A Bill of Rights for Women

Gender is not just about women, but women are a special focus of human rights work. Due to their position of lesser power in most societies, women are especially vulnerable to human rights abuses.

The Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) is a treaty that emphasizes women’s rights.

It was created because in most parts of the world, women and girls are still seen as socially inferior and are assigned to inferior roles in the family and at work. Women’s access to money, property, healthcare, education and knowledge is not equal to that of men; similarly, girls often do not have the same access to school or freedom as boys.

In this section we explore CEDAW.

"All members of the human family"

When the UN was formed in 1945, the idea of equal rights for men and women was quite new in the international community. Only 30 of the 51 original member states of the UN allowed women to vote, and many countries believed that the issue of equality between men and women was a sovereign issue.

The UDHR was the first internationally agreed document to clearly express the principle of equal rights between men and women.

In the Preamble:

The UDHR stresses that recognition of the rights of “all members of the human family” is the foundation of a free, just and peaceful world.

“...the peoples of the United Nations have in the Charter reaffirmed their faith in fundamental human rights, in the dignity and worth of the human person and in the equal rights of men and women...”

Article 1 of the UDHR says:

All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights.

Article 2 of the UDHR says:

Everyone is entitled to all the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration, without distinction of any kind, such as race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status.

Article 16 declares that women and men are equal partners in marriage:

  • Men and women of full age, without any limitation due to race, nationality or religion, have the right to marry and to found a family. They are entitled to equal rights as to marriage, during marriage and at its dissolution.
  • Marriage shall be entered into only with the free and full consent of the intending spouses.

Although it is not a treaty, and therefore not binding in international law, the UDHR was groundbreaking for women, and since 1945 the rights and status of women have changed in country after country.

A Bill of Rights for Women

Struggles for equality led to the development of a UN convention specifically focused on gender. This was the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), which was adopted by the UN in 1979.

CEDAW is often described as an international “Bill of Rights for women.” It is comprehensive and addresses women's rights to equality in political, civil, cultural, economic and social life.

Gender and sex

In the 1960s and 1970s, research and intensive debate and discussion by women academics, activists, professionals and workers in the women’s movement led to new ways of understanding the relationship between men and women. It also led to the development of new approaches to eradicating inequality between men and women.

A new theory differentiated between gender and sex.

Gender is defined as the way in which we give people different roles, characteristics and status in society, based on their biological sex. Sex is the physical biological difference between men and women.

Sex is the basis for gender discrimination. In other words, discrimination arises through the idea that a person’s physical biology (male or female sex) should determine their role in society.

Therefore, to say that a woman may not study to be a doctor represents discrimination on the basis of women’s biological difference from men (sex). Similarly, the idea that mothers are better parents than fathers and therefore should shoulder the responsibility of childcare is discrimination based on sex.

By creating unequal roles and allocating resources unequally on the basis of biological difference, we create unequal societies.

Gender is a social construction

Defined in this way, gender is something we have ourselves created. It is seen as a social issue, and referred to as a social construction. Because we have created gender constructions, we can change them. These understandings led to new approaches to addressing the problems of inequality between men and women.

The Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW)

The Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women, which is made up of 23 experts on women's issues from different UN member states, oversees the implementation of CEDAW. The Committee meets twice a year to review reports on compliance with the Convention's provisions. States Parties to the convention are required to submit reports to the Committee every four years.

The Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, which entered into force in December of 2000, grants the Committee the authority to consider complaints from individuals. The Committee may also initiate inquiries into situations of grave or systemic violations of women’s rights and formulate general recommendations and suggestions.

  • CEDAW recognises the importance of ending discrimination based on sex for women to achieve real equality.
  • It highlights culture and tradition as problems, because cultural practices and traditions all over the world define gender roles in ways that reinforce inequality; enshrine practices that restrict women’s lives, and are harmful to women.
  • CEDAW proposes an agenda for national action to end discrimination. Countries that have ratified or acceded to CEDAW are legally bound to put its provisions into practice.By signing CEDAW, countries commit themselves to take positive steps – including policy and legal steps – to end discrimination and promote women’s equality. Every four years CEDAW States Parties must submit national reports on steps they have taken to comply with CEDAW.
  • CEDAW affirms the reproductive rights of women.These rights recognize the basic rights of all couples and individuals to decide the number, spacing and timing of their children, to have the right information about sex and other means of conception, and the right to high quality sexual and reproductive health services. They also include the right to make decisions about reproduction free of discrimination, coercion and violence. The UN’s World Health Organization (WHO) defines and discusses sexual and reproductive health rights.

The UN’s approach to gender equality

The UN’s approach is also based on the understanding of gender as a social construction.

For example, the World Health Organization (WHO) says:

“Gender refers to the socially constructed roles, behaviour, activities and attributes that a particular society considers appropriate for men and women.

The distinct roles and behaviour may give rise to gender inequalities, i.e. differences between men and women that systematically favour one group. In turn, such inequalities can lead to inequities between men and women in both health status and access to health care.”

Since 1997, the UN has been working to mainstream gender into all of its work; this means ensuring that gender perspectives and the goal of gender equality are incorporated into all aspects of the organization’s work.

UN Women

In July of 2010, the General Assembly created UN Women, the United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women. UN Women is the UN organization dedicated to gender equality and the empowerment of women. UN Women was established to speed up progress on meeting the needs of women worldwide. It unites the previously distinct areas of the UN system that focused exclusively on gender issues.

The main functions of UN Women are to:

  • Support intergovernmental bodies in their formulation of policies, global standards and norms
  • Help Member States to implement these standards
  • Establish effective partnerships with civil society
  • Monitor the UN System for its progress on gender equality

UN Women offers program and technical assistance; provides grants; coordinates the UN System in the area of gender and offers information on women’s issues to the UN bodies; engages in capacity building and training; and holds expert group meetings.

Commission on the Status of Women

The Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) is a functional commission of the Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) that is dedicated to advancing gender equality. It is a global policy-making body. The CSW meets every year in March at UN headquarters in New York to evaluate progress on gender equality, identify issues and formulate policy. It is attended by member states, UN agencies and ECOSOC-accredited nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) that take part in discussions, panels and roundtables.

Women and Security

Although wars have a devastating effect on all people, women increasingly suffer greater harm in contemporary conflicts. The vast majority of casualties in conflicts are civilians, with most of them being women and children. In recent years women have suffered increasingly atrocious forms of sexual assault, with rape becoming a weapon of war. Women are also greatly affected by disruptions in infrastructure during and after conflicts as they try to support their families. And even post-conflict, women continue to suffer the effects of sexual violence (such as physical and psychological trauma and pregnancies) and are excluded from peace processes.

In October of 2000 the UN Security Council passed Resolution 1325, which formally recognized the situation of women in conflict and called for their participation in post-conflict processes. Subsequent Security Council Resolutions 1820, 1888, 1889 and 1960 have further established norms for protecting and promoting the rights of women during and after conflicts. The resolutions focus on three key goals:

  • To strengthen women’s participation in decision-making
  • To end sexual violence and impunity
  • To provide an accountability system

The International Criminal Tribunals for the Former Yugoslavia and Rwanda both considered cases of sexual violence during times of conflict and made rulings on rape as a crime against humanity and as a form of genocide. The Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court defines rape, sexual slavery, forced prostitution, forced pregnancy, forced sterilization and any other form of sexual violence as crimes against humanity and war crimes.

However, despite some progress, thousands of women in areas of conflict continue to suffer egregious sexual violence and other grave human rights abuses.