A short introduction to the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women

Women In Law Edition 21'



Nora Salem

The UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) is the principal international framework aiming to eliminate sex-based discrimination across the lifespan of women. It was adopted in 1979 and entered into force in 1981, whereby it became legally binding for all States parties. Today, it has a total of 189 States parties–out of 193 UN member States–and is thus the most widely ratified UN human rights convention. In a total of 30 articles, the CEDAW outlines the nature and scope of States parties’ obligation (articles 1 to 5 CEDAW); specific forms of discrimination (articles 6 to 16 CEDAW); as well as the implementation and monitoring procedure (articles 17 to 30 CEDAW).

States parties’ obligation:

The CEDAW defines gender-based discrimination in article 1 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.” Articles 2 to 5 CEDAW outline States parties’ obligations “to pursue by all appropriate means and without delay a policy of eliminating discrimination against women” through inter alia legislative measures and appropriate measures “to modify or abolish existing laws, regulations, customs and practices which constitute discrimination against women” (article 2 lit. f CEDAW). CEDAW’s States parties’ obligations differ from the typical ones in other human rights treaties. For instance, as gender-based discrimination is–beyond public actors–often times carried out by private persons, i.e. in an employment relationship, the CEDAW obliges States to take appropriate measures against “any person, organization or enterprise” for the elimination of gender-based discrimination (article 2 lit. e CEDAW). Another novelty adopted by the CEDAW drafters is the utilization of temporary special measures in fields that are characterized traditionally by long-standing inequalities in order to accelerate de facto equality (article 4 CEDAW), i.e. quotas for women in politics. Based on the understanding that gender-based discrimination typically results from gender stereotypes, the CEDAW requires States to take all appropriate measures to “modify social and cultural patterns of behavior to eliminate prejudicial practices and attitudes” (article 5 CEDAW), i.e. governmental awareness programs towards shared family duties.

Specific forms of discrimination:

Substantive areas in which States parties are obliged to eliminate gender-based discrimination include the political and public life, education, employment, health care, economic and social benefits, family life, nationality, women in rural areas and issues resulting from trafficking.

Implementation and monitoring:

The monitoring of CEDAW’s implementation is bestowed on the CEDAW Committee, which is composed of 23 independent experts that are elected by States parties and meet twice a year in Geneva, Switzerland. The CEDAW Committee has four basic procedures to exercise its monitoring mandate: firstly, receiving States parties’ reports and issuing related concluding observations, in which the Committee reviews the progress related to each obligation and evaluates it critically. Secondly, the CEDAW Committee issues general recommendations, which serve as a commentary to an arising issue under one specific article and may be considered as authoritative interpretations, albeit not binding. One of the most influential general recommendations the Committee issued was the general recommendation number 19 (1992) on gender-based violence, updated in 2017 by general recommendation number 35, in which the Committee clarified that discrimination against