What is CEDAW?
The Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) is the most comprehensive international agreement on the human rights of women. It calls for States to eliminate all forms of discrimination on the basis of gender and sets an agenda for achieving full equality between women and men.
By ratifying the Convention, States commit themselves to undertake a series of measures in order to achieve equality:
- Incorporate the principle of equality of men and women in their legal system
- Abolish all discriminatory laws and adopt appropriate ones prohibiting discrimination against women
- Establish tribunals and other public institutions to ensure the effective protection of women against discrimination
- Eliminate of all acts of discrimination against women by persons, organisations or enterprises.
Adoption and Ratification
The Convention was adopted by the United Nations’ General Assembly in December 1979 and came into force in 1981. As of 2013, 187 countries have ratified the Convention. The UN member states that have not yet ratified the convention are: Iran, Palau, Somalia, South Sudan, Sudan, Tonga and the United States. The countries that have signed the Convention must report every four years on progress towards its implementation.
The Convention permits reservations to specific articles, provided that the reservations are not incompatible with the object and purpose of the Convention. There are a number of States that have put forward reservations on the ground that national law, tradition, religion or culture are not fitting with Convention principles.
On 12 March 1999 an Optional Protocol was added to CEDAW. This Protocol contains two procedures: 1) a communications procedure allowing individual women or groups of women, to submit claims of violations of rights to the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women; 2) an inquiry procedure enabling the CEDAW Committee to initiate inquiries into situations of grave or systematic violations of women’s rights. In either case, States must be party to the Protocol. Ninety-nine countries have ratified the Optional Protocol.
Article 2 Obliges States that have ratified the Convention to
- Condemn discrimination against women;
- Embody the principle of equality of women and men;
- Establish legal protections against discrimination;
- Refrain from any act which discriminates against women;
- Introduce legislation or other measures to modify or abolish laws, regulations, customs, and practices that amount to discrimination.
Articles 3 to 6 Require that all appropriate measures be taken in all fields to ensure the full development and advancement of women.
Articles 7 to 9 Protect women’s rights in public and political life, including the rights to
- Vote and be eligible for election on equal terms with men;
- Participate on an equal basis with men in non-governmental organisations and public and political associations;
- Have equal opportunity to represent their governments and participate in the work of international organisations;
- Have equal rights with men to acquire, change, or retain their nationality and that of their children.
Articles 10 to 13 Require the elimination of discrimination against women in education, employment, health care, and economic and social life
- With respect to access to studies at the pre-school, general, technical, professional, higher technical and vocational training levels and to employment, health, economic and social and cultural life.
- Women and girls are to be provided, in both urban and rural areas, with access to the same curricula, examinations and qualified teaching staff, and to premises and equipment of the same quality as men and boys.
- All appropriate measures must be taken in employment including equal remuneration, benefits, and equal treatment for work of equal value.
- Women must have access to health care services including those related to family planning.
- Women are to be granted the same rights as men to social benefits, bank loans, mortgages and other forms of financial credit.
Article 14 Addresses the particular problems of rural women and the significant role they play in the economic life of families.
Article 15 Guarantees women equality before the law
Article 16 Addresses the issue of equality with respect to marriage and family.
The above summary of the major provisions was provided by the GWI Working Group on the Girl Child
- Full text of CEDAW Articles, Human Rights Council
- CEDAW Articles at a glance (pdf), adapted from UNIFEM
- Confronting Discrimination: CEDAW and the Optional Protocol Handbook for Parliamentarians, United Nations
How does it work?
Monitoring women’s rights
Implementation of CEDAW is overseen by the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women. The Committee consists of 23 independent experts whose main responsibility is to assess each State party’s progress and to identify obstacles to the full realisation of CEDAW’s goals. The CEDAW Committee members are almost all women and come from a wide variety of disciplines (economists, diplomats, lawyers and sociologists).
State parties are required to submit periodic reports every four years showing significant developments, key trends and remaining barriers to the full achievement of the Convention. The Committee then identifies a list of issues and questions, to which the State is requested to respond, in order to clarify and complete the information of the report. The review is a dialogue between the country and the Committee in an atmosphere that promotes a free exchange of ideas, information and suggestions. After its consideration, the Committee publishes its observations, highlighting areas where work is still needed. The list of countries and dates, reports and Concluding Observations can be viewed in the section on “Reporting”.
How can NGOs participate?
NGOs can make important contributions to this process. The Committee highly encourages the submission of alternative reports by NGOs and uses this information to formulate its questions to States.
Six to seven months prior to the official session, a pre-session working group reviews any complementary information together with the official country report and draws up the questions and issues to the government. NGO representatives are welcome to participate in both the pre-sessional working group meeting and at the official session. For more detailed information on how NGOs can participate, see here.
Bringing the Convention to Life
Implementation of CEDAW varies by country. Some countries, such as Brazil, have drafted new constitutions that reflect the Convention’s goals. Others, such as Australia, have introduced legislation prohibiting sex discrimination or entrenching affirmative action policies. Some have pursued the provisions of the Convention through national plans and policy directives. Sweden, for example, has established an Equal Opportunity Ombudsman.
In a number of countries, the Convention has influenced litigation. In Tanzania, CEDAW’s provisions were used to reverse a discriminatory customary law relating to clan land. In Botswana and Zimbabwe, judges used CEDAW to prohibit discrimination against women in citizenship laws.
CEDAW is a powerful tool that NGOs can use to achieve women’s equality. It is vital when campaigning for women’s rights at the national, regional and local level.