One hundred and eighty six States, including Uganda which signed the CEDAW Convention in 1980, have committed to implementing this international human rights treaty that is sometimes described as a “bill of rights for women.” These states are required to submit regular reports on how they are implementing the rights in the CEDAW Convention to the CEDAW Committee – the committee made up of independent human rights experts from different countries monitors compliance, addresses concerns and offer recommendations to governments. Civil society also has the opportunity to inform the committee on how they see the human rights situation in their country in the form of ‘shadow’ or ‘alternative’ reports.

Given that CEDAW is referred to as a “bill of rights for women” how then is this relevant to discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity?

Kasha N. Jacqueline, the Executive Director of Freedom and Roam Uganda (FARUG), an organization that fights for the rights of lesbian, bisexual and transgender people in Uganda, explains, what the CEDAW Convention means to her organization and why they decided to submit a report to the CEDAW Committee:

“We are women, regardless of our sexual orientation. … At the end of the day it all comes down to women, and we are women regardless of our sexual identities, our sexual expressions, and sexual orientation. So whatever the convention talks about protection, respect against discrimination against women in all forms. We are part of that. I don’t have to sit here and start fighting with my government, because I am a woman. And my government is a party to this convention. …. CEDAW is CEDAW to us. And we are party to CEDAW because we are women, at the end of the day.”

The CEDAW Committee has essentially taken this same position. In their recent General Recommendation on Article 2 (a recommendation that interprets and provides guidance on Article 2 of CEDAW that deals with discrimination), the Committee affirmed that discrimination of women based on sex and gender is inextricably linked with other factors that affected women, such as race, ethnicity, religion or belief, sexual orientation and gender identity. Additionally, the Committee has, on numerous occasions, recommended that States end discrimination against lesbian, bisexual and transgender people on these bases.

Reporting Human Rights Violations to CEDAW

FARUG decided in mid-2009 to submit a report to the CEDAW Committee explaining and documenting their experiences as lesbian and bisexual women and transgender people facing constant misogyny, homophobia, and transphobia, discrimination and outright violence, as well as constructive recommendations to address these problems. Unfortunately their attention was diverted by the Anti-Homosexuality Bill of 2009, tabled in October 2009, and the immediate emergencies and needs that created. However, in 2010, FARUG turned their attention once again to the CEDAW process and the now-increased need to hold the Ugandan government accountable for violations of their human rights. In particular they wanted to highlight the particularly gendered aspects of these violations against lesbian and bisexual women, and transgender people.

The process of investigating and documenting these violations in order to report to the CEDAW Committee was an intense one. FARUG worked with members and friends who shared their stories, documentation, and analyses in interviews. Several themes and common experiences emerged including: family and community violence; suicide attempts; media outings and stereotyping of LGBT people; severe discrimination in health care access and quality, education, employment and housing; and an inability to move freely without harassment and attacks. FARUG staff members spoke of raids on their offices by police, and activists reported being targeted and arrested for their work.

FARUG’s Report & Suggested Recommendations

Kasha N. Jacqueline at the CEDAW Committee’s 47th Session in Geneva. Photo by Sara Perle.

As FARUG’s shadow report reveals, the most common and severe violations FARUG members reported experiencing were grouped under the articles of the CEDAW Convention that address discrimination and the rights to life, health, security, freedom from violence, education, work, housing, freedom to movement, and political and social life. FARUG also highlighted references to Uganda’s own Constitution that ensures these rights. FARUG members identified some of the most serious obstacles faced by LBT people in Uganda in realizing their human rights – including direct and indirect discrimination in the areas of education and health care. Also noted was the failure by the government to stop the media from inciting and aiding the violent targeting of suspected LGBT people.

Although many violations of the rights of LBT people in Uganda are perpetrated by non-State actors, the CEDAW Committee, after reviewing the documentation provided by the government and NGOs, can only address the State’s obligations under the CEDAW Convention, to respect, protect, and promote human rights.

FARUG included several suggestions for recommendations that the CEDAW Committee could give to the Ugandan government. When drafting these, many FARUG members pointed to the Anti-Homosexuality Bill—and the negative attitudes about, and violence and hatred towards, LGBT people that it incited in society–as a key piece of negative legislation that needed to be opposed. Despite significant advocacy, this proposed legislation has not been entirely removed from consideration and remains a threat. Although there were reports that the most notorious aspects of the bill, such as its application of the death penalty for what is termed ‘aggravated homosexuality’ have been removed, other parts of the bill that would target activists ability to even distribute material about the rights or health of LGBT people would be devastating to the movement if passed in their current form, or inserted into other pieces of legislation.

For FARUG, developing the shadow report was only the start of the process of bringing these violations and recommendations to the attention of the CEDAW committee. The next key step was to attend the session in Geneva at which Uganda’s report (and accompanying shadow reports like FARUG’s) were scheduled to be considered.

Part Two: Advocacy in Geneva and the CEDAW Committee’s Recommendations »