Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women
New York, 18 December 1979
By Dubravka Šimonović
Chairperson of the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (2007-2008)
The Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women was adopted by the General Assembly of the United Nations by its resolution 34/180 almost 30 years ago on 18 December 1979. The Convention entered into force on 3 September 1981 as the first global and comprehensive legally binding international treaty aimed at the elimination of all forms of sex- and gender-based discrimination against women. As of December 2008, it had been accepted by 185 State parties. Although preceded by a number of general human rights treaties explicitly providing that the rights they establish shall be available to women and men on an equal basis, as well as those which address particular forms of discrimination against women, the rationale for the Convention is clearly stated in its Preamble which indicates “despite these various instruments extensive discrimination against women continues to exist”.
The Convention’s aim is the elimination of all forms of discrimination against women both de jure and de facto, resulting from the activities or omissions on the part of States parties, their agents, or committed by any persons or organizations in all fields of life, including in the areas of politics, economy, society, culture, civil and family life. Its goal is the recognition and achievement of the de jure and de facto equality of women and men, which is to be achieved by a policy of elimination of all forms of discrimination against women incorporating all appropriate legislative and programmatic measures. A primary requirement for States parties is to “embody the principle of equality of men and women in their national constitutions or other appropriate legislation” and “to ensure… the practical realization of this principle” (article 2 (a)). This requirement of practical realization of equality makes clear that the Convention envisages substantive equality between women and men in the enjoyment of all human rights.
The Convention provides a broad definition of 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” (article 1.) This definition includes both direct and indirect discrimination against women, be it intentional or unintentional, in respect of law or practice, in all aspects of public and private life. Direct discrimination is intended to discriminate against women and constitutes apparent exclusion, distinction or restriction of rights of women as compared to men. Indirect discrimination occurs when apparently neutral legal standards or policies which do not seek to discriminate lead to consequences that, without justification, affect the enjoyment of rights by women disproportionally, simply because they are women. The fact that the Convention addresses both direct and indirect forms of discrimination against women makes it a unique instrument in international law for the achievement of genuine (both formal and substantive) equality between men and women.
The Convention protects women against all forms of discrimination throughout their life cycle and includes girls. In its four substantive parts, the Convention moves beyond guarantees of equal protection in international instruments which predated it, setting out measures for the achievement of equality between women and men, regardless of their marital status, in all aspects of political, economic and social life and family relations. General measures of implementation are elaborated in its first part, which also provides that temporary special measures aimed at accelerating de facto equality between men and women, such as affirmative action measures, will not be considered discriminatory. These measures may last as long as inequalities exist, but must be discontinued when equality of opportunity and treatment have been achieved (article 4, paragraph 1). Special measures aimed at the protection of maternity are also defined as non-discriminatory (article 4, paragraph 2). In a unique provision, States parties are required to modify the social and cultural patterns of conduct of men and women with a view to achieving the elimination of prejudices and customary and all other practices which are based on the idea of the inferiority or superiority of either of the sexes or on stereotyped roles for men and women. They are also required to ensure that family education includes a proper understanding of maternity as a social function and the recognition of the common responsibility of men and women in their children's upbringing (article 5). All appropriate measures are to be taken by States parties to suppress all forms of traffic in women and exploitation of prostitution of women (article 6), as well as to eliminate discrimination against women in political and public life, including in relation to the representation of their countries at the international level and in international organizations (articles 7 and 8). States parties are also required to grant women equal rights with men in relation to their nationality and that of their children, while all appropriate measures must be taken to eliminate discrimination against women in the fields of education, employment and health and economic and social life, including in respect to family benefits, bank loans and other capital, and recreational, sporting and cultural activities (articles 9 to 13). The particular problems faced by rural women are acknowledged in the Convention, with its article 14 requiring States parties to take all appropriate measures to eliminate discrimination against women in rural areas, and ensure that they participate in and benefit from rural development on the same basis as men. States parties are also required to accord women equality before the law, including in relation to civil and contractual capacity, movement, residence and domicile (article 15). They are also required to take all appropriate measures to eliminate discrimination against women in marriage and family relations, including in relation to children, while the Convention makes clear that the betrothal and marriage of a child are to have no legal effect, and all necessary action should be taken to specify a minimum age for marriage and make registration of marriage compulsory (article 16).
