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Can International Human Rights Law Smash the Patriarchy? A Review of ‘Patriarchy’ According to United Nations Treaty Bodies and Special Procedures

Abstract

This article interrogates whether and how the concept of ‘patriarchy’ is used by UN human rights treaty monitoring bodies (treaty bodies) and special procedures to interpret state obligations to respect and ensure women’s human rights. There are two key points that arise out of this study: first, that several treaty bodies and special procedures purposely and consistently use the concept of ‘patriarchy’ when discussing women’s human rights, and second, that although not all treaty bodies and special procedures have referred to the terms ‘patriarchy’ or ‘patriarchal’, an examination of those that have reveals a marked difference in how the terms are used by treaty bodies when compared with special procedures. While treaty bodies render the meaning of ‘patriarchy’ as being synonymous with certain harmful practices, such as female-genital mutilation (FGM), special procedures utilise ‘patriarchy’ as a system of power, permeating every facet of society. In this article I will argue that the current state of dissonance between the understandings of ‘patriarchy’ by treaty bodies and special procedures creates an unnecessary ambiguity that does nothing to advance gender equality. Furthermore, utilising a nuanced understanding of patriarchy, as articulated by intersectional and anti-essentialist feminist scholars, would potentially equip treaty bodies and special procedures for more meaningful interpretation of rights themselves, and greater protection of women’s human rights.

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Notes

  1. 1.

    CEDAW, art 5.

  2. 2.

    The Greek term, patriarkhēs, translates literally to “a man who rules a family” see American Heritage. 2016. The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, 6th edn.

  3. 3.

    For critique of the development of international human rights law as an overwhelmingly male project see: Bunch (1995), Charlesworth et al. (2000). For critique of international women’s human rights as a western project see: Oloka-Onyango and Tamale (1995), Rao (1995), Chanock (2000), Nesiah (2003).

  4. 4.

    No specific software was used to perform these searches. The author and a research assistant used the search functions available in PDF or Word documents.

  5. 5.

    This date range was selected because it includes all of the relevant documents from the first concluding observation of the CEDAW Committee—the most relevant of the treaty bodies studied on the topic of the paper—to 2018, thus creating the most comprehensive data set.

  6. 6.

    This date range was selected because it includes all annual reports from special procedures from the first annual report in 1980 (Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances) to 2018, thus creating the most comprehensive data set.

  7. 7.

    CEDAW, arts 20–22.

  8. 8.

    See for example, CEDAW, art 18(b).

  9. 9.

    For an overview of the function and mandate of treaty monitoring bodies, see Keller and Ulfstein (2012).

  10. 10.

    See for example, CEDAW, art 21.

  11. 11.

    CESCR ‘General Comment No. 1: Reporting by States Parties’ E/1989/22 (July 27, 1989).

  12. 12.

    CESCR ‘General Comment No. 4: The right to adequate housing, art. 11 (1) of the Covenant’ E/1992/23 (December 13, 1991).

  13. 13.

    CESCR ‘General Comment No. 15: The Right to Water’ E/C.12/2000/4 (August 11, 2000).

  14. 14.

    CESCR ‘The Right to Work General Comment No. 18′ E/C.12/GC/18 (February 6, 2006).

  15. 15.

    Excluded from the analysis is the Committee on Enforced Disappearances, because there is no automatic reporting requirement (and so no regular concluding observations).

  16. 16.

    For an overview of the function and mandate of special procedures, see Nolan et al. (2017).

  17. 17.

    UNGA ‘Human Rights Council’ A/60/251 (April 3, 2006).

  18. 18.

    Working Groups comprise five members, representing each of the five United Nations regional groupings: Africa, Asia, Latin America and the Caribbean, Eastern Europe and the Western group; see also UN HRC ‘Code of Conduct for Special Procedures Mandate-holders of the Human Rights Council’ A/HRC/RES/5/2 (June 18, 2007).

  19. 19.

    See UNOCHR (2019).

  20. 20.

    UN HRC ‘Outcome of the review of the work and functioning of the United Nations Human Rights Council’ A/HRC/RES/16/21 (April 4, 2011).

