Between Their Stories and Our Realities -- Overview


II. The Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW)

The Women's Convention was the result of many years of work on the part of the Commission on the Status of Women, created in 1946 by the United Nations Economic and Social Council. In 1974, the commission began to prepare the Convention's text, basing its efforts on the Declaration on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women, adopted by the United Nations in 1967.

The Women's Convention was approved by the General Assembly of the United Nations on December 18, 1979. By December 1998, 163 member states of the UN had ratified it. However, many of them did so with reservations, specifying that some parts or concepts of the Convention would not be obligatory for them. States have made more reservations to CEDAW than to any other human rights treaty.

Convention Overview

In the first part of the CEDAW Convention, which consists of 16 articles, discrimination is defined, and there is a list of situations or environments in which women may be discriminated against, including in politics, the economy, labor, education and health.

The Convention's content, more than simply defining women's human rights, stresses two concepts: equality between the sexes as a basic objective, and the necessity of eliminating discrimination as an ultimate goal.

Over time, the concept of equality has evolved. For the theorists of the French Revolution, equality involved two main ideas: a) equality of all citizens before the law; and b) abolition of all privileges gained from birth, religion, or race. Now it is conceived that equality before the law, or formal equality, is a means to reach equality of rights, opportunities and responsibilities, or real, de facto, equality. The objective is to go beyond mere legal equality, seeking social change and transformation of cultural and social norms. This means that law is not everything, but rather a means to reach an end. It is, however, a very important means, because it legitimizes women's aspirations and serves as a lever or catalyst for social change.

The Convention demands that States adopt appropriate measures to eliminate discrimination against women within all spheres of life, public or private. Following the Convention, States must:

  • Abolish discriminatory norms.
  • Modify laws that are not in line with the Convention.
  • Dictate new laws and take concrete actions that will promote equality.

Article 1 defines what is understood as discrimination, clarifying that it includes:

"... Any distinction, exclusion or restriction made on the basis of sex which has the effect or purpose of impairing or nullifying the recognition, enjoyment or exercise by women ... of human rights and fundamental freedoms...."

Two types of discrimination are recognized:

  • Acts that purposely discriminate against women.
  • Acts that, although they may not have that intent, nonetheless result in some kind of discrimination.

Article 2 defines measures that States should take to eliminate discrimination against women, including reforms at the constitutional, political and legal levels, as well as monitoring and sanctioning to eliminate discrimination against women by any person, organization or enterprise. Along with laws and regulations, states must modify practices and customs that put women in discriminatory positions. Rather than just dictate laws, states need to promote equality plans, initiate campaigns in the media, change educational programs, etc.

Article 3 requires that governments take all necessary measures, including legislative, to guarantee the development and advancement of women. States must revoke laws and practices that negatively affect women, even if they seem to be "gender neutral."

Article 4 encourages states to adopt "positive measures," special measures of a temporary nature to accelerate de facto equality between women and men. It clarifies that affirmative action measures should not be considered discriminatory.

Article 5 demands that States take all appropriate measures to modify cultural models, social and cultural patterns of conduct of men and women, and practices, prejudices and customs which are based on the idea of the inferiority or the superiority of either of the sexes. It also demands that family education must clarify the common responsibility of men and women in the upbringing and education of their children. The Convention doesn't specify what behavioral patterns it is referring to, nor does it explain the necessary measures to eradicate them. Good guides to consult are the Nairobi "Forward Looking Strategies" and the Beijing Platform for Action.

Article 6 aims to suppress all forms of traffic in women and exploitation of women in prostitution. Article 7 guarantees equality of political participation of women and men. Article 8 demands women's participation in positions of government representation at the international level. Article 9 grants to women equal rights with men in regard to nationality. In particular, it clarifies that a woman's nationality should not automatically be changed by marriage or a change in her husband's nationality.

Economic, social, and cultural rights are guaranteed in Articles 10 (education), 11 (employment), 12 (health and family planning), 13 (family benefits, credit, and cultural life), and 14 (equality in the rural environment).

Article 15 reaffirms the recognition of equality before the law between women and men, especially in the fields related to the legal capacity of women, freedom of movement, and choice of residence.

Article 16 outlines the need to eliminate discrimination in all matters relating to the family and marriage. Human rights protections, until then tied to the public environment, are introduced in the private environment. This is very important because it proves that laws written to guarantee equality are incomplete if they don't address the discrimination women face in their own homes. Division of tasks and responsibilities within the home which puts on women's shoulders the almost exclusive responsibilities of children's upbringing and housework overloads women so that they are restricted from full and free participation in social and political life. If this problem is not resolved, despite other legal reforms, improvements in conditions for women will be delayed indefinitely.

The second part of the Convention explains the mechanisms created to monitor States Parties' adherence to the Convention. These include reports that each government that signed the Convention must present to the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women. The first report is to be submitted a year after ratification of the Convention. Subsequent reports are to be presented every four years. In each report, States should specify what kind of measures have been taken to eliminate discrimination against women, in each area addressed in the Convention.

Non-governmental organizations may present their own alternative reports, called Shadow Reports, in which they outline their views on the situation of women and on measures taken -- or not taken -- by their governments. These Shadow Reports are sent to members of the CEDAW Committee, who take them into account and formulate questions for or request explanations from the government delegations. Unfortunately there are no sanctions -- except for political pressure -- for countries that fail to present their reports.

The CEDAW Committee is made up of 23 experts from different countries. Each member serves for four years. Committee members are nominated by their governments and elected during a special meeting convened by the UN Secretary General every two years in New York.

The CEDAW Committee has pointed out that existing international mechanisms for the implementation of the Women's Convention are insufficient and weak. The UN system does not include procedures which allow individuals or groups to make complaints about women's human rights violations. A recommendation was made in 1991 to the Division for the Advancement of Women (DAW) to create an Optional Protocol to the Convention which would allow individuals to make complaints to the Committee, and the Protocol is presently under discussion.

Activities to Promote CEDAW and Women's Human Rights

1. Activities at the local or national level:

  • Publicize CEDAW using all possible means: formal education (schools, universities), media, workshops and popular education, using videos, pamphlets, posters or any materials available to a group or community.
  • Require your government's effective implementation of laws and measures it agreed to by signing and ratifying the Convention. If your government has not ratified CEDAW, pressure it to do so.
  • Gather members of women's and human rights organizations to carry out a diagnosis of the situation of women in your community or region.
  • Refer to the CEDAW Convention when making legal demands before local, state, and federal courts.
  • Teach judges and civil servants to use and apply the Women's Convention.

2. Combined Activities (National-International)

  • Prepare a Shadow Report and send it to the Committee for the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women. You can send it to committee members through the Division for the Advancement of Women (DAW), headquartered in New York.

Write to: 

Angela King
Division for the Advancement of Women
UN Plaza II, 12th floor
New York, NY 10017

  • Get your government's commitment in support of the Convention's Optional Protocol, so that individuals and women's groups can denounce violations of CEDAW.
  • Support the working group that is currently preparing the draft Optional Protocol. To do so, contact DAW at the address above.

These and many other activities can be carried out in every community, in every country. Remember that many governments sign the Convention to build a positive image internationally, but are not sufficiently dedicated to it to publicize it inside their countries or implement its provisions fully.

The Convention, opened for signature in March 1980, first went into effect on September 3, 1981. As of December 1998, 163 countries had ratified or acceded to it. A list of these countries is included in Appendix B. The full text and a summary of the Convention are also included so that it can be analyzed, consulted, and used in claims for women's human rights.


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