A network of women’s organizations and activists, CLADEM (Latin American and Caribbean Committee for the Defense of Women’s Rights) is committed to the defense of women’s rights in Latin America and the Caribbean. It was founded in 1987 in Costa Rica, two years after female lawyers at the United Nations World Conference in Nairobi, Kenya, gathered to discuss strategies for defending women’s rights against official corruption, gender bias, administrative delay and a lack of political will. Today comprising about 200 individual and organizational associates in 14 countries (Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador, El Salvador, Honduras, Mexico, Panama, Paraguay, Peru, Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic and Uruguay), CLADEM promotes women’s rights by monitoring international treaties, proposing legislative reforms, undertaking research and training, and organizing group action where needed. The focus of the organization has evolved over time to take in the full range of women’s human rights issues. In the 1980s, CLADEM was primarily concerned with making violence against women visible – to make domestic violence a public issue and a legal matter, not a personal one. This was a difficult challenge because it involved confronting not only those who may have shared the interests of the perpetrators of violence, but also the institutions created by them, which said that the law should not play the same role in private places as it did in public. In effect, the law came only to the door of the house. CLADEM learned that domestic violence needed to be addressed as a social problem, a legal problem, and a political problem that touched on issues pertaining to democracy. In the late 1980s and into the 1990s, CLADEM was also working on sexual and reproductive rights and working to keep the state out of that arena. According to Norma Enríquez, Regional Coordinator of CLADEM, the organization’s great achievement is to have questioned society and to have been able to make the argument that a vital aspect of human life is the exercise of sexuality, which must be respectfully referred to in laws pertaining to human rights. In the first part of its battle against violence against women, CLADEM demanded the intervention of the state to ensure that people would have their choices respected and be able to live their sexuality freely and with dignity, including the way in which they use their reproductive rights. CLADEM has asserted that the state must establish what constitutes violence against women, a crime, while in the area of sexual choices or practices, the focus needs to be on the needs and desires of the people, taking into account the dignity and respect that they should have toward each other.
In addition to the legal reform that CLADEM has helped bring about, the organization has been instrumental in increasing the political participation of women. According to Ms. Enriquez, women have had a high level of social participation in contributing to the strengthening of family welfare in the community, but political participation has been a struggle. The right to vote is not the same as the right to be elected. This is why CLADEM has always demanded affirmative action, quota laws, and the review of political parties’ regulations for the participation of women on the Supreme Courts of every country. The quota laws that now exist in most Latin American countries and the Dominican Republic help move political parties and heads of state to provide women with a greater opportunity to participate in the political process.
Every three to four years, CLADEM brings together its board members and representatives from every country in which it has a presence for the purpose of designing an overall strategy. Although there is a general direction agreed to, differences among Latin American countries and in the Caribbean are taken into account in creating local strategies. CLADEM representatives in each country have absolute freedom to develop the emphasis they know to be most needed in that country. For example, in Central America there has been much emphasis placed on the responsibility of states in regard to sex education, freedom for sex education projects, and increasing women’s access to the health sector when life experiences lead them to take action such as seeking an abortion or changes in their healthcare or living conditions. In this region, special emphasis is being placed on sexual and reproductive rights, while in other countries, such as Colombia, the emphasis is on defending a broader spectrum of women’s human rights.
CLADEM brings cases involving human rights violations against women to national and international courts and seeks to hold governments to the commitments they have made through treaty or legislation. It advocates and monitors compliance with international agreements such as the Programme for Action for the empowerment of women that was adopted at the United Nations International Conference on Population and Development held in Cairo, Egypt, in 1994; the treaty ratified by 25 Latin American and Caribbean countries following the Inter-American Convention on the Prevention, Punishment, and Eradication of Violence Against Women, held in Belem Do Para, Brazil, in 1994; and the Platform for Action, designed to remove every obstacle to women’s active participation in all spheres of public and private life, adopted at the United Nations Fourth World Conference on Women, held in Beijing in 1995. The name “CLADEM” refers to the organization’s commitment to true democracy – one that manifests itself in the daily lives of women and of all people – and to peace. For CLADEM, the combination of democracy and peace is seen as fundamental to a world with gender equality and a lack of all types of discrimination.