  21. 21.

    For further discussion of the implications of upward trend for the CEDAW Committee, see Mudgway (2020).

  22. 22.

    CEDAW, art 5(a).

  23. 23.

    See for example, CEDAW ‘General Recommendation No. 28′ CEDAW/C/GC/28 (December 16, 2010), 5; CEDAW ‘Joint General Recommendation No. 31′ CEDAW/C/GC/31 (November 14, 2014).

  24. 24.

    See for example, CEDAW ‘Concluding Comments of the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women: The Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia’ CEDAW/C/MKD/CO/3 (February 3, 2006), 20.

  25. 25.

    (emphasis added) CEDAW ‘Concluding observations on the second periodic report of Syria’ CEDAW/C/SYR/CO/2 (July 18, 2014), 21. See also CEDAW ‘Concluding observations on the combined initial to third periodic reports of the Marshall Islands’ CEDAW/C/MHL/CO/1−3 (March 12, 2018), 22.

  26. 26.

    (emphasis added) CEDAW ‘Consideration of reports submitted by States parties under article 18 of the Convention: Uganda’ CEDAW/C/UGA/CO/7 (October 22, 2010), 19. See also CEDAW ‘Concluding observations on the fourth periodic report of Pakistan’ CEDAW/C/PAK/CO/4 (March 27, 2013), 21; CEDAW ‘Concluding observations on the fourth periodic report of Kyrgyzstan’ CEDAW/C/KGZ/CO/4 (March 6, 2015), 15; CEDAW ‘Concluding observations of the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women: Cameroon’ CEDAW/C/CMR/CO/3 (January 27, 2009), 24.

  27. 27.

    See for example CEDAW ‘Report of the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women’ A/52/38/REV.1(SUPP) (August 12, 1997), 223.

  28. 28.

    The phrase ‘patriarchal practices’ is used (despite the difference, these examples are also linked to article 5(a)). See for example, CEDAW ‘Report of the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women’ A/54/38/REV. 1(SUPP) (August 1, 1999), 86; CEDAW ‘Report of the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women’ A/56/38(SUPP) (April 19, 2001).

  29. 29.

    See CEDAW ‘Concluding observations on the eighth periodic report of Belarus’ CEDAW/C/QAT/CO/1 (2014), 20; CEDAW ‘Concluding observations of the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women United Arab Emirates’ CEDAW/C/ARE/CO/1 (February 5, 2010), 24.

  30. 30.

    See CEDAW ‘Report of the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women’ A/58/38(SUPP) (September 27, 2003), 276; CEADW ‘Concluding observations on the seventh periodic report of Greece adopted by the Committee at its fifty fourth session’ CEDAW/C/GRC/CO/7 (March 26, 2013), 19(a); CEADW ‘Concluding observations of the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women: Nepal’ CEDAW/C/NPL/CO/4–5 (July 29, 2011), 18(a); Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women ‘Concluding observations on the combined fourth and fifth periodic reports of Bosnia and Herzegovina’ CEDAW/C/BIH/CO/4–5 (July 30, 2013), 20(c); CEDAW ‘Concluding observations on the combined seventh and eighth periodic reports of France’ CEDAW/C/FRA/CO/7–8 (July 25, 2016), 19(a).

  31. 31.

    (emphasis added) CEDAW ‘Concluding observations on the combined seventh and eighth periodic reports of Romania’ CEDAW/C/ROU/CO/7–8 (July 24, 2017), 34(b).

  32. 32.

    See for example, CEADW ‘Concluding observations on the combined fourth and fifth periodic reports of Maldives’ CEDAW/C/MDV/CO/4–5 (October 20, 2015), 29(a). CEDAW ‘Concluding observations on the initial report of Qatar’ CEDAW/C/QAT/CO/1 (July 20, 2014), 27.

  33. 33.

