The Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination against Women (the CEDAW Convention) is a human rights treaty for women. The UN General Assembly adopted the CEDAW Convention on 19th December 1979. It came into force as a treaty on 3rd September 1981; thirty days after the twentieth member nation became a States party to it. The CEDAW Convention is monitored by the CEDAW Committee which operates out of the UN in New York.

CEDAW is one of the most highly ratified international human rights conventions, having the support of 188 States parties. When governments become States parties to a convention, they can enter reservations by identifying particular elements of a treaty they will not be bound to. State parties may also make declarations, which have the same effect.

The Convention is being continually updated to include new insights and new issues that are brought to the CEDAW Committee’s attention, through the formulation of General Recommendations by the committee. It does not automatically confer rights on women. Its promise can only be delivered if we learn to use it effectively in practice to set goals, identify needs, frame laws, policies and programmes and evaluate action.

The notion of State obligation has to be fully exploited. By ratifying the CEDAW Convention, States are saying that they:

  • Recognise discrimination and inequality.
  • Recognise the need for State action.
  • Commit themselves to do certain things and not do certain things.
  • Are willing to be held accountable at national and international levels.

Together with the State, we have to develop criteria for State action and responsibility. We have to learn to use the CEDAW Convention as an advocacy tool to interpret equality, call for action and use it to define rights, interpret needs, identify obstacles and actions to be taken by the State, establishing criteria for success and documenting impact of state action.

The substance of the Convention is based on three interrelated core principles: substantive equality, non-discrimination and State obligation.

It is essential to have clarity on these principles if we are to use the CEDAW Convention as a tool to promote the advancement of women. These principles provide the framework for formulating strategies to advance the human rights of women and will give meaning to the articles of the convention. In fact, it might prove to be counterproductive to try and promote individual articles of the CEDAW Convention if they are not premised on an understanding of equality and non-discrimination as they are conceptualised in the treaty.