Image: (19 June 1975) United Nations World Conference of the International Women’s Year, Mexico City, Mexico.
The Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination against Women, or the CEDAW, was adopted in 1979 by the UN General Assembly. It was formally instituted on September 3, 1981, and has been ratified by 189 states (at the time of writing, January 2021). The Convention comprises 30 articles over six parts.
Part I (Articles 1 to 6) addresses non-discrimination, sex stereotypes, and sex trafficking. Part II (Articles 7 to 9) speak about women's rights in the public sphere with a particular emphasis on political life, representation, and rights to nationality. Part III (Articles 10-14) details the economic and social rights of women, particularly focusing on education, employment, and health. It also provides special protections for rural women and the challenge they face.
Part IV (Articles 15 and 16) addresses women's right to equality in marriage and family life along with the right to equality before the law. Part V (Articles 17-22) establishes the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women as well as the states parties' reporting procedure. Part VI (Articles 23-30) describes the effects of the Convention on other treaties, the commitment of all state parties, and the administration of the Convention.
While the Convention is comprehensive to this extent, the actual mention of “violence,” and by extension, a specific mechanism addressing violence against women remains absent.
The CEDAW has been signed and ratified by 189 countries. The Holy See, Iran, Somalia, Sudan, and Tonga are not signatories to the Convention, while the United States and Palau have signed but not ratified the Convention.
Of the 189 countries that have ratified the Convention, over 50 countries have ratified the convention subject to particular declarations, reservations, and objections. Broadly, the reservations have either been centred on particular provisions of the Convention, or to all aspects of the Convention.
As many as 38 countries rejected the enforcement of Article 29 of the Convention, which specifically addresses particular means of dispute settlement with respect to the interpretation or application of the Convention. Taiwan is a party to the treaty in an unofficial capacity, as it has not been recognized by the United Nations as a state. Although the United States has not ratified CEDAW, 40 cities and local governments have adopted CEDAW ordinances or resolutions.
Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women
The CEDAW mechanism provides for the establishment of a Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women. It comprises 23 members in all. The members are nominated by their national governments and elected through a secret ballot by states party to the convention.
The members come from a wide range of backgrounds – and have included doctors, lawyers, diplomats, and educators. Aside from being Committee members, many of them hold full-time jobs and receive very little monetary payment for their work on the committee. The members of the Committee are elected according to region – with Latin America and the Caribbean, Africa, Asia, Western and Eastern Europe being represented.
The Committee oversees the implementation of the Convention, and holds multiple sessions to evaluate adherence to the rules outlined under the Convention. A total of 72 sessions have been held thus far. In these sessions, the Committee hears reports from member states on the progress made in implementing the Convention within their territories.
While states are expected to provide reports every four years, the Committee can request reports if there are situations within states that warrant such reportage. At each session, eight states are invited to present their reports. In recent years, the backlog of overdue reports has motivated states to combine their outstanding reports into a single document.
Besides this, the Committee presents an annual report that details all its yearly activities and comments on state reports, as well as relevant information pertaining to the Optional Protocol of the CEDAW, and all other general suggestions or recommendations the committee has made. This report is submitted to the UN General Assembly and the Economic and Social Council. Unless otherwise decided by the Committee, all reports, agendas, and other official documents pertaining to the Committee and its work, and states’ reports are open to the public to access.
The Committee also issues general recommendations to elaborate on its views, findings, and discussions pertaining to the obligations under the conventions. There are 38 recommendations in all (at the time of writing, January 2021). In the early years of the Committee’s operations, the recommendations were short, and centered on the state reports and their reservations. From 1991 onward, the recommendations specifically guide state practice and application of the CEDAW in particular situations.