    See for example, CEDAW ‘Concluding observations on the eighth periodic report of Ukraine’ CEDAW/C/UKR/CO/8 (March 9, 2017), 34; CEDAW ‘Concluding observations on the combined fourth and fifth periodic reports of Croatia’ CEDAW/C/HRV/CO/4–5 (July 28, 2015), 26(b); CEDAW ‘Concluding observations on the combined eighth and ninth periodic reports of Portugal’ CEDAW/C/PRT/CO/8–9 (November 24, 2015), 32.

  34. 34.

    See for example, CEADW ‘Concluding observations on the combined seventh and eighth periodic reports of France’ CEDAW/C/FRA/CO/7–8 (July 25, 2016), 47.

  35. 35.

    See for example, CEDAW ‘Concluding observations on the combined fourth to sixth periodic reports of Iraq’ CEDAW/C/QAT/CO/1 (March 10, 2014), 28; CEDAW ‘Concluding observations of the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women: Mexico’ CEDAW/C/MEX/CO/7–8 (July 27, 2012), 11; CEDAW ‘Concluding Comments of the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women: Jamaica’ CEDAW/C/JAM/CO/5 (August 25, 2006), 15.

  36. 36.

    The first concluding observations which has ‘patriarchal attitudes’ used alongside harmful practices is CEDAW ‘Concluding Observations of the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women: Benin’ CEDAW/C/BEN/CO/1–3 (October 18, 2005), 16.

  37. 37.

    See for example, CEDAW ‘Concluding comments of the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women: Ghana’ CEDAW/C/GHA/CO/5 (August 25, 2006), 21; CEDAW ‘Concluding observations on the seventh periodic report of Malawi’ CEDAW/C/MWI/CO/7 (November 25, 2015), 20; CEDAW Concluding observations on the fourth and fifth periodic reports of Eritrea’ CEDAW/C/ERI/CO/5 (February 26, 2015), 18; CEDAW ‘Concluding observations on the combined initial and second periodic reports of Brunei Darussalam’ CEDAW/C/BRN/CO/1–2 (November 14, 2014), 20.

  38. 38.

    See for example, CEDAW ‘Concluding observations on the combined fourth and fifth periodic reports of Lebanon’ CEDAW/C/LBN/CO/4–5 (November 24, 2015), 21.

  39. 39.

    See for example, CEDAW ‘Concluding comments of the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women: Mali’ CEDAW/C/MLI/CO/5 (February 3, 2006), 17; CEDAW ‘Concluding observations on the combined initial to third periodic reports of Solomon Islands’ CEDAW/C/SLB/CO/1–3 (November 14, 2014), 22; CEDAW ‘Concluding observations on the combined fourth and fifth periodic reports of Georgia’ CEDAW/C/GEO/CO/4–5 (July 18, 2014), 18.

  40. 40.

    See for example, CEDAW ‘Concluding observations on the combined fourth and fifth periodic reports of the Gambia’ CEDAW/C/GMB/CO/4–5 (July 28, 2015), 18.

  41. 41.

    See for example, CEDAW ‘Concluding observations on the fifth periodic report of Azerbaijan’ CEDAW/C/AZE/CO/5 (March 12, 2015), 20.

  42. 42.

    CEDAW ‘Concluding Comments: Burkina Faso’ CEDAW/C/BFA/CO/4–5 (June 6, 2005), 27.

  43. 43.

    See for example: CEDAW ‘Concluding comments of the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women: Cuba’ CEDAW/C/CUB/CO/6 (August 25, 2006), 17.

  44. 44.

    UNOHR ‘Fact Sheet 23: Harmful Traditional Practices Affecting the Health of Women and Children’ (1995).

  45. 45.

    See CEDAW and CRC ‘Joint General Recommendation 31 on harmful practices’ CEDAW/C/GC/31-CRC/C/GC/18 (November 14, 2014).

  46. 46.

    See CEDAW and CRC (2014).

  47. 47.

