The United Nations Human Rights Treaties

How To Complain About Human Rights Treaty Violations

The Four Principal UN Human Rights Treaties Containing Complaint Mechanisms - Overview

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

i) Object

The spirit of the Convention is rooted in the goals of the UN: to reaffirm faith in fundamental human rights, in the dignity and worth of the human person and in the equal rights of men and women. In its preamble, the Convention acknowledges that "extensive discrimination against women continues to exist" and emphasizes that such discrimination "violates the principles of equality of rights and respect for human dignity."

The Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) is the treaty body associated with the Convention

ii) Adoption and Entry into Force

The Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) was adopted by the General Assembly on 18 December 1979, and came into force on 3 September 1981. For any state that ratified CEDAW after 4 August 1981, the Convention came into force thirty days after the date of deposit of that state's instrument of ratification.

iii) Obligations Undertaken by States Parties

States parties undertake to adopt all necessary measures at the national level aimed at achieving the full realization of the rights recognized in the Convention (article 24).

iv) Summary of Substantive Rights

Definition of "discrimination against women"

Article 1 of 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."

In accordance with this definition, measures that have a discriminatory impact or effect on women will amount to discrimination, even when it is not possible to establish a discriminatory purpose.

Condemnation and elimination of discrimination against women

States parties condemn discrimination against women and agree to pursue by all appropriate means and without delay a policy of eliminating such discrimination. To that end, states parties undertake to:

  • embody the principle of gender equality in domestic legislation and constitutions, and ensure the principle's practical realization (article 2(a));
  • adopt legislative and other measures to prohibit discrimination against women (article 2(b));
  • establish legal protection of the equal rights of women and ensure through public institutions the effective protection of women against discrimination (article 2(c));
  • refrain from engaging in racial discrimination and ensure that public authorities and institutions do likewise (article 2(d));
  • take measures to eliminate discrimination against women in the private sphere (article 2(e));
  • remove laws, regulations, practices and penal provisions that constitute discrimination against women (article 2(f) & (g));

Measures to ensure advancement

States parties undertake to take appropriate measures to ensure the full development and advancement of women, for the purpose of guaranteeing the equal enjoyment of human rights (article 3).

Affirmative action

The Convention stipulates two kinds of affirmative measures that are not considered discriminatory:

temporary affirmative measures aimed at accelerating de facto equality between men and women (article 4(1)); and
special measures aimed at protecting maternity, even when not of a temporary nature (article 4(2)).

Modification of social and cultural patterns

State parties agree under article 5:

  • to modify social and cultural patterns of conduct with a view to achieving the elimination of prejudices and practices that are based on an idea of gender inferiority and superiority or gender stereotyped roles (article 5(a));
  • to ensure that family education includes a proper understanding of maternity as a social function, and the recognition of the common responsibilities of men and women in the upbringing and development of children (article 5(b)).

Suppression of trafficking in women

States parties agree to take all appropriate measures to suppress all forms of traffic in women and the exploitation of prostitution of women (article 6).

Political and public life

States parties undertake to protect women's rights in political and public life. In particular, they agree to ensure to women the equal right to:

  • vote and be eligible for elections (article 7(a));
  • participate in government as officials and policy makers (article 7(b));
  • participate in non-governmental organizations and associations (article 7(c));
  • represent their countries internationally (article 8);
  • acquire, change or retain their nationality (article 9(1));
  • exercise rights with respect to their children's nationality (article 9(2)).


States parties make detailed commitments to take appropriate measures to eliminate discrimination against women in the field of education (article 10). The measures agreed to be undertaken include:

  • ensuring women equal access, opportunities and conditions in all educational institutions and at all stages of education and training, including vocational guidance and training (article 10);
  • eliminating stereotyped concepts of gender roles in education, for example by encouraging co-education and by revising textbooks, school programs and teaching methods (article 10(c));
  • reducing female drop out rates and organizing programs for females who have left school prematurely (article 10(f));
  • providing access to specific educational information to help ensure the health and well being of families including information and advice on family planning (article 10(h)).


States parties make detailed commitments to take appropriate measures to eliminate discrimination against women in the field of employment (article 11). In particular, states parties undertake:

  • to ensure women equal treatment in relation to a wide range of work-related rights, including the right to work, to equal employment opportunities, to free choice of profession, to promotion, job security and employment related benefits and training, to equal remuneration and to social security (articles 11(1)(a) to (e));
  • to ensure to women the right to protection of health and safety, including the safeguarding of the function of reproduction (article 11(1)(f));
  • to take appropriate measures to prevent discrimination against women on the grounds of marriage or maternity and to ensure their effective right to work. Such appropriate measures include:
  • prohibiting the imposition of employment sanctions for pregnant women (article 11(2)(a));
  • introducing paid maternity leave (article 11(2)(b));
  • encouraging the provision of support services to enable parents to combine work and family responsibilities (article 11(2)(c)); and
  • providing special protection for pregnant women from dangerous work (article 11(2)(d)).
  • to periodically review protective legislation (article 11(3)).

