Finding a Voice for Women's Rights: The Early Days of CEDAW

Article excerpt


A. Introduction

This Article discusses the early years of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) and some of the difficulties it faced in its efforts to become an effective voice for women's rights. It shows how CEDAW helped to make violence against women a human rights issue. It is part of a study of CEDAW in its first ten years, which aims to show something of the internal dynamics of the Committee and how that affected its work. It is a tribute to the members whose commitment to women's rights helped to establish CEDAW's identity. It is based, in part, on the author's own impressions and first-hand experience and therefore should be understood in that light.

B. The United Nations Takes Up Women's Rights

From time to time the question is raised whether women's rights should be treated separately or integrated into the broader field of human rights. When the United Nations (U.N.) was founded in 1945, however, the female delegates had no doubt that there should be a permanent body in the U.N. to deal with women's rights. They got their way, and the Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) was established. Among its activities, the CSW drafted several conventions and declarations, including the Declaration on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women in 1967.(1) CSW promoted International Women's Year in 1975, the IMAGE FORMULA7

Women's Decade that followed, and the major women's conferences, held at Mexico, Copenhagen, and Nairobi.2

C. The Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women

The impetus from the Mexico Conference and the Women's Decade carried forward work on the draft Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (Women's Convention or Convention).3 The Women's Convention was adopted in 1979 and came into force on September 3, 1981.(4) Within ten years there were 110 States as parties, and by May 2001 the number had risen to 168. The Convention is now the second most widely ratified human rights treaty, after the Convention on the Rights of the Child.5

There were already three major U.N. human rights instruments in force in 1976: (1) the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination of 1965 (CERD);6 (2) the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR); and (3) the International Covenant on Economic Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR). The Women's Convention was in part a response to the perception of women that those instruments had failed to deal effectively with women's rights.7 The Covenants were, in any event, IMAGE FORMULA11

directed mainly at actions by public agencies, whereas discrimination against women occurs in the private as well as the public arena.8

1. What the Convention Does

Following the model of CERD, the Women's Convention is directed against both public and private discrimination and calls for affirmative action. The Convention defines discrimination as:

any distinction, exclusion or restriction made on the basis of sex which has the effect or purpose of impairing or nullifying the recognition, enjoyment or exercise by women irrespective of their marital status, on a basis of equality of men and women, of human rights and fundamental freedoms in the political, economic, social, cultural, civil or any other field.9

The principal obligation of States parties under Article 2 is to "condemn discrimination against women in all its forms, [and] to pursue by all appropriate means and without delay a policy of elimination of discrimination against women."10 Articles 2, 3, and 4 set out the kinds of legal, administrative, and other measures to be taken by States, all of which promote the equal enjoyment of rights by women.11

Article 5 calls on States to "modify the social and cultural patterns of conduct," in order to eliminate traditional attitudes, prejudices, and practices concerning the status and role of women and men and to promote the sharing of parental responsibility. …


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