The Convention establishes a treaty body, entitled the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) for the purpose of considering progress made in its implementation. The Committee is composed of 23 experts of “high moral standing and competence in the field covered by the Convention” elected by the States parties from among their nationals, but who serve in their personal capacity (article 17, paragraph 1). In elections, States parties are directed to give consideration to “equitable geographical distribution and representation of different forms of civilization as well as the principal legal systems.” Members are elected by secret ballot at meetings of States parties for a renewable four-year-term (ibid.).
The Committee’s primary means of considering progress in implementation is through the consideration of reports which the Convention obliges States parties to undertake to submit on the legislative, judicial, administrative and other measures which they have adopted to give effect to the provisions of the Convention. Initial reports are to be submitted within one year after the entry into force of the Convention for that State, and thereafter at least every four years, and further whenever the Committee so requests. In December 2000, an Optional Protocol to the Convention entered into force. This Protocol, which has been ratified or acceded to by 96 States parties to the Convention (as of December 2008), provides the Committee with competence to consider complaints from individuals or groups of individuals where certain preconditions are fulfilled, most importantly where domestic remedies have been exhausted. It also allows the Committee to inquire into reliable allegations of grave or systematic violations of the Convention. To date (December 2008), the Committee has considered over 13 communications and undertaken one inquiry. Communications provide CEDAW with an opportunity to develop its jurisprudence against the background of an individual factual situation, while the inquiry competence allows it to craft recommendations to address grave or systematic violations of women’s rights.
Since its establishment over twenty years ago, CEDAW has ensured that the Convention is a living instrument both in substance and procedures. It has fully exploited its capacity to formulate suggestions and general recommendations provided for in article 21 of the Convention, elaborating 26 General Recommendations which provide authoritative guidance to States parties on the meaning of the Convention’s provisions and the themes which underpin it. During its first ten years, the Committee’s general recommendations addressed such issues as the content of reports, reservations to the Convention and resources. After its tenth session in 1991, the practice of issuing general recommendations changed, with the Committee beginning to adopt general recommendations on specific provisions of the Convention and on the correlation between the Convention’s articles and what the Committee described as “cross-cutting” themes. The general recommendations became more detailed and comprehensive, offering States parties clear guidance on the application of the Convention in particular situations. For example, since the Convention does not contain an explicit provision dealing with violence against women as such, in its General Recommendation No. 19 (1992), the Committee elaborated its authoritative understanding of violence against women in relation to the Convention. The Committee made clear that various articles of the Convention require States to protect women from violence and requested that States parties include information on the incidence of violence against women and measures adopted to confront such violence in their reports under the Convention. General Recommendation No. 19 of 1992 on violence against women explains the obligation of a State party to exercise due diligence to protect women from violence, investigate the crime, punish the perpetrator, and provide compensation to women victims of violence. It has guided States parties as they have created laws, policies and programmes, and has also been used by national judiciaries to promote and protect the rights of women.
From the point of view of procedures, CEDAW has encouraged full use by specialized agencies of the capacity outlined in article 22 of the Convention, which allows it to invite them to submit reports on the implementation of the Convention in areas within the scope of their activities, and the Food and Agriculture Organization, the International Labour Organization, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization and the World Health Organization regularly take advantage of this opportunity. United Nations Country Teams are now collaborating to present confidential reports to the Committee, while oral and written reports are also submitted by funds and programmes of the United Nations, and other intergovernmental entities such as the International Organization for Migration and the Inter-Parliamentary Union. Strong cooperation has also been forged with non-governmental organizations, both country-based and international, which routinely supply the Committee with numerous “shadow reports”, in which they outline their views on the implementation or non-implementation of the Convention. The Committee has also expanded the categories of national stakeholders, such as national human rights institutions and national parliaments, which it encourages to be involved in its work. Like other human rights treaty bodies, CEDAW considers reports through a constructive dialogue with the high level delegation of the given State party, deliberating and adopting after consideration in a closed session concluding observations in which it highlights progress and areas requiring more attention, recommending measures to be undertaken. These are tailor-made for each State party, and the Committee has worked to ensure that they are concrete, focused and implementable. Starting from 2008, two areas are identified for immediate follow-up by each State party, with an interim report on progress required within one or two years.