Health care

States parties undertake:

  • to take all appropriate measures to eliminate discrimination against women in the field of health care and ensure equal access to health care services, including those relating to family planning (article 12(1));
  • to ensure to women appropriate health services in connection with pregnancy, confinement and the post natal period (article 12(2)).

Other areas of economic and social life

States parties undertake to take all appropriate measures to eliminate discrimination against women and ensure equal rights in other areas of economic and social life, in particular:

  • family benefits (article 13(a));
  • access to financial credit (article 13(b));
  • participation in recreational activities, sports and cultural life (article 13(c)).

Problems faced by rural women

States parties bind themselves to take into account the particular problems faced by rural women, eliminate discrimination against them and ensure that they participate in, and benefit from, rural development on the same basis as men.

Equality before the law

States parties agree to accord women equality before the law and equal legal capacity with men in civil matters such as contracts and administration of property (article 15).

Marriage and family relations

States parties agree to take all appropriate measures to eliminate discrimination against women in all matters relating to marriage and family relations (article 16). This includes:

  • equal rights to choose whether to enter marriage and to choose a spouse (article 16(1)(a) and (b));
  • equal rights during marriage and at its dissolution, including equal rights with respect to children (article 16(1)(c), (d) and (f));
  • equal rights over reproduction (article 16(1)(e));
  • equal personal rights as husband and wife including the right to choose a family name, profession and occupation (article 16(1)(g));
  • equal property rights (article 16(1)(h)).

Child marriage

The Convention provides that child betrothal and marriage shall have no legal effect. States parties are to take all necessary action, including legislation, to specify a minimum age for marriage and to make official registration of marriages compulsory (article 16(2)).

Violence against women

The text of the Convention does not expressly refer to violence against women. However, the Committee that monitors the Convention has interpreted the Convention to mean that gender-based violence is a form of discrimination that seriously inhibits women's ability to enjoy rights and freedoms on a basis of equality with men. Hence, the Committee has said it is accordingly prohibited by the Convention (General Recommendation No 19, UN Doc A/47/38 (1992)).

v) Limitations on Rights

CEDAW does not identify specific societal interests that are considered sufficient to outweigh the substantive rights set forth. Nevertheless, certain limitations are inherent in the terms of the rights and freedoms.

The concept of discrimination itself

The definition of discrimination does not encompass all distinctions based on sex but rather, only those which have the effect or purpose of impairing or nullifying the recognition, enjoyment, or exercise by women, on a basis of equality, of their human rights.

An example of distinctions on the basis of sex that fall outside the concept of discrimination under the Convention, are acts of "positive discrimination" which are deemed not to be discrimination by article 4.

The language used to impose obligations on states parties

Some of the obligations in the Convention are expressed in terms which incorporate limitations.

For example, under article 2, states parties undertake to pursue "by all appropriate means and without delay" a policy of eliminating discrimination against women. It does not necessarily follow that every time an act of discrimination occurs within a state party's territory, the state will have breached this obligation. It will be a matter of interpretation and judgment whether the state party has taken "all appropriate means." In assessing whether the measures taken by the state party are appropriate, sufficient and timely, the Committee may take into account, for example, the extent of the hurdles faced by the state party and the extent of the good faith efforts made by the state party to overcome them.

vi) Derogations

The Convention does not explicitly provide for derogations in times of public emergency.

vii) Reservations

Parties to the Convention are entitled to make reservations as long as they do not conflict with the object and purpose of the Convention (article 28).

In considering the extent of the obligations undertaken by a state party to the Convention it is, therefore, necessary to check for reservations that may have been made by the state. It is also important to check concluding observations of the Committee on particular states parties, because the Committee has occasionally expressed views about whether a specific reservation is consistent with the object and purpose of the Convention.

viii) The Monitoring Body/Treaty Body: The Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW)

The Convention provides for the establishment of a Committee on Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) to monitor the implementation of the Convention's provisions by states parties. The Committee is comprised of 23 independent experts, nominated and elected by states parties to the Convention, but intended to serve in their personal capacity.

CEDAW is engaged in the following tasks:

  • Examination of state reports States parties are required to submit reports on the measures they have adopted to give effect to the provisions of the Convention, the progress made, and any factors and difficulties affecting fulfilment of their obligations under the Convention.

  • General Recommendations The Committee may make General Recommendations based on its experience including the examination of state reports (article 21(1)).

  • Consideration of individual cases (communications) Individuals may claim a violation of the Convention by states parties that have ratified the Optional Protocol.

  • Inquiries into grave or systematic violations The Committee may make inquiries concerning allegations of grave or systematic violations of women's rights in relation to states parties that have ratified the Optional Protocol, (Articles 8 and 9)

Staff and facilities for the performance of the Committee's functions are provided by the United Nations Division for the Advancement of Women in New York.

The Committee submits an annual report of its activities to the UN General Assembly. The report contains the concluding observations which the Committee makes about states parties in the context of reports, any General Recommendations, any (when decided) decisions on individual cases.

ix) Number of Ratifying States

Almost 90% of UN member states have ratified the Convention, and one quarter are parties to the Optional Protocol. This figure changes frequently and can be updated online.