by Grace Poore, IGLHRC Regional Coordinator for Asia and Pacific Islands
The purpose of the Convention for the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), which is monitored by a Committee, is to codify international legal standards for women’s rights. To date, 186 countries have ratified CEDAW. Twice a year in Geneva and once a year in New York, a committee of 23 independent experts meets to hear how governments are implementing the convention to ensure equality for women. To supplement the information they receive from the state, the CEDAW Committee also reviews reports from NGOs (called shadow reports) to get a truer picture of women’s lives and what the state is doing to advance women’s equality.
The International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission (IGLHRC) assists NGOs to develop shadow reports, sponsors activist travel so they can present their issues directly to the CEDAW Committee, and assists groups to prepare oral statements that the CEDAW Committee hears during informal meetings and briefings with NGOs.
With the humidity outside, it felt like 110 degrees, but inside Conference Room 3 of the North Lawn Building of the New York campus of the United Nations, temperatures vacillated between cold frustration and fiery excitement during the Singapore review at the 49th Session of the Committee for the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW). Time and again, the Singapore state delegation side-stepped questions or minimized discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation and gender identity (SOGI) as members of the CEDAW Committee repeatedly asked how the Singapore government addresses the numerous inequalities faced by sexual minority women .
On July 22, I joined three members of Sayoni, a Singapore lesbian, bisexual and transsexual women’s group, who had travelled from their country to New York for a training on CEDAW, to meet CEDAW members and attend the CEDAW session to monitor how human rights violations of lesbian, bisexual and transgender (LBT) people would be covered during the review of Singapore. We could barely suppress relief, gratitude and joy as we saw how the CEDAW Committee held the government of Singapore accountable. The Committee’s response was a testament to Sayoni’s well-written shadow report and continuous education of members of the Committee about issues facing LBT people in Singapore.
In 2007, under its last review by CEDAW, the Singapore state delegation denied that women faced discrimination on the basis of their sexual orientation and gender identity. In its statement to the CEDAW Committee, the state said, “Singapore respected human rights, but it was subjected to contradictory pressures. It upheld morality and human rights very stringently, but in the context of what was best for the majority and for society. With regard to homosexuality, the majority was still quite conservative. Homosexuals were not discriminated against; they had the same right to employment, education or housing as everyone else.” 
Unconvinced by this response and in preparation for the 2011 CEDAW session, the CEDAW Committee asked Singapore, “Please comment on reports with regard to prevalent and systematic discrimination against women based on sexual orientation and gender identity in the social, cultural, political and economic spheres in the State party. What measures are being undertaken to address these problems, especially with a view to destigmatizing and promoting tolerance to that end.” 
The value of having questions on SOGI posed by the CEDAW Committee in the preliminary list of issues and during the subsequent constructive dialogue (more about this later) with the government is that the issue then stands a chance of being reflected in the Committee’s Concluding Comments and recommendations to the state.
At the start of this CEDAW session, the Minister of State and Chair of the Singapore state delegation, Halimah Yacob, presented the state report but failed to mention sexual orientation even once. During subsequent exchanges with the CEDAW Committee in what is termed “constructive dialogue with the state,” various members of the Singapore delegation chose to deflect questions about sexual orientation or treat these questions as relevant to Singapore’s domestication of the CEDAW Convention, i.e., on the ground implementation of the principles of the Convention.
At one point, Ms. Yacob said, “I want to say categorically that there is no systematic policy of discrimination against LGBTs.” Another time she said, “Our laws are gender neutral. We do not look at the sexuality of the person. If someone who is LGBT is discriminated at work, they can appeal to the MOM (Ministry of Manpower) to review the dismissal. That applies to all the other public services that is provided.”
CEDAW Committee Questions that Explicitly Addressed LBT Women
The following questions and comments by several members of the CEDAW Committee during the constructive dialogue with Singapore capture the ways in which multiple discriminations play out in the lives of sexual minority women — in clear violation of international human rights standards.
- Dubravka Simonovic (CEDAW expert from Croatia) – “Recommendations from previous concluding observations of the Committee are not taken up … prohibition of discrimination on sex and gender, and also are you considering the possibility to prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation?”
- Patricia Schulz (CEDAW expert from Switzerland) – “I have looked at the rules concerning one of the Disadvantaged groups of women. Lesbian, bisexual and transgender women seem to live in a weird legal framework. Article 377a of the penal code criminalizes homosexuality between consenting adult men, not between women. But women are probably indirectly affected in their enjoyment of rights to housing and employment due to this criminalization of homosexuality. Is it so? And do these women also enjoy the rights to shared property, inheritance rights, etc. In addition, various regulations from the Media Development Authority prohibits the positive or even neutral depiction of lesbianism. I have read on the Internet that media are regularly fined for violation of this regulation, simply for showing lesbianism as acceptable. Please explain how you reconcile this regulation with Article 2 of the convention and General Recommendation 28, that prohibits all forms of discrimination against ALL women including on the grounds of sexual orientation and gender identity. Please also explain if and why you consider that the Media Development Authority’s regulation is compatible with Article 5 of the CEDAW Convention, considering the negative stereotyping of LBT women due to the MDA regulations.”