The Convention was negotiated in the Commission on the Status of Women and the Third Committee of the General Assembly through a broad and participatory process, but envisages the possibility of reservations being made on ratification or accession. Reflecting the 1969 Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties, the Convention’s article 28, paragraph 2, does not permit reservations that are incompatible with its object and purpose. Many States have lodged reservations on accepting the Convention, with a large number of these States withdrawing them when appropriate adjustments have been made at the national level to ensure compliance with the treaty. CEDAW, in its General Recommendation No. 4 (1987), General Recommendation No. 20 (1992) and in its Statement on reservations to the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (1998), has elaborated its position on reservations. In general, CEDAW calls upon States parties, if they consider entering reservations, to formulate them as precisely and narrowly as possible and to make sure that they are not incompatible with the core provisions of the Convention that express its object and purpose. (In General Recommendation No. 4, the Committee expresses its concern regarding the significant number of reservations that are incompatible with the object and purpose of the Convention, while General Recommendation No. 20 about reservations to the Convention calls upon other States parties to raise the issue of the validity and legal effect of reservations to the Convention.) CEDAW has thus proclaimed in 1998 that reservations to articles 2 and 16 of the Convention are incompatible with the object and purpose of the Convention and as such are impermissible (1998 Statement on reservations to the Convention (A/53/38/Rev.1) pp. 47-50).
Together, the Committee’s reporting, concluding observations, general recommendations, communications and inquiry competencies provide it with the tools to develop a comprehensive jurisprudence for the elimination of discrimination against women and measures needed for practical realization of the principle of equality between women and men. However, the Convention is the only United Nations human rights treaty with a limitation on its meeting time. According to article 20, paragraph 1, of the Convention, only one session of the Committee is provided for annually, of “at most two weeks” for the consideration of the reports by the State parties. Resolutions of the General Assembly have progressively provided CEDAW with expanded meeting time, and, in 1995, States parties to the Convention adopted an amendment to article 20, paragraph 1, providing for appropriate meeting time. Acceptance of at least two thirds of the State parties is required for the amendment to enter into force, but only 45 States parties have ratified it so far (General Assembly resolution 50/202 of 22 December 1995). In the meantime, in 2007, the General Assembly authorized CEDAW from January 2010 to convene in three annual sessions of three weeks each preceded by a pre-sessional working group, in addition to the 10 days of annual meeting time approved for the CEDAW Working Group on Communications (General Assembly resolution 62/218 of 22 December 2007, paragraph 14). The provision of appropriate meeting time provides a framework for CEDAW to continue to introduce substantive and procedural measures for its effective work so that the promise of the Convention can become a reality for the women of the world.
At its eighteenth session, in 1963, the General Assembly requested the Economic and Social Council to invite the Commission on the Status of Women, a body established in 1946 to monitor the situation of women and to promote women’s rights, to prepare a draft declaration on the elimination of discrimination against women (resolution 1921 (XVIII) of 5 December 1963). At its resumed thirty-sixth session, in 1964, the Economic and Social Council transmitted the resolution to the Commission on the Status of Women, which considered the issue of a draft declaration at its eighteenth session, in 1965, and set up a drafting committee to prepare a preliminary text (see report of the Commission on the Status of Women, E/4025). Unable to complete its work in 1965, the Commission continued its work on the topic the following year, at its nineteenth session, and completed a draft declaration that was submitted, on 8 March 1966, to the Economic and Social Council (Commission on the Status of Women resolution 1 (XIX)). On 26 July 1966, the Economic and Social Council unanimously adopted resolution 1131 (XLI), by which it transmitted the draft declaration to the General Assembly. The Assembly did not have enough time to review the text of the draft resolution in 1966, but adopted resolution 2199 (XXI) of 16 December 1966, in which it requested the Economic and Social Council to invite the Commission on the Status of Women to review the text of the draft at its next session, bearing in mind the amendments submitted by Member States at the forty-first session of the Economic and Social Council, the twenty-first session of the General Assembly, as well as the relevant discussions in the Commission on the Status of Women, the Economic and Social Council and the General Assembly during their respective sessions in 1966. The Assembly further decided that it would give the draft declaration high priority at its twenty-second session, in 1967. Thus, in 1967, the Commission on the Status of Women completed a review of the draft text and adopted unanimously a revised draft declaration on 2 March 1967 (resolution 1 (XX)). The Economic and Social Council transmitted the draft to the General Assembly (Economic and Social Council resolution 1206 (XLIII) of 29 May 1967) and the Assembly decided to refer it to the Third Committee for consideration. On 16 October 1967, the Third Committee adopted the text recommended by the Commission on the Status of Women, and, on 7 November, the General Assembly adopted resolution 2263 (XXII), in which it proclaimed the Declaration on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women.
