A Fundamental Right

 Convention on the Elimination of 
All Forms of Discrimination against Women

On 18 December 1979, the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, [CEDAW], was adopted by the United Nations General Assembly.  It entered into force as an international treaty on 3 September 1981 after the twentieth country had ratified it.  By the tenth anniversary of the Convention in 1989, almost one hundred nations had agreed to be bound by its provisions. 

The Convention was the culmination of more than thirty years of work by the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women, a body established in 1946 to monitor the situation of women and to promote women's rights.  The Commission's work has been instrumental in bringing to light all the areas in which women are denied equality with men.  These efforts for the advancement of women have resulted in several declarations and conventions, of which the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination against Women is the central and most comprehensive document. 

Among the international human rights treaties, the Convention takes an important place in bringing the female half of humanity into the focus of human rights concerns.  The spirit of the Conventions is rooted in the goals of the United Nations: to reaffirm faith in fundamental human rights, in the equal rights of men and women.  The present document spells out the meaning of equality and how it can be achieved.  In so doing, the Convention establishes not only an international bill of rights for women, but also an agenda for action by countries to guarantee the enjoyment of those rights. 

In its preamble, the Convention explicitly acknowledges that "extensive discrimination against women continues to exist", and emphasises that such discrimination" violates the principles of equality of rights and respect for human dignity".  As defined in article 1, discrimination is understood as "any distinction, exclusion or restriction made on the basis of sex... in the political, economic, social, cultural, civil or any other field".  The Convention gives positive affirmation to the principle of equality by requiring 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 basis of equality with men" (article 3). 

The agenda for equality is specified in fourteen subsequent articles.  In its approach, the Convention covers three dimensions of the situation of women.  Civil rights and the legal status of women are dealt with in great detail.  In addition, and unlike other human rights treaties, the Convention is also concerned with the dimension of human reproduction as well as with the impact of cultural factors on gender relations. 

The legal status of women receives the broadest attention.  Concern over the basic rights of political participation has not diminished since the adoption of the Convention on the Political Rights of women in 1952.  Its provisions, therefore, are restated in article 7 of the present document, whereby women are guaranteed the rights to vote, to hold public office and to exercise public functions. This includes equal rights for women to represent their countries at the international level (article 8).   

The Convention on the Nationality of Married Women-adopted in 1957 - is integrated under article 9 providing for the statehood of women, irrespective of their marital status.  The Convention, thereby, draws attention to the fact that often women's legal status has been linked to marriage, making them dependent on their husband's nationality rather than individuals in their own right.   

Articles 10, 11 and 13, respectively, affirm women's rights to non-discrimination in education, employment and economic and social activities.  These demands are given special emphasis.  These demands are given special emphasis with regard to the situation of rural women, whose particular struggles and vital economic contributions, as noted in article 14, warrant more attention in policy planning.   

Article 15 asserts the full equality of women in civil and business matters, demanding that all instruments directed at restricting women's legal capacity "shall be deemed null and void".  Finally, in article 16, the Convention returns to the issue of marriage and family relations, asserting the equal rights and obligations of women and men with regard to choice of spouse, parenthood, personal rights and command over property. 

Aside from civil rights issues, the Convention also devotes major attention to a most vital concern of women, namely their reproductive rights.  The preamble sets the tone by stating that "the role of women in procreation should not be a basis for discrimination".  The link between discrimination and women's reproductive role is a matter of recurrent concern in the Convention.  For example, it advocates, in article 5, "a proper understanding of maternity as a social function", demanding fully shared responsibility for child-rearing by both sexes.  Accordingly, provisions for maternity protection and child-care are proclaimed as essential rights and are incorporated into all areas of the Convention, whether dealing with employment, family law, health care or education.  Society's obligation extends to offering social services, especially child-care facilities, that allow individuals to combine family responsibilities with work and participation in public life.  Special measures for maternity protection are recommended and "shall not be considered discriminatory". (article 4).   

The Convention also affirms women's right to reproductive choice.  Notably, it is the only human rights treaty to mention family planning.  States parties are obliged to include advice on family planning in the education process (article 10.h) and to develop family codes that guarantee women's rights "to decide freely and responsibly on the number and spacing of their children and to have access to the information, education and means to enable them to exercise these rights" (article 16.e). 

The third general thrust of the Convention aims at enlarging our understanding of the concept of human rights, as it gives formal recognition to the influence of culture and tradition on restricting women's enjoyment of their fundamental rights.  These forces take shape in stereotypes, customs and norms which give rise to the multitude of legal, political and economic constraints on the advancement of women.  Noting this interrelationship, the preamble of the Convention stresses" that a change in the traditional role of men as well as the role of women in society and in the family is needed to achieve full equality of men and women".   

States parties are therefore obliged to work towards the modification of social and cultural patterns of individual conduct in order to eliminate" prejudices and customary and all other practices which are based on the idea of the inferiority or the superiority of either of the sexes or on stereotyped roles for men and women" (article 5).  And Article 10.c. mandates the revision of textbooks, school programmes and teaching methods with a view to eliminating stereotyped concepts in the field of education.   

Finally, cultural patterns which define the domestic sphere as man's world and the domestic sphere as women's domain are strongly targeted in all of the Convention's provisions that affirm the equal responsibilities of both sexes in family life and their equal rights with regard to education and employment.  Altogether, the Convention provides a comprehensive framework for challenging the various forces that have created and sustained discrimination based upon sex. 

The implementation of the Convention is monitored by the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW).  The Committee's mandate and the administration the treaty are defined in the Articles 17 to 30 of the Convention.  The Committee is composed of 23 experts nominated by their Governments and elected by the States parties as individuals "of high moral standing and competence in the field covered by the Convention".  At least every four years, the States parties are expected to submit a national report to the Committee, indicating the measures they have adopted to give effect to the provisions of the Convention.  During its annual session, the Committee members discuss these reports with the Government representatives and explore with them areas for further action by the specific country.  The Committee also makes general recommendations to the States parties on matters concerning the elimination against women.