A Brief History of CEDAW

Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women

The United Nations Building in Geneva
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The Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) is the key international agreement on women's human rights. The Convention was adopted by the United Nations in 1979.

What Is CEDAW?

CEDAW is an effort to eliminate discrimination against women by holding countries responsible for discrimination that takes place in their territory. A "convention" differs slightly from a treaty, but is also a written agreement among international entities. CEDAW can be thought of as an international bill of rights for women.

The Convention acknowledges that persistent discrimination against women exists and urges member states to take action. Provisions of CEDAW include:

  • States Parties, or signers, of the Convention shall take all "appropriate measures" to modify or abolish existing laws and practices that discriminate against women.
  • States Parties shall suppress trafficking of women, exploitation, and prostitution.
  • Women shall be able to vote in all elections on equal terms with men.
  • Equal access to education, including in rural areas.
  • Equal access to health care, financial transactions, and property rights.

History of Women's Rights in the UN

The U.N.'s Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) had previously worked on the political rights of women and the minimum marriage age. Although the U.N. charter adopted in 1945 addresses human rights for all people, there was an argument that the various U.N. agreements about sex and gender equality were a piecemeal approach that failed to address discrimination against women overall.

Growing Women's Rights Awareness

During the 1960s, there was increased awareness around the world about the many ways women were subjected to discrimination. In 1963, the U.N. asked the CSW to prepare a declaration that would gather in one document all of the international standards regarding equal rights between men and women.

The CSW produced a Declaration on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women, adopted in 1967, but this Declaration was only a statement of political intent rather than a binding treaty. Five years later, in 1972, the General Assembly asked the CSW to consider working on a binding treaty. This led to a 1970s working group and eventually the 1979 Convention.

Adoption of CEDAW

The process of international rule-making can be slow. CEDAW was adopted by the General Assembly on December 18, 1979. It took legal effect in 1981, once it had been ratified by twenty member states (nation states, or countries). This Convention actually entered into force faster than any previous convention in U.N. history.

The Convention has since been ratified by more than 180 countries. The only industrialized Western nation that has not ratified is the United States, which has led observers to question the U.S. commitment to international human rights.

How CEDAW Has Helped Women's Rights

In theory, once States Parties ratify CEDAW, they enact legislation and other measures to protect women's rights. Naturally, this is not foolproof, but the Convention is a binding legal agreement that helps with accountability. The United Nations Development Fund for Women (UNIFEM) cites many CEDAW success stories, including:

  • Austria implemented CEDAW committee recommendations about protecting women from spousal violence.
  • The High Court of Bangladesh prohibited sexual harassment, drawing on CEDAW's employment equality statements.
  • In Colombia, a court overturning a total ban on abortion cited CEDAW and acknowledged reproductive rights as human rights.
  • Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan have revised land ownership processes to ensure equal rights and meet the standards in the Convention.
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Napikoski, Linda. "A Brief History of CEDAW." ThoughtCo, Jul. 31, 2021, thoughtco.com/brief-history-of-cedaw-3529470. Napikoski, Linda. (2021, July 31). A Brief History of CEDAW. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/brief-history-of-cedaw-3529470 Napikoski, Linda. "A Brief History of CEDAW." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/brief-history-of-cedaw-3529470 (accessed June 2, 2023).