Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women: Short History

Reference: United Nations

Equality of rights for women is a basic principle of the United Nations. The  sets as one of the Organization’s central goals 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 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, inter alia, sex. By the terms of the Charter, the first international instrument to refer specifically to human rights and to the equal rights of men and women, all members 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: a matter of ethics becomes a contractual obligation of all Governments and of the UN.

The International Bill of Human Rights strengthens and extends this emphasis on the human rights of women. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights 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 and proceeds to include sex among the grounds of such impermissible distinction. The International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, both of 1966, which translate the principles of the Declaration into legally binding form, clearly state that the rights set forth are applicable to all persons without distinction of any kind and, again, put forth sex as such a ground of impermissible distinction. 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 establish.

The International Bill of Human Rights, combined with related human rights treaties, thus lays down a comprehensive set of rights to which all persons, including women, are entitled. However, the fact of women’s humanity proved insufficient to guarantee them 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 these instruments from a gender perspective. The work of CSW 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, but quickly granted the status of full commission as a result of the pressure exerted by women’s activists, the mandate of the CSW 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, and 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 areas in which the Commission considered such rights to be particularly vulnerable. But it was believed that, except in those areas, women’s rights were best protected and promoted by the general human rights treaties.

Although these 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 regime was not, in fact, working as well as it might to protect and promote the rights of women. 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 CSW to prepare a draft declaration that would combine in a single instrument international standards articulating the equal rights of men and women. This process was supported throughout by women activists within and outside the UN system. Drafting of the declaration, by a committee selected from within the CSW, began in 1965, with the Declaration on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women ultimately being adopted by the GA on 7 November 1967. Although the Declaration amounted only to a statement of moral and political intent, without the contractual force of a treaty, its drafting was none the less 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 of the customs and laws perpetuating discrimination or for their modification or change.

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 effect 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 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 and decided to request the Secretary-General to call upon UN Member States to transmit their views on such a proposal. The following year, a working group was appointed to consider the elaboration of such a convention. In 1974, at its twenty-fifth session and in the light of the report of this working group, the Commission decided, in principle, to prepare a single, comprehensive and internationally binding 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 during 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 the International Women’s Year, adopted by the World Conference of the 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 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 on 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 votes of 130 to none, with 10 abstentions. In resolution 34/180, in which the General Assembly adopted the Convention, 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 of the United Nations Decade for Women.

At the 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, 30 days after the twentieth member State had ratified it, the Convention entered into force – faster than any previous human rights convention had done – thus bringing to a climax United Nations efforts to codify comprehensively international legal standards for women.

* 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