Can CEDAW address the issue of Gender-based Poverty in Urban Areas?

by | May 13, 2024

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About Kelly Jane Bishop

Kelly Jane Bishop is a PhD candidate at the Institute of Public Law, Faculty of Law, University of Bern, Switzerland. She was a visiting doctoral researcher with the Socio-Economic Rights Project (SERP) at the Dullah Omar Institute, University of the Western Cape, South Africa in 2022 -2023 and is a Consultant at Ximpulse.

By 2050, 66 per cent of the world’s population is projected to live in urban areas, and UN Women estimates that one in seven people live in deprived urban areas today. Women will form the majority of the people living in cities and evidence from UN Habitat shows that they are increasingly affected by urban poverty such as inadequate access to shelter and service. However, none of the UN human rights conventions or treaties include a specific reference to gender-based poverty in urban areas or explicit human rights obligations to address this concern. Nevertheless, despite the supposed limitation of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) framework to rural areas, the argument of “rural-like” living conditions raised in L.A. et al v North Macedonia before the CEDAW Committee provides an opportunity to address gender-based poverty in urban areas. 

What obligations arise under CEDAW for situations of gender-based poverty in urban areas?

Article 14 CEDAW is seen to be the central provision to address gender-based poverty issues. It includes a range of rights with constitutive and instrumental relevance for poverty. However, the wording of Article 4 mentions rural women and CEDAW’s General Recommendation No. 34 mainly focuses on issues concerning the global South. Hence, CEDAW implicitly sees the geographical location as a category for disadvantage or discrimination, which seemingly limits the application of the provision firstly, to rural areas and secondly, to the global South. This underlying notion disregards an increase in inequality in urban areas and human rights challenges that women in both the global North and South face (UN Habitat 2022; UN Habitat & UN Women 2020; UN Habitat 2017).

Is there a potential avenue to address gender-based poverty in urban areas?

One potential avenue to close this gap can be detected in a communication by the CEDAW Committee. In L.A. et al v North Macedonia, the Committee seems to be open to subsume under Article 14 CEDAW situations that occur in urban context when the living conditions are “rural-like”. The case concerns three claimants (referred to as “authors”) of Roma ethnicity who lived in a settlement without tenure to land when the City of Skopje decided to “clean up” the settlement based on an urban plan to construct a road there [2.5, 2.7]. The settlement was destroyed, and the municipality did not offer the authors alternative accommodation [2.8]. The authors claimed inadequate access to health care, which they claimed was owed to their poor living conditions and the fact that they were discriminated against based on their ethnicity [3.9-2.11]). They argued that since “their living conditions and the challenges that they face are identical to those of women living in rural areas […]. […] as members of a marginalized community living in conditions akin to a rural setting […] the State party has violated their rights under article 14 (2) (b) of the Convention” [3.6].

Although the Committee did not separately address the argument of “rural-like living”, it referenced Articles 12 (1) and (2) together with Articles 14 (2) (b) and (h) of CEDAW, thus interpreting the authors’ situation and place of residence to fall implicitly under Article 14 of CEDAW on rural women. Rather than stressing the “rural-like” living conditions, the Committee highlighted the obligation of State Parties to ensure access to healthcare services in connection with pregnancy, as well as the barriers faced by Roma women, and viewed the State party to have violated Articles 2 (d) and (f), 12 (1) and (2) and 14 (2) (b) and (h) of CEDAW [9.5, 9.7].

Opportunity for change?

The Committee did not address the urban construction plans or whether they had discriminated against the authors or how they aggravated the situation and vulnerability of the authors clearly living in an urban settlement without tenure, because the place was subject to the municipal jurisdiction of the City of Skopje. Since the CEDAW Committee did not engage with the authors argument of “rural-like living” explicitly but simply stated a violation of Article 14 CEDAW, only time will tell whether the CEDAW Committee will consistently take this approach in future.

Nevertheless, this communication by the Committee has opened up an avenue to address gender-based poverty in urban areas under the argument of “rural-like” living conditions. This presents an important opportunity to bridge the gap in obligations regarding urban gender-based poverty and can promote positive change in the direction of the law.

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