Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women
Twentieth Anniversary


CEDAW Information Note 1

Ending Discrimination: A Fundamental Right

On 18 December 1979, the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women was adopted by the United Nations General Assembly. The most comprehensive international human rights treaty to focus on women, the Convention in its preamble 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".

In Article 1 of the Convention, discrimination is defined as "any distinction, exclusion or restriction made on the basis of sex ... in the political, economic, social, cultural, civil or any other field". Consequently, the Convention requires countries 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 a basis of equality with men" (Article 3). The meaning of women's full development and advancement is spelled out in fourteen subsequent articles.

In its approach, the Convention covers three dimensions relevant to the situation of women. Securing their civil rights and legal equality is given highest priority. Unlike other human rights treaties, the Convention deals with the area of reproductive rights. It also addresses the role of cultural factors in perpetuating discrimination against women.

Concern over women's political participation has not diminished since the General Assembly adoption of the Convention on the Political Rights of Women in 1952. Its provisions are restated in Article 7 of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, guaranteeing women the right to vote, to hold public office and to exercise public functions on a basis of equality with men. This includes women representing their countries at the international level (Article 8). Several other detailed articles affirm equality of rights with respect to citizenship, education, employment and economic and social activities.

Article 14 accords special emphasis to the situation of rural women, whose particular needs and vital economic contributions warrant more attention in policy and 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". In articles 9 and 16, the Convention addresses the issue of marriage and family relations, asserting the equal rights and obligations of both sexes with regard to choice of spouse, parenthood, personal rights and command over property.

The Convention devotes major attention to a vital concern of women, their reproductive rights. Its preamble sets the tone by stating that "the role of women in procreation should not be a basis for discrimination". The Convention emphasizes the need for "a proper understanding of maternity as a social function" in Article 5. 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. To this end, for example, Article 11 states that countries should offer social services that allow individuals to combine family responsibilities with work and participation in public life.

The Convention affirms women's right to reproductive choice. Notably, it is the only human rights treaty to mention family planning. Governments 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 women's rights. Customs, norms and stereotypes give rise to a multitude of legal, political and economic constraints on the advancement of women.

Countries which have ratified or acceded to the Convention are therefore required 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). Specifically, the Convention mandates the revision of textbooks, school programmes and teaching methods with a view to eliminating stereotyped concepts in the field of education (Article 10.c). Cultural patterns which define the public realm as a man's world, and the domestic sphere as women's domain, are targeted by 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. The preamble of the Convention also 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".

The Convention provides all Governments with comprehensive guidelines for the adoption of anti-discrimination policies. More importantly, this Convention outlines women's fundamental rights in the form of a legally binding international treaty: upon ratification or accession, its implementation becomes mandatory. Undoubtedly, ratification or accession to the Convention by all States would be an important commitment to the goal of full equality between women and men.

(Source: UN Division for the Advancement of Women)

 Published by the United Nations Department of Public Information C DPI/2040 C May 1999