About the Convention

80-year-old Ratna Maya Thapa shows her voter registration card after voting during the Nepalese Constituent Assembly elections, April 2008.
80-year-old Ratna Maya Thapa shows her voter registration card after voting during the Nepalese Constituent Assembly elections, April 2008. (Photo: UN Photo/Nayan Tara.)

The Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) is the international human rights treaty that is exclusively devoted to gender equality. It was adopted on 18 December 1979 by the UN General Assembly, and is often described as an international bill of rights for women. Consisting of a preamble and 30 articles, it defines discrimination against women and sets up an agenda for national action to end such discrimination.

The Convention defines discrimination against women as “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, irrespective of their marital status, on a basis of equality of men and women, of human rights and fundamental freedoms in the political, economic, social, cultural, civil or any other field.” It requires all States parties to take “all appropriate measures, including legislation, to ensure the full development and advancement of women, for the purpose of guaranteeing them the exercise and enjoyment of human rights and fundamental freedoms on a basis of equality with men” (Article 3). This includes not just overturning discriminatory laws, but also introducing new gender-sensitive laws and policies, changing the attitudes, practices and procedures within Governments, ensuring that private organizations and individual citizens do not discriminate against women, and changing harmful cultural stereotypes. The Convention therefore takes the conditions of women’s actual lives, rather than the wording of laws, as the true measure of whether equality has been achieved.

Upon becoming parties to the Convention, States commit themselves to undertake a series of measures to end discrimination against women, including:

  • to 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;
  • to establish tribunals and other public institutions to ensure the effective protection of women against discrimination; and
  • to ensure elimination of all acts of discrimination against women by persons, organizations or enterprises.
CEDAW Committee marks the 20th anniversary of the Convention, 7 June 1999.
CEDAW Committee marks the 20th anniversary of the Convention, 7 June 1999. (Photo: UN Photo/Evan Schneider.)

Sometimes, in areas in which the long-term effects of discrimination have seriously disadvantaged women, laws may be required that give women not just formal equal treatment with men, but preferential treatment. Article 4 of the Convention provides for “temporary special measures” (such as quota laws for political representation) to be required for a period of time, in order to accelerate the achievement of equality.

The Convention has achieved nearly universal ratification, with 186 countries having become States parties to it. States parties have the three-fold obligation to respect, protect and fulfil women’s human rights. To “respect,” the State must abstain from any conduct or activity of its own that violates human rights. To “protect,” the State must prevent violations by non-state actors, including individuals, groups, institutions and corporations. And to “fulfil,” the State must take whatever measures are needed to move towards the full realization of women’s human rights.

The Convention makes very clear that these responsibilities extend to private life as well as public life.  Historically, one of the biggest obstacles to realizing women’s rights in many countries has been the perception that the State should not interfere in the “private” realm of family relations. The Convention recognizes that unequal power relations within the private sphere contribute very significantly to gender inequality in all aspects of women’s lives, and directs States to take measures that will correct this power imbalance.

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