    See for example, CEDAW ‘Concluding observations on the seventh periodic report of Malawi’ CEDAW/C/MWI/CO/7 (November 24, 2015), 20; CEDAW ‘Concluding observations on the fourth and fifth periodic reports of Eritrea’ CEDAW/C/ERI/CO/5 (February 27, 2015), 18; CEDAW ‘Concluding observations on the combined fourth and fifth periodic reports of Myanmar’ CEDAW/C/MMR/CO/4–5 (July 25, 2016), 24; CEDAW ‘Concluding observations on the combined eighth and ninth periodic reports of the Lao People’s Democratic Republic’ CEDAW/C/LAO/CO/8–9 (November 14, 2018), 23; CEDAW ‘Concluding observations on the combined initial to third periodic reports of the Marshall Islands’ CEDAW/C/MHL/CO/1–3 (March 14, 2018), 22.

  48. 48.

    See for example, CEADW ‘Concluding observations on the combined third to fifth periodic reports of Malaysia’ CEDAW/C/MYS/CO/3–5 (March 14, 2018), 20.

  49. 49.

    CEADW ‘General Recommendation No. 21 Equality in marriage and family relations’ CEDAW/C/GC/21 (1994), 42.

  50. 50.

    (emphasis added) CEADW ‘General Recommendation No. 29: Article 16—Economic consequences of marriage, family relations and their dissolution’ CEDAW/C/GC/29 (February 26, 2013), 18. See also CEDAW ‘General Recommendation No. 35 on gender-based violence’ CEDAW/C/GC/35 (July 14, 2017), 30(a).

  51. 51.

    CEDAW/C/GC/36 (November 16, 2017).

  52. 52.

    See for example, CRC ‘Concluding Observations: Burkina Faso’ CRC/C/BFA/CO/3–4 (February 9, 2010), 44; CRPD ‘General Comment No. 3 on Women and Girls with Disabilities’ CPRD/C/GC/3 (September 2, 2016), 37; CRPD ‘General Comment No. 4 on the Right to Inclusive Education’ CPRD/C/GC/4 (September 2, 2016), 46.

  53. 53.

    ESC ‘Report of the Economic and Social Council for 1997′ A/52/3/Rev. 1 (April 12, 1997).

  54. 54.

    HRC ‘Concluding Observations: Bahrain’ CCPR/C/BHR/CO/1 (November 18, 2018), 21 (emphasis added). See also HRC ‘Concluding Observations: El Salvador’ CCPR/C/SLV/CO/7 (May 9, 2018), 13; HRC ‘Concluding Observations: Liberia’ CCPR/C/LBR/CO.1 (August 27, 2018), 25(e); HRC ‘Concluding Observations: Sierra Leone’ CCPR/C/SLE/CO/1 (March 25, 2014), 10.

  55. 55.

    See for example, HRC ‘Concluding Observations: Azerbaijan’ CCPR/C/AZE/CO/4 (November 16, 2016), 14.

  56. 56.

    See for example, HRC ‘Concluding Observations: Gambia’ CCPR/C/GMB/CO/2 (August 30, 2018), 13; HRC ‘Concluding Observations: Nepal’ CCPR/C/NPL/CO/2 (April 15, 2014), 8.

  57. 57.

    See for example, HRC ‘Nepal’ (2014), 8.

  58. 58.

    CESCR ‘Concluding Observations: Nepal’ E/C.12/NPL/CO/3 (August 31, 2014), 14 (emphasis added). See also CESCR ‘Concluding Observations: Afghanistan’ E/C.12/AFG/CO/2–4 (June 7, 2010), 18; CESCR ‘Concluding Observations: Niger’ E/C.12/NER/CO/1 (May 29, 2018), 14; CESCR ‘Concluding Observations: Rwanda’ E/C.12/RNA/CO/2–4 (2013), 9.

  59. 59.

    See for example, CESCR ‘Concluding Observations: Albania E/C.12/ALB/CO/2–3 (2012), 33.

  60. 60.

    See for example, CESCR ‘Concluding Observations: Sri Lanka’ E/C.12/LKA/CO/2–4 (December 9, 2010), 15.

  61. 61.

    CESCR ‘Concluding Observation on Solomon Islands’ E/C.12/1/Add.33 (May 14, 1999), 16.

  62. 62.

