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ENGAGE Fellowship: 87th Session of CEDAW

April 19, 2024

ENGAGE Fellowships support law students seeking to take part in internationally focused research projects, conferences, or fact-finding missions under the guidance of Penn Carey Law faculty (professors, lecturers, or adjuncts).

By Hayley Smith L’24

For my legislative clinic at the University of Pennsylvania Carey Law School, I had the opportunity to work with Professor Rangita de Silva de Alwis, Senior Adjunct Professor of Global Leadership at Penn Carey Law, and member of the Treaty Body Expert Committee for the UN Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW).

Because of Professor de Silva de Alwis’s position on the CEDAW Committee, in this clinic placement I was able to explore the contours of women’s rights across the globe. The CEDAW is a treaty that aims to protect the rights of women around the world and hold state parties who have ratified the treaty to its purpose: “To eliminate discrimination against women and girls in all areas and promote women’s and girls’ equal rights.”

To be chosen to attend the 87th CEDAW session by Professor de Silva de Alwis was an unexpected privilege for which I’m immensely grateful. To be able to stand at the United Nations Office in Geneva among some of the most accomplished women in the world—including both CEDAW experts and the interns they had chosen to assist them—was astonishing. The Penn Carey Law Office of International Affairs provided me with financial assistance for my trip through its ENGAGE Fellowship program.

My interest in international legal systems started at a young age. I spent most of my formative years in The Bahamas. I moved to the United States as a teenager, and once I began attending high school there, I became interested in the American political system and culture, and how they differ from those of The Bahamas. I continued to be curious about other countries’ political systems as well; in college, I traveled to Ireland and Northern Ireland to study comparative law. The thread of international curiosity continued into law school, where I tried to satiate my interest by taking an international law class each semester. I even participated in the Vis International Commercial Arbitration Moot Court Competition. This all culminated in connecting with Professor de Silva de Alwis and attending the CEDAW Committee Session.

CEDAW 2024 At the CEDAW Session, I was able to sit in on several state party reporting sessions. On the first day, I stepped into a room filled with experts who had been nominated by their home country to sit on the CEDAW Committee, and a state party delegation that was sent to report and answer the Committee’s questions on the status of its country’s gender equality efforts. Each expert asked the delegations questions about their state parties’ work to advance the equality of women. I was also able to attend sessions with non-governmental organizations, which helped to provide on-the-ground perspective regarding the state parties’ efforts. Attending these sessions allowed me to see the inner workings of several countries’ policy-making apparatuses.

The CEDAW Session provided direct immersion into the international policy-making arena. During the individual sessions, my role was to ensure that Professor de Silva de Alwis had everything she needed to be able to adequately address and question the state parties in attendance. As I attended these sessions, I would research questions based on the responses of the state party delegates, take notes on the presentations by state parties and non-governmental organizations, and work alongside other interns to polish briefs and memos.

Attending the CEDAW Session was an exercise in collaboration and empathy. The Session allowed women from around the globe to contribute to the common goal of improving equality between women and men. This required being able to work with others, hear their concerns, and find a way to express such concerns to a sovereign state.

The experience helped me develop an even deeper level of intellectual curiosity about the circumstances that exist in other countries as well as the cultural and historical backgrounds that ground a country’s practices and laws. I was able to explore different state parties’ judicial systems and look at the wide range of issues that impact women’s rights, such as climate and freedom of expression laws.

As I continue to work with Professor de Silva de Alwis, I hope to learn even more about the intricacies of global governance and policy-making. Even though I will be heading to a big law firm after graduation, my hope is to return to the public international law sector at some point and focus on comparative law and women’s rights.

Through my experience with the CEDAW, I gained an incredible mentor whose dedication and brilliance continue to astound me. Professor de Silva de Alwis’s commitment to the betterment of women’s lives around the world inspires me to engage in activities that advance the lives of those who may not be able to advocate for themselves.