After 36 years, who still remembers CEDAW?

Lies Marcoes

Director of Rumah Kita Bersama Foundation

The day before the commemoration of the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), which falls July 24, I exchanged greetings via WhatsApp with Ibu Saparinah Sadli and Nursyahbani Katjasungkana, two prominent figures in the implementation of this convention. I asked them which of the issues in CEDAW was most relevant nowadays, as this year marked the 36th anniversary of Indonesia’s passing the convention into law.

Ibu Sap, as we call her, was one of the most eminent persons, along with Ibu Achi Luhulima, the late Ibu TO Ichromi, the late Ibu Sumhadi, Ibu Syamsiah Ahmad, Nursyahbani, and several others, who were active in disseminating CEDAW.

But Ibu Sap sent a pessimistic message to me. “Other than activists and Komnas Perempuan [the National Commission on Violence against Women], are there still any government officials or legislators who remember CEDAW?” This question left me thinking. Indeed, who (still) remembers CEDAW today?

CEDAW is one of the most fundamental human rights agreements in the United Nations system of international agreements. It contains a guarantee of substantive equality for women through elimination of all forms of discrimination based on gender prejudice.

The UN adopted the convention in 1979. It is a global agreement that defines the principles of women’s rights as human rights. It contains norms and standards for the obligations and responsibilities of each state party for eliminating discrimination against women.

Indonesia passed the convention into  law on July 24, 1984 under Law No. 7/1984. Since then the convention became legally binding and mandated Indonesia to take efforts to eliminate gender-based discrimination against women and to report its progress. The government has an obligation to produce reports on developments in its implementation of elimination of gender discrimination.

Ibu Sap’s question is therefore relevant here. We simply need to ensure that the government is really doing something to eliminate gender-based discrimination and report it to the CEDAW Committee at the UN. As far as I know, Indonesia has often failed to submit the reports.

The most relevant issues with regard to discriminatory practices actually remain the same from year to year. Nursyahbani has reminded us about two important issues. First is eliminating stereotyping of women, which is currently becoming even more serious due to the rise in primordial and conservative religious views in defining the roles and status of women.

Rumah KitaB is currently conducting research in five regions to see how gender norms are applied to women, particularly women who work. Statistics show that women’s participation in the (formal) work force only stands at 58 percent against 80 percent for men.

The participation rate is stagnant in the productive years, particularly for women who hold mid-level positions. They resign after they marry and have children. Their income is too low to hire a nanny to care for their children, while the state also fails to provide safe and inexpensive day care centers.

The other even more serious problem is the growing belief that a “good” woman is one who stays at home. A process of “domestification” is occurring as a result of conservative ideological views based on religious arguments.

We should be thankful that the legal age for marriage has now been set at 19 for both males and females. Yet the efforts to prevent child marriage still require hard work, as 20 regions still record an inexcusably high rate of child marriage.

In fact, the Marriage Law needs an overhaul as it condones gender inequality. The law contains an article which explicitly states that the man (husband) is the head of the household, while the woman (wife) is a housewife. This definition leads to practices that are incredibly discriminatory against women, with far-reaching consequences, including in the world of work.

Normatively, women are always seen merely as supplementary breadwinners, whatever their actual marital status. In reality, there are many women who head households, whether married, single, abandoned by husbands or divorced, and are the main earners of support for their families. The Women Breadwinner Empowerment (PEKKA) Foundation has reported a rise in the number of members, and the average age of women breadwinners is getting lower.

Given their “supplementary” status, working women in every sector are vulnerable to marginalization or exclusion. And even when they manage to perform, they lack sufficient bargaining power to support themselves as employees. They are also vulnerable to violence, including sexual assault.

For Indonesia, CEDAW is indeed a pearl of great price. Efforts are needed to explore it further. The outreach on CEDAW needs to be mobilized again, as its pioneers did in the early 1990s. Some of them were grouped under the Women’s Studies Center of the University of Indonesia, who partnered with NGOs concerned with the issue of elimination of gender discrimination.

Implementation of CEDAW should not be entrusted to state institutions, such as the Women’s Empowerment and Child Protection Ministry, because discriminatory practices continue to occur everywhere. We need a large-scale campaign on the benefits of the implementation of CEDAW for fulfillment of women’s rights, with achievements that will be duly noted by the UN and by countries that are concerned about gender-based discrimination.


The writer is researcher at Rumah KitaB. The original article was published on

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