    CRC ‘Concluding Observations of Burkina Faso’ CRC/C/BFA/CO/3–4 (February 9, 2010), 44. See also, CRC ‘Concluding Observation of Algeria’ CRC/C/DZA/CO/3–4 (June 15, 2012), 28; CRC ‘Concluding Observations: Andorra’ CRC/C/AND/CO/2 (December 3, 2012), 24; CRC ‘Concluding Observations: Brazil’ CRC/C/BRA/CO/2–4 (October 2, 2015), 23; CRC ‘Concluding Observations: Cuba’ CRC/C/CUB/CO/2 (August 3, 2011), 24; CRC ‘Concluding Observations: Colombia’ CRC/C/COL/CO/4–5 (March 6, 2015), 19(b); CRC ‘Concluding Observations: Ecuador’ CRC/C/ECU/CO/5–6 (October 26, 2017), 18(c); CRC ‘Concluding Observations: Honduras’ CRC/C/HND/CO/3 (May 3, 2007), 31.

  63. 63.

    CRC ‘General Comment No. 20 on the Implementation of the rights of the child during adolescence’ CRC/C/GC/20 (December 6, 2016), 28 (emphasis added). See also CRC ‘General Comment No. 12 The Right of the Child to be heard’ CRC/C/GC/12 (June 20, 2009), 77.

  64. 64.

    See for example, CRC ‘Concluding Observations: Sri Lanka’ CRC/C/LKA/CO/5–6 (March 2, 2018), 26(a).

  65. 65.

    See for example, CRC ‘Concluding Observations: Namibia’ CRC/C/NAM/CO/2–3 (October 16, 2012), 30(b).

  66. 66.

    See for example, CEDAW and CRC (2014), 9.

  67. 67.

    See for example, CRC ‘Concluding observations on the combined third and fourth periodic reports of China, adopted by the Committee at its sixty-fourth session’ CRC/C/CHN/CO/3–4 (October 3, 2013), 27.

  68. 68.

    See for example, CRC ‘Concluding Observations: India’ CRC/C/IND/CO/3–4 (June 13, 2014), 33.

  69. 69.

    CRPD ‘General Comment No. 3 on women and girls with disabilities’ CRPD/C/GC/3 (September 2, 2016), 37 and 55 (emphasis added).

  70. 70.

    CRPD ‘General Comment No. 5 on living independently and being included in the community’ CRPD/C/GC/5 (October 27, 2017), 77.

  71. 71.

    For rare examples of adopting CEDAW Committee language and nothing further, see Working Group of Experts on People of African Descent (2018), 59; De Schutter (2012), 43; Kiai (2014), 66.

  72. 72.

    OHCHR Resolution 1994/45 [Question of integrating the rights of women into the human rights mechanisms of the United Nations and the elimination of violence against women] (1994).

  73. 73.

    For further reading on the role and function of Special Procedures see generally, Naples-Mitchell (2011).

  74. 74.

    UNHRC. 2002. Resolution on the Integration of the Human Rights of Women and the Gender Perspective. E/CN.4/2002/L.59, April 16.

  75. 75.

    The implications of conflating ‘patriarchy’ and ‘harmful practices’ on the application of CEDAW article 5 is discussed further in Mudgway (2020).

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Acknowledgements

The author wishes to thank Research Assistant, Charlene Cooper, for their valuable help with the tedious task of searching the relevant UN documents.

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Appendix

Appendix

See Tables 1 and 2.

Table 1 Number of mentions of ‘patriarchal’ or ‘patriarchy’ by UN Treaty Monitoring Bodies (concluding observations (CO) and general comments (GC) or General Recommendations (GR), from 1989 to 2018)
Table 2 Number of mentions of ‘patriarchal’, ‘patriarchalism’ and ‘patriarchy’ by Special Procedures (annual reports from 1992 to 2018)

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Mudgway, C. Can International Human Rights Law Smash the Patriarchy? A Review of ‘Patriarchy’ According to United Nations Treaty Bodies and Special Procedures. Fem Leg Stud 29, 67–105 (2021). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10691-021-09456-4

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Keyword

  • Human rights
  • International law
  • Patriarchy
  • United Nations
  • Women