The Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, often referred to as CEDAW, is a bill of women’s rights. To date, the convention has been ratified by 189 countries and is one of the most widely signed UN treaties. States that have ratified CEDAW, which means that they have formally accepted the treaty, have taken on the obligation to respect, protect, promote, and fulfil women’s rights in their country. State obligation is one of the principles of CEDAW where member States have to take steps to advance women’s rights by amending or drafting laws, regulating institutions, accepting communications (formal complaints), raising awareness about women’s rights, and developing enabling conditions for women’s rights to be fulfilled.

An important principle of CEDAW is substantive equality. Oftentimes, when laws are drafted in order to protect human rights, it puts into effect formal equality where laws are applied equally and disadvantaged groups have the right as anyone else. However, these laws may do very little to affect inequalities that were already present due to something known as indirect discrimination. These are instances where formal equality does not lead to equality in practice. For example, in many countries, although women have the right to work, women’s participation rate in the labour force is lower compared to men. 

This may be caused by the lack of work opportunities, the lack of education, or patriarchal social norms that women should stay at home to do unpaid housework. Substantive equality goes beyond laws that are applied equally to every person and includes providing special programmes to disadvantaged groups. Some examples of these special programmes for women may be free childcare services, jobs for women that allow for flexible working hours or night classes.

Countries that have ratified CEDAW are also bound by its principles of non-discrimination. Laws that are drafted by CEDAW’s member states may not discriminate based on gender. There are still a number of countries around the world today that have laws that apply differently to men and women in subjects of land ownership, citizenship for children, types of occupation permitted, and more. Some of these laws are a form of negative discrimination against women.

All of these principles come together towards advancing substantive equality for women. Where states have laws that restrict women’s rights in some way, they are expected to amend these laws. If it is the country’s culture that is restricting women’s rights, such as the cultural practice of punishing widows in some places in India, then the state is also obligated to act upon these harmful cultural practices.

The following is the full bill of women’s rights under CEDAW:

  • States are to ensure the full development and advancement of women to guarantee their right to the enjoyment of human rights equal to men
  • States shall adopt temporary special measures to advance women’s rights
  • Prohibition on the trafficking and exploitation of prostitution of women
  • States have to take all measures to eliminate discrimination against women
    • This includes discrimination in education, employment, and healthcare.
    • Those who are pregnant are also entitled to special protections, such as maternity leave.
  • States must grant women equal rights to nationality
  • States must take into account problems faced by rural women
    • This is an example of intersectionality as rural women not only face discrimination as women, but they also lack the social capital and opportunities that urban women may have.
  • Women are equal to men before the law
  • States shall take all measures to eliminate discrimination against women in marriage and family relations
    • The minimum age of marriage should also be specified and registration is made compulsory.


Photo from The Straits Times. 

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