What You Should Know About the CEDAW Human Rights Treaty

Convention on Elimination of Discrimination Against Women

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Adopted by the United Nations General Assembly on December 18, 1979, the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) is an international human rights treaty that focuses on women's rights and women's issues worldwide. (It is also referred to as the Treaty for the Rights of Women and the International Bill of Rights for Women.) Developed by the UN Commission on the Status of Women, the Convention addresses the advancement of women, describes the meaning of equality and sets forth guidelines on how to achieve it.

It is not only an international bill of rights for women but also an agenda of action. Countries that ratify CEDAW agree to take concrete steps to improve the status of women and end discrimination and violence against women. By the Convention's 10th anniversary in 1989, nearly 100 nations had ratified it. That number currently stands at 186 as the 30th anniversary draws near.

Interestingly enough, the United States is the only industrialized nation that refuses to ratify CEDAW. Neither will such countries as Sudan, Somalia, and Iran—three nations known for their ​human rights violations.

The Convention focuses on three key areas:

  • Civil rights and the legal status of women
  • Reproductive rights
  • Cultural factors influencing gender relations

Within each area, specific provisions are outlined. As envisioned by the UN, the Convention is an action plan that requires ratifying nations to eventually achieve full compliance with the rights and mandates described below:

Civil Rights and Legal Status

Included are the rights to vote, to hold public office and to exercise public functions; rights to non-discrimination in education, employment and economic and social activities; equality of women in civil and business matters; and equal rights with regard to choice of spouse, parenthood, personal rights and command over property.

Reproductive Rights

Included are provisions for fully shared responsibility for child-rearing by both sexes; the rights of maternity protection and child-care including mandated child-care facilities and maternity leave; and the right to reproductive choice and family planning.

Cultural Factors Influencing Gender Relations

To achieve full equality, the traditional roles of women and men in the family and in society must change. Thus the Convention requires ratifying nations to modify social and cultural patterns to eliminate gender prejudices and bias; revise textbooks, school programs and teaching methods to remove gender stereotypes within the educational system; and address modes of behavior and thought which define the public realm as a man's world and the home as a woman's, thereby affirming that both genders have equal responsibilities in family life and equal rights regarding education and employment.

Countries that ratify the Convention are expected to work toward implementing the above named provisions. As evidence of these ongoing efforts, every four years each nation must submit a report to the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women. Composed of 23 experts nominated and elected by the ratifying nations, the Committee's members are regarded as individuals of high moral standing and knowledge in the field of women's rights. CEDAW annually reviews these reports and recommends areas requiring further action and ways to further eliminate discrimination against women.

According to the UN Division for the Advancement of Women:

The Convention is the only human rights treaty which affirms the reproductive rights of women and targets culture and tradition as influential forces shaping gender roles and family relations. It affirms women's rights to acquire, change or retain their nationality and the nationality of their children. States parties also agree to take appropriate measures against all forms of traffic in women and exploitation of women.

Originally published September 1, 2009

"Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women." Division for the Advancement of Women at UN.org, retrieved September 1, 2009.
"Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women New York, 18 December 1979." Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, retrieved September 1, 2009.
"Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women." GlobalSolutions.org, retrieved September 1, 2009.