In celebration of International Women’s Day, Penn Carey Law is proud to highlight dedicated advocates working tirelessly in the crucial fight for gender justice around the world.
This article was written by Blanche Helbling L’21, an alum of “International Women’s Human Rights,” taught by Senior Adjunct Professor of Global Leadership Rangita de Silva de Alwis.
In 1979, the United Nations adopted the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW). Across the world, however, women continue to face normative injustices, abuse, and violence.
Associate Dean of International Affairs and Senior Adjunct Professor of Global Leadership Rangita de Silva de Alwis serves on the CEDAW Treaty Body Expert Committee, where she and her colleagues lead the effort to ensure that signatories to the CEDAW work to eliminate all forms of gender-based discrimination in their countries.
Chayla Sherrod L’23, the opportunity to work alongside de Silva de Alwis on this crucial, far-reaching work has been “career-altering.” After collaborating closely on other research, Sherrod traveled with de Silva de Alwis to Geneva, Switzerland to participate in CEDAW sessions that included government representatives from Hungary, Bahrain, Mauritania, Slovenia, Costa Rica, Norway, and Tunisia.For
“The work that Professor Rangita is doing can impact a generation of women,” Sherrod said. “We are creating General Recommendations for this treaty that governs and functions so vastly for generations to come. We are setting the example for these countries. We’re putting the pressure on governments to say, ‘OK, yes, you’ve been doing good, but you have to do better,’ and that is really exciting and unique work that I don’t think everyone has the opportunity to do.”
International Policy Engagement
Prior to law school, Sherrod studied on a Fulbright Scholarship in Namibia, examining the intersection of environmental policy, environmental justice, and human rights. When she enrolled in one of de Silva de Alwis’s courses, she was reminded of how much human rights work meant to her, and she sought to become more involved.
As a member of the CEDAW Treaty Body, de Silva de Alwis is tasked with identifying whether countries party to the CEDAW are in compliance with specific provisions of the treaty. As a Legislative Clinic student, Sherrod’s role is to assist de Silva de Alwis in conducting research on how certain CEDAW provisions are being advanced and upheld in different countries.
“My major role is doing research and compiling data. I’m looking at countries, making connections, and linking data to see if these countries are actually moving forward and progressing to tackle forms of discrimination against women,” Sherrod said. “It’s a very intersectional and complex set of research.”
Sherrod explained that part of the reason the research is so complex is that data on intersectional identities and social realities can be difficult to find. For example, a study may speak to the oppression of women in the workplace generally, but it is harder to find empirical evidence of whether the way a woman dresses contributes to that oppression, or whether having two kids instead of three may impact her potential upward workplace mobility.
Even with the inherent challenges, Sherrod continues to find working at the forefront of such a critical global issue to be both intellectually stimulating and deeply gratifying.
“I’ve always wanted to have impact outside of the community that I’m in, and this opportunity was a great way to do that,” Sherrod said. “I left Geneva with so many connections and friends, and my network has grown so much in my short time there. There are so many like-minded individuals who have the same interest, and that’s really exciting to me.”
Amplifying Women’s Rights Scholarship
Inspired by the energy surrounding the CEDAW Committee’s essential work for global gender justice, the Journal for Law and Public Affairs will devote its entire spring issue to cutting-edge thought leadership on the CEDAW.
“An academic journal can have a huge impact,” said Co-Editor in Chief of the Journal of Law and Public Affairs Tess Markovich L’23. “Highlighting the CEDAW’s work in an academic journal can bring it within the purview of scholars, policy makers, and law students in the U.S. and all around the world. This exposure aligns with and advances CEDAW’s global presence and sparks new interest and discussion of their work in the legal world both nationally and internationally.”
Later this semester, the Journal of Law and Public Affairs will celebrate the launch of its spring issue with a Symposium entitled “Virtual Roundtable Deliberation on CEDAW General Recommendation 41 – Stereotypes and Intersectionality.” The event will feature a robust discussion among an interdisciplinary group of Roundtable Conversationalists moderated by de Silva de Alwis and Harvard Kennedy School Lecturer Hannah Riley Bowles.
As of April 2022, there are 38 General Recommendations under the CEDAW. The focus of the upcoming symposium, General Recommendation 41, was drafted by de Silva de Alwis. At the Symposium, the panel of interlocutors will discuss the draft, which proposes that signatories to the CEDAW have an obligation to eradicate discrimination manifesting from stereotypes pertaining to women’s intersectional identities.
In a statement, de Silva de Alwis explained:
The journal will help to shape the drafting of CEDAW General Recommendation 41 on a new normative international framework on Gender Stereotypes. By reexamining the work of the treaty bodies to the CEDAW, Convention on the Rights of the Child, and The Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, my research indicates that, although human rights scholars like Shreya Atrey argue that intersectionality remains largely absent in the human rights treaty jurisprudence, the CEDAW more than other treaty bodies has been willing to address intersectional discrimination and stereotypes as a way to address systemic challenges to gender equality. Despite this, the CEDAW treaty body can do more through this new General Recommendation to examine emerging and continually evolving stereotypes based on intersectional identity, culture and religion in a time where governments are reclaiming “family values” and religious traditions as a defense against the full exercise of women’s rights. At the same time, new technologies pose both a promise and peril to gender equality. Algorithmic bias can help reproduce and reinforce gender bias in a way that can alter the way law and policies will shape both the private and public spheres.
Not only is the collaboration among partners to organize and sponsor this Symposium representative of the far-reaching impacts that the CEDAW has across communities, but it is also a testament to the CEDAW’s extensive importance. The Symposium is presented in conjunction with the UN’s CEDAW Committee, Harvard Law School, and the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. It is also co-sponsored by a wide range of Penn Carey Law student organizations, including:
- American Constitutional Society (ACS)
- Black Law Students Association (BLSA)
- Disabled & Allied Law Students Association (DALSA)
- International Law Society at Penn (ILSP)
- Muslim Law Student Association (MLSA)
- Penn Carey Law Lambda
Cultivating a strong community of advocates is central to the fight for gender justice. Guests from around the world join de Silva de Alwis’s courses to engage students in discussions of contemporary advocacy efforts. Among this semester’s guests is former Vice President of Afghanistan Dr. Sima Samar, who will join the “International Women’s Human Rights” class to discuss the evolving concept of Gender Apartheid in Iran and Afghanistan. Other guests who have joined the classes include Fawzia Koofi of Afghanistan and Gissou Nia of Iran.
For Markovich, who has taken every course de Silva de Alwis has taught, working alongside a community of advocates to amplify CEDAW work carries deep personal significance. Her mother had to leave her career as a young lawyer and diplomat in her home country to find safety in the United States before having her; now, Markovich regards human rights work as both a “calling” and a “gift” she is eager to continue to advance.
“The critical work that the CEDAW does is ever more important in our current climate,” Markovich said. “Women and girls are disproportionally impacted by many of the world’s problems, especially at an intersectional level. Shining a light on the CEDAW’s work at such a contentious time of human rights is an honor….Working on CEDAW-related innovations and research has been the highlight of my Penn Carey Law experience.”