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

CEDAW Information Note 3

A Short History of the Convention

Equality of rights for women is a basic principle of the United Nations. In the Preamble to the Charter of the United Nations, one of the Organization's central goals is the reaffirmation of "faith in fundamental human rights, in the dignity and worth of the human person, in the equal rights of men and women". Article 1 of the Charter proclaims that one of the purposes of the United Nations is to achieve international cooperation in promoting and encouraging respect for human rights and for fundamental freedoms for all without distinction as to race, sex, language or religion.

Under the Charter, the first international instrument to refer specifically to human rights and to the equal rights of men and women, all Member States of the United Nations are legally bound to strive towards the full realization of all human rights and fundamental freedoms. The status of human rights, including the goal of equality between women and men, is thereby elevated to a contractual obligation for all Governments and the United Nations.

This emphasis on the human rights of women is strengthened by the International Bill of Human Rights, comprised of three international documents. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted in 1948, proclaims the entitlement of everyone to equality before the law and to the enjoyment of human rights and fundamental freedoms without distinction of any kind including race, colour, sex and language, among others. The International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, both adopted by the UN General Assembly in 1966, translate the principles of the Declaration into legally binding form. They clearly state that the rights set forth are applicable to all persons without distinction of any kind. In addition, each Covenant specifically binds acceding or ratifying States to undertake to ensure that women and men have equal right to the enjoyment of all the rights they elaborate.

The International Bill of Human Rights, combined with related human rights treaties, thus lays down a comprehensive set of rights to which all persons are entitled. However, over the years, this proved insufficient to guarantee women the enjoyment of their internationally agreed rights.

Since its establishment, the Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) has sought to define and elaborate the general guarantees of non-discrimination in those instruments from a gender perspective. Its work has resulted in a number of important declarations and conventions that protect and promote the human rights of women.

Originally established in 1946 as a subcommission of the Commission on Human Rights, the intergovernmental body was quickly granted the status of full commission as a result of the pressure exerted by women activists. The Commission's mandate included the preparation of recommendations relating to urgent problems requiring immediate attention in the field of women's rights, with the object of implementing the principle that men and women should have equal rights, as well as the development of proposals to give effect to such recommendations. Between 1949 and 1959, the Commission elaborated the Convention on the Political Rights of Women, adopted by the General Assembly on 20 December 1952; the Convention on the Nationality of Married Women, adopted by the Assembly on 29 January 1957; the Convention on Consent to Marriage, Minimum Age for Marriage and Registration of Marriages, adopted on 7 November 1962; and the Recommendation on Consent to Marriage, Minimum Age for Marriage and Registration of Marriages adopted on 1 November 1965. Each of these treaties protected and promoted the rights of women in those areas where such rights were considered by CSW to be particularly vulnerable. At the same time, it was believed that, except in those areas, women's rights were best protected and promoted by the other UN human rights treaties.

Although the special human rights instruments reflected the growing sophistication of the UN system with regard to the protection and promotion of women's human rights, the approach they reflected was fragmentary, as they failed to deal with discrimination against women in a comprehensive way. In addition, there was concern that the general human rights system was not, in fact, working as well as it might to protect and promote women's rights. Thus, the General Assembly, on 5 December 1963, adopted its resolution 1921 (XVIII), in which it requested the Economic and Social Council to invite the Commission to prepare a draft declaration that would combine in a single instrument the international standards that articulated the equal rights of men and women. This process was supported throughout by women activists within and outside the UN system. A committee selected from within the CSW began drafting the declaration in 1965. This led to the adoption of the Declaration on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women by the General Assembly on 7 November 1967.

Although the Declaration amounted to a statement of moral and political intent, without the contractual force of a treaty, its drafting was nonetheless a difficult process. Article 6, concerning equality in marriage and the family, and Article 10, relating to employment, proved to be particularly controversial, as did the question of whether the Declaration should call for the abolition, modification or change of the customs and laws perpetuating discrimination.

The 1960s saw the emergence, in many parts of the world, of a new consciousness of the patterns of discrimination against women and a rise in the number of organizations committed to combating the effects of such discrimination. The adverse impact of some development policies on women also became apparent. In 1972, five years after the adoption of the Declaration and four years after the introduction of a voluntary reporting system on the implementation of the Declaration by the UN Economic and Social Commission, the CSW considered the possibility of preparing a binding treaty that would give normative force to the provisions of the Declaration. The Commission decided to request the Secretary-General to call upon UN Member States to transmit their views on the proposal. The following year, a working group was appointed to consider the elaboration of such a convention. In the light of the report of this working group, the Commission in 1974 decided, in principle, to prepare a single, comprehensive and binding international instrument to eliminate discrimination against women. This instrument was to be prepared without prejudice to any future recommendations that might be made by the United Nations or its specialized agencies with respect to the preparation of legal instruments to eliminate discrimination in specific fields.

The text of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women was prepared by working groups within the Commission in 1976 and extensive deliberations by a working group of the Third Committee of the General Assembly from 1977 to 1979. Drafting work within the Commission was encouraged by the World Plan of Action for the Implementation of the Objectives of International Women's Year, adopted by the World Conference of International Women's Year, held in Mexico City in 1975, which called for a convention on the elimination of discrimination against women, with effective procedures for its implementation. Work was also encouraged by the UN General Assembly, which had urged the Commission on the Status of Women to finish its work by 1976, so that the Convention would be completed in time for the 1980 Copenhagen mid-Decade review conference (World Conference of the United Nations Decade for Women: Equality, Development and Peace). Although suggestions were made to delay completion of the text for another year, the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women was adopted by the General Assembly in 1979, by a vote of 130 for it, none against and 10 abstentions. In its resolution 34/180, the Assembly expressed the hope that the Convention would come into force at an early date and requested the Secretary-General to present the text of the Convention to the mid-decade World Conference.

At a special ceremony that took place at the Copenhagen Conference on 17 July 1980, 64 States signed the Convention and two States submitted their instruments of ratification. On 3 September 1981, just 30 days after the twentieth State had ratified it, the Convention entered into force C faster than any previous human rights convention had done. This brought to a climax United Nations efforts to comprehensively codify international legal standards for women.

The above information is extracted from Progress Achieved in the Implementation of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women: Report by the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (A/CONF.177/7).

Published by the United Nations Department of Public Information C DPI/2044 C May 1999