In 1972, the Commission on the Status of Women decided to consider, at its twenty-fifth session, in 1974, proposals for a new instrument or instruments of international law to eliminate discrimination against women (resolution 5 (XXIV) of 24 February 1972). It also asked the Secretary-General to prepare a working paper on the question, based on the views and proposals that would be transmitted by Member States concerning the nature and the content of this new instrument. Furthermore, it decided that a working group composed of 15 members of the Commission should be established five days prior to the beginning of its twenty-fifth session and would begin working on the preparation of the new draft instrument.
On 24 January 1974, the Commission, following the recommendation of the Working Group, which had held 11 meetings from 7 to 11 and on 18 January 1974, decided that a single comprehensive draft convention on the elimination of discrimination against women should be prepared, without prejudice to the preparation of any future instrument which might be elaborated dealing with discrimination in specific fields (see report of Commission on the Status of Women on its twenty-firth session, E/5451, para. 2). The Commission also asked the Secretary-General to invite governments, specialized agencies and non-governmental organizations with the consultative status at the United Nations to comment on the text of the draft convention prepared by the Working Group as contained in its report (E/CN.6/574) (see resolution 1 (XXV) of 25 January 1974 reproduced in E/5451).
The World Conference of the International Women’s Year, which took place in Mexico in 1975, adopted resolution 25, in which it called upon the Economic and Social Council to invite the Commission on the Status of Women to prepare at its twenty-sixth session a draft convention for submission to the Council and to the General Assembly, and urged that high priority should be given by all concerned actors to the preparation of the Convention in 1976 (see report of the Conference, E/CONF.66/34).
At its twenty-sixth and resumed twenty-sixth sessions, in 1976, the Commission on the Status of Women had before it the working paper prepared by the Working Group, which was based on the comments received from Governments, specialized agencies, and non-governmental organizations (E/CN.6/574). On 17 December 1976, the Commission approved the draft Convention and submitted it to the Economic and Social Council (Commission on the Status of Women resolution 1 (XXVI)). In 1977, the Council submitted the draft to the General Assembly, recommending that the latter consider it as a matter of urgency and inviting Member States and specialized agencies to submit comments as soon as possible to the Secretary-General (Economic and Social Council resolution 2058 (LXII) of 12 May 1977).
At its thirty-second session, in 1977, the General Assembly decided to refer the question to the Third Committee, which had before it the report of the Secretary-General presenting an analysis of the draft text based on comments received from Governments and specialized agencies (A/32/218 and Add. 1 and 2). On 19 October 1977, a working group was established within the Third Committee to consider and finalize the draft Convention. On 16 December 1977, the General Assembly decided to include the draft convention on the agenda of its thirty-third session in 1978, and recommended that another working group be established at that session with the mandate to continue consideration of articles which have not been completed during the current session (General Assembly resolution 32/136).
The Working Group established by the Third Committee at the thirty-third session of the General Assembly held 21 meetings without being able to complete the draft convention. Thus, on 20 December 1978, the General Assembly adopted resolution 33/177, in which it recommended that a working group be established at the beginning of its thirty-fourth session, to consider the final provisions and to reconsider the articles which have not yet been completed with a view to the adoption of the Convention at the thirty-fourth session, in 1979. The Working Group, established on 24 September 1979, approved the text of the final draft convention, and submitted it to the Third Committee on 29 November. After considering the draft convention during four meetings, on 6 and 7 December 1979, the Third Committee approved it with several amendments. On 18 December 1979, the General Assembly adopted the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, with a vote of 130 to 0, with 11 abstentions (General Assembly resolution 34/180). The Convention was opened for signature at the United Nations Headquarters in New York on 1 March 1980. It entered into force on 3 September 1981, thirty days after the deposit of the twentieth instrument of ratification, in compliance with the relevant final provisions contained in its article 27.
Text of the Convention
Selected preparatory documents
General Assembly resolution 1921 (XVIII) of 5 December 1963 (Draft Declaration on the Elimination of Discrimination against women)
The Convention entered into force on 3 September 1981. For the current participation status of the Convention, as well as information and relevant texts of related treaty actions, such as reservations, declarations, objections, denunciations and notifications, see: