CEDAW inquiry into grave violence against Aboriginal women in Canada

This post, authored by Meghan Campbell, was first published on the Oxford Human Rights Hub on 25 March 2015 and is republished here with the permission of the author. 

On March 6, 2015 the CEDAW Committee released its second inquiry into grave and systemic violations of CEDAW under the Article 8 of the OP-CEDAW. This inquiry was initiated by the Feminist Alliance for International Action and the Native Women’s Association of Canada. These two organisations alleged grave and systematic violations of CEDAW in relation to the disproportionately high levels of violence experienced by Aboriginal women and girls in Canada. Particularly, they argued Canada was in breach of CEDAW because (i) there was no co-ordinated national action plan to address the root causes of violence; (ii) the failures of law enforcement to protect and prevent violence against Aboriginal women and (iii) there was no national public inquiry into missing and murdered Aboriginal women.

The CEDAW inquiry found a firm factual basis for these allegations. Between 1960 and 2013, 663 Aboriginal women have gone missing or being murdered (para 4). In the period 2000-2008 the murders of Aboriginal women represent 10 per cent of the total number of female homicides, despite the fact that Aboriginal women make up only 3 per cent of the total female population (para 7). Aboriginal women are 3.5 times more likely to experience domestic violence and sexual assault than non-Aboriginal women and 5 times more likely to die of violence (para 3).

Canada did not deny the factual claims but argued that its response to violence against women was sufficient to discharge its obligations under CEDAW. The government provided extensive evidence of the funding, programmes and government studies undertaken to prevent further violence against Aboriginal women (para 32-81).

The main focus of the inquiry was the appropriateness of the Canada’s response. After a country visit, the inquiry concluded that Canada’s efforts to address violence against Aboriginal women and girls were inadequate in light of the gravity of the situation. To meet the due diligence standard under Article 2 of CEDAW the formal framework established by Canada must be in practice be effective and available.

The report provides numerous examples of where Canada has failed Aboriginal women and this post highlights a just a few of the findings from the inquiry. First, the Committee concluded that the federal and provincial studies on violence against Aboriginal often had a limited mandate; the recommendations were at times general or ignored and never implemented (para 100-104). Second, the high incidence of poverty, inadequate housing, lack of education and employment opportunities increases Aboriginal women’s vulnerability to violence (para 112). Although Canada has taken step, the measures ‘have not gone far enough’ (para 117). For example, when asked for information on anti-poverty programmes, Canada it did not provide any specific reference to the needs of Aboriginal women and girls (para 118-19). Third, Aboriginal women are reluctant to report violence to the police ‘mainly due to police behaviour and bias’ (para 138). Stereotypical attitudes of Aboriginal women as prostitutes or runaways engaging in high-risk lifestyles often negatively impacted the quality of the police investigation. (para 136-37, 205). While Canada has taken steps to provide gender sensitivity training for police and has developed protocols on investigating cases of missing and murdered Aboriginal women, these are of limited efficiency due to their non-binding nature and lack of oversight and enforcement mechanisms (para 144).

The inquiry also made important contributions to the development of CEDAW. It re-emphasises the importance of substantive equality by holding that it is not sufficient for Canada to apply the same standards to Aboriginal women as have been applied to others. Aboriginal women are particularly vulnerable and Canada’s response needs to account for their disadvantaged position in society. The Committee also highlighted the importance of addressing poverty in protecting Aboriginal women from violence. While there are no substantive obligations in CEDAW on poverty, the Committee is employing a rich interpreting of the treaty to address an underlying cause of violence against Aboriginal women. The inquiry noted that achieving equality before the law (Article 15) is ‘necessarily related to positive obligations…to fulfil economic and social rights enshrined in CEDAW’ (para 199). At the same time, the full development and advancement of women (Article 3) requires Canada to take positive measures to ensure access to education, housing, transportation and support to families and children.

The inquiry offers a series of recommendations to combat violence, improve socio-economic conditions and eliminate discrimination against Aboriginal women and called for a national public inquiry and plan of action. Canada accepted 34 of the 38 recommendations, but unfortunately it still resists holding a national inquiry and plan of action. Notwithstanding this, the CEDAW inquiry is an important contribution to understanding intersectional discrimination and gender inequality. Hopefully it can form the basis for continued dialogue between government officials and the Aboriginal community so as to end violence against Aboriginal women and girls.

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