- Silvia Pimentel (CEDAW expert from Brazil and chair of the Committee) – “Article 19 of the CEDAW Convention specifies elimination of prejudice … How is the Singapore government ensuring that its laws are prohibiting any form of bias and discrimination because of sex, sexual orientation, age, place of birth, religion? … Are you envisaging the possibility of removing censorship of homosexuality from media codes and policies? We know the power of media reinforcing prejudices in society … Will you amend the law on domestic violence and extend it to de facto couples and same-sex couples? … Singapore healthcare system is supposed to be affordable and accessible to all. Does the state recognize women in same-sex partnership in public health policies so that they can access medical rights, financing and family planning?
- Maria Helena Lopez (CEDAW expert from Timor Leste) – “… in paragraph 58 of your responses to the list of issues, you spoke of encouraging minority groups and women with disabilities to participate actively in political and public life. Especially with reference to the principle of non-discrimination as contained in the Committee’s General Recommendation 28 pertaining to sexual orientation … I wanted to know whether this includes sexual minority women … One of the members of your delegation … spoke about the requirement for public servants to consult with stakeholders. And again, in relation to sexual orientation, I wanted to know whether that includes women of sexual minorities.
- Niklas Bruun (CEDAW expert from Finland) – “… regarding sexual harassment in the workplace, you have said the Penal Code and other legislation can be used to address this but as seen in other countries, there needs to be separate legislation on sexual harassment in the workplace. In this regard are you paying attention to the problems that vulnerable women may face due to, for instance, their sexual orientation?
- Magalys Arocha (CEDAW expert from Cuba) – “[you have said] all persons are equal before the law no matter what their sexual orientation … have the right to access to all basic services including the right to complain … I’d like to know what measures have been adopted to ensure compliance … what kind of administrative action has been taken, what kind of awareness raising has taken place, what changes in subjectivity have been provided for government workers, for educators, for medical personnel, and those in the legal system to ensure that there is no direct or indirect discrimination in any service provided? In other words, what are the mechanisms that have been provided to analyze, assess and follow up cases of discrimination and complaints that are filed by women from minority groups who experience discrimination based on sexual orientation and sexual identity?
- Olinda Bareiro (CEDAW expert from Paraguay) – “How does the state party support women’s associations defending the rights of women? And the rights of women’s movements for sexual freedom and for gender parity. I think this women’s movement, madam, is the best guarantee we have for finding what we are all seeking and that is equality for women in Singapore.”
- Ruth Kaddari (CEDAW expert from Israel) – “… What are rights of de facto unions in Singapore especially economic, monetary rights of women who are not formally married? Are they recognized in any way?”
Despite the Government of Singapore’s pronouncements—which are clearly disconnected from the reality of what it means to be invisible, afraid of living and working openly as a lesbian, and targeted for being gender variant—I found the exchange between the CEDAW Committee and the Singapore state delegation to be a rewarding experience. It reflected years of work to get the CEDAW Committee on par with other treaty monitoring bodies regarding sexual orientation and gender identity. At this session, I was particularly elated by the responsiveness of the Committee to our presentations on the intersectional aspects of discrimination—where sexual orientation and gender identity meet housing, employment, healthcare, welfare benefits, property rights, and lack of protections from family and partner violence.
I remember how much work it took to achieve this level of recognition of LGBT rights. I recall IGLHRC’s statement to the Committee about the need to explicitly include SOGI in its General Comment on Article 2 of the convention. I have warm memories of the successful launch of Equal and Indivisible: Crafting Inclusive Shadow Reports for CEDAW, IGLHRC’s handbook for writing CEDAW shadow reports incorporating SOGI, which Sayoni told me they found invaluable for producing their shadow report. I remember working with colleagues to develop IGLHRC’s recommendation on the intersection of discrimination on the basis of age and sexual orientation – and our joy when hearing that the Committee had included SOGI in General Recommendation No. 27 on older women and protection of their human rights and General Recommendation No. 28 on the Core Obligations of States Parties under Article 2 of CEDAW – both of which make explicit that discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity is inextricably linked with discrimination against women on the basis of sex or gender and that it must be prohibited and addressed under States’ CEDAW obligations.
Throughout this CEDAW session, Committee members wanted to interact with NGOs working on LBT rights and wanted to learn more about the realities of LBT people’s lives. This to me is a significant change in the way CEDAW has historically viewed sexual orientation and gender identity. One member of the Committee who previously opposed the idea that CEDAW’s mandate should cover these issues has since changed her mind, because the UN system has progressively recognized SOGI as grounds for human rights violations. For her it was a matter of now complying with the positions taken by the UN Secretary General, Ban Ki Moon and the UN General Assembly.
Of significant note during the 49th session of CEDAW is that sexual orientation and gender identity not only came up during the review of Singapore but also during the review of two other Asian countries, South Korea (Republic of Korea NGO Report, LCC Shadow Report) and Nepal
I hope the Committee’s willingness to engage with the Government of Singapore on SOGI carries through to the next step – making sure to include these issues in its Concluding Comments and recommendations to the state. Until then, members of Sayoni as well as the broader LGBT community in Singapore will hold their breath and wait.
 “sexual minority” is a term used by CEDAW and Sayoni.
 CEDAW Committee, 39th Session, Summary Record of the 803rd meeting—consideration of reports submitted by States parties under article 18 of the Convention: Third periodic report of Singapore. UN Doc. CEDAW/C/SR.803 (A) (2007)
 List of Issues and Questions With Regard to the Consideration of Periodic Reports: Singapore, November 4, 2010. CEDAW/C/SGP/Q/4