Women are still seriously underrepresented in the shaping of international law

By Erika Schneidereit March 7, 20187 March 2018

Women are still seriously underrepresented in the shaping of international law

1979 - Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women adopted (Source: Dag Hammarskjöld Library)

At first glance, it is perhaps understandable how international law could be misconstrued as gender-neutral. With seemingly objective doctrines and the fact that international legal rules apply primarily to states, it is difficult to see how this particular body of law could possibly be subject to feminist debate. But the very fact that international law appears to draw no gendered distinctions raises a red flag, as it suggests that international legal norms and institutions are free from bias. Contrary to its apparent universality, however, the development of international law has continually under-represented women and marginalized female perspectives.

The clearest example of how women are excluded from international law is their striking absence from the institutions shaping how international rules are made and applied. Despite recent progress, women remain under-represented in domestic legislatures around the world. In a system where states negotiate and ratify treaties (one of the two main sources of international law), this absence of female decision-makers is striking.

The inability to represent women’s voices is, ironically, most notable in treaties such as the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, a convention to which 77 different countries entered reservations upon ratification of the treaty. While reservations are a normal feature of any treaty, several were made against this convention’s “core provisions” addressing discrimination against women — raising the question of whether the greater involvement of women in making and ratifying this treaty would have led to a different result.

The traditionally male-oriented focus of international law is also apparent in the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment. Article 1 of the Convention defines “torture” in reference to various acts inflicted on a male subject (“any act by which severe pain or suffering…is intentionally inflicted on a person for such purposes as obtaining from him or a third person information…) (emphasis added). The preamble of the Convention explicitly references the “inherent dignity of the human person,” but then goes on to use the masculine pronoun in its body.  One wonders whether the treaty’s drafters really considered how torture impacts men and women differently.

Women, and their perspectives, also continue to be considerably underrepresented from the institutions responsible for developing international law. The 34-member International Law Commission (ILC), responsible for the codification and progressive development of international law, counts only four women amongst its members. And yet this small number represents progress for the ILC, as it is the first time in the history of the institution that more than two women have served on the Commission at the same time. Similarly, the International Court of Justice continues to be dominated by men, with only three female judges on the Court’s 15-member panel as of 2017.

The need to address the under-representation of women in international law is about more than simply reflecting the composition of the global population (in itself a worthy goal). It is about ensuring that the voices of women, and the ways in which they are distinctly impacted by international law, are heard. It is impossible to achieve this goal without first acknowledging that the development and application of international law – like any other field of law – has not been gender-neutral. And while there has been notable progress in recent years (particularly in the field of international human rights law), more needs to be done. At its core, law must be effective – and for international law to achieve this goal, it must take into account all perspectives, make and female, of those individuals it ultimately aims to serve.

Erika Schneidereit is an articling student with the Department of Justice. The author's views are her and do not represent the views or the positions of the Department of Justice or those of the Government of Canada.

Filed Under:
No comments

Leave message

 Security code