at International Women’s Rights Action Watch Asia Pacific (IWRAW Asia Pacific); Janaina Oliveira, national director for LGBT issues of the Workers’ Party (PT) in Brazil; Laritza Diversent, director of the Cuban-American NGO Cubalex; María Vélez, coordinator of the Casa Afirmativa project operated by the Colombian organization Caribe Afirmativo; and Wescla Vasconcelos, coordinator of the Rio de Janeiro Forum of Travestis and Transsexual People, all spoke on the panel about the impact of CEDAW and the challenges still facing its work. Cecilia Ramírez, an Afro-Peruvian activist with the Peruvian Center for Black Women’s Development, served as the moderator.
Race and Equality’s executive director, Carlos Quesada, gave the opening remarks. Melissa Monroy, the report’s author and an advisor on women’s rights at Race and Equality, presented the report, which analyzes CEDAW’s impact in Brazil, Colombia, Cuba, the Dominican Republic, Mexico, Nicaragua, and Peru.
In her presentation, Monroy explained that the report analyzes the dialogue among state parties, civil society, and the CEDAW committee that results in the committee’s reports and recommendations. The report pays particular attention to the representation and participation of Afro-descendant women, including Afro-descendant LGBT women, in this dialogue.
The analysis drew upon a thorough review of states’ reports to CEDAW and of CEDAW’s recommendations between 2010 and 2020. Monroy also interviewed civil society activists and leaders to understand their place in the CEDAW process and their perspectives on its impact.
“The actions of CEDAW, civil society, and state parties are all interconnected. More participation from diverse Afro-descendant women is needed in all three spheres for their voices to be heard effectively,” she remarked, noting that the report includes recommendations to the Committee, civil society, and states to improve their approach to Afro-descendant women’s rights.
The evolution of CEDAW
CEDAW president Gladys Acosta acknowledged the lack of representation and participation of Afro-descendant women in the CEDAW process while assuring the audience that since the adoption of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women in 1979, the Committee has undergone several reforms as society’s understanding of women’s rights has evolved. For example, she explained, the Committee has moved from focusing on “violence against women” to “gender-based violence” as the latter term gains acceptance among experts.
“This is not just a conceptual change, this is a historical evolution brought about by struggle and activism. Struggle comes before advances in laws: first there is a struggle and later on national and international institutions recognize the change. These standards are elastic; they expand as social consciousness expands, so we may have said one thing in 1980, but today things are different. There is a broader understanding of what constitutes a human rights violation,” Acosta explained.
To give another example, Acosta referred to the concept of intersectionality, saying that it has helped to fulfill the Universal Declaration of Human Rights’ affirmation that all people are born free and equal in dignity and rights. “The Declaration establishes all people on equal footing, but for thousands of reasons we have delayed in arriving to this vision,” she stated.
“All this is in motion, it is not static, and the visibility that civil society brings to new issues is noticed – not only by CEDAW, but in all the UN treaty bodies. We are trying to create an understanding of human rights that is comprehensive, more specific, and more suited to protecting vulnerable people,” Acosta added.
An intersectional discussion of discrimination
The panel’s civil society representatives drew on their experience working to defend and promote women’s rights to discuss how discrimination and violence are manifested in the lives of Afro-descendant and LGBT women.
“When I think about intersectionality, I first think about what it means to be a Black woman. We experience discrimination because of race or sexual orientation, because for a lesbian or trans Black woman, all your life experiences come to one point, which is your racial difference. This has a major impact on our experience with discrimination,” said Marisa Hutchinson, program official at IWRAW Asia Pacific.
Janaina Oliveira, national director for LGBTI issues of the Brazilian Workers’ Party, emphasized that not all public policies supposedly aimed at advancing women’s rights will improve the situation of Afro-descendant or LGBT women, especially in a country like Brazil, where the government of President Jair Bolsonaro denies the extent and impact of racism: “You can see this when we launch campaigns to fight violence against women, and there is a reduction in rates of violence only against non-Black women. State policies in favor of women don’t mean that the policies will reach the most vulnerable groups.”
Laritza Diversent, director of Cubalex, explained that in Cuba, Afro-descendant women suffer constant discrimination and violence at the hands of the authorities, including racial profiling by police who assume that Black women are involved in illegal sex work. “They assume Black women are more sexual and think that we try to go after tourists, so we are constantly being watched by police. During the pandemic, state violence against Black women has worsened,” she said, mentioning that the concept of intersectionality has not been mainstreamed in Cuba’s independent civil society, making it difficult to use an intersectional lens to gather and report data.
María Vélez of Caribe Afirmativo pointed out, “Lesbian, bisexual, and trans Black women experience life in racialized bodies, so we experience discrimination for our sexual orientation or gender identity differently than white LGBT women do. We experience it in an environment where racism against us is ingrained socially, economically, even religiously. Intersectionality requires us to think about racial, gender, and class oppression and how they are interrelated. This is how we can understand the inequality that we experience.”
The panel closed with remarks from Wescla Vasconcelos, coordinator of the Rio de Janeiro Forum of Travestis and Transsexual People, who warned of serious discrimination facing LGBTI people in Brazil. “We are the population that suffers the most hate crimes. This brutality must stop, it must be combatted – the situation must change,” she insisted.
At Race and Equality, we are committed to practicing intersectionality across our programs defending and promoting human rights, including the rights of Afro-descendant and LGBTI people. We hope that this new report will contribute to civil society’s understanding of intersectionality, its role in the fight against discrimination, and how to incorporate it into national, regional, and international policies for human rights.
The Spanish version of the report can be found here. English and Portuguese translations will be available soon.
The recording of the webinar can be found here.
 Travesti is a Portuguese term for a person who was assigned male at birth, but who identifies and self-expresses as female, with or without any related medical interventions.