The UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) is the most important treaty for women’s human rights. Women around the world are encouraged to use CEDAW to fight for all kinds of discrimination against them. Fighting discrimination against women is for the promotion and defense of humanity. If well utilized by women organizations around the world and most importantly, if well followed by states parties the Convention, the make-up of the CEDAW Convention is capable of dealing with all forms of economic, political, social and cultural issues, which are stereotyped in societies to bring women down. CEDAW is exclusively devoted to gender equality.
It is divided into three parts: the first part describes the nature and content of the Convention; the rest two parts are the two mechanisms: the Committee that monitors the implementation of the Convention by those states that ratified it and the Optional Protocol which is the complaints mechanism set up to give women the possibility to communicate to the Committee those discriminatory acts that violate their rights as set up in the Convention. CEDAW, popularly referred to as women’s convention is a guide on how women should be treated. The UN General Assembly recognizes that discrimination is a force that globally place women below men and therefore the Convention was drafted to embody all it takes for women all around the world to be free from discriminations. Even though CEDAW has some gaps, such as lack of enforceable mechanism and so on, article 1 of it can be used to bring in issues identified in the gaps. CEDAW was adopted by the UN General Assembly on the 18th December 1979 and it entered into force on 3rd September 1981. The Convention clearly defines discrimination against women 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”.
The goal of CEDAW is the elimination of all forms of discrimination that limit women from achieving gender equality in all spheres of life.
CEDAW consists of a preamble and 30 Articles. Articles 6 – 16 specifically highlighted issues that promote discrimination against women. These are issues which are used by societies the world over to perpetuate and promote gender inequality. These are prostitution, political and public life, women representing their governments at international levels, issue of nationality, equal education opportunities, employment, work and maternity leave, health care for women, rights to family benefits, rights to bank loans, mortgages and financial credit, rights to participate in recreational activities, sports and all aspects of cultural life, issues around women in rural communities, equality of woman and men before the law, and marriage issues.
CEDAW is guided by three principles. 1. Principle of Substantive Equality. Three approaches to equality – formal or sameness, which embodies regards for women and men as the same and therefore treat them the same. This entails same education for boys and girls, right to vote for women and men, right to drive, etc. This does not support states parties and societies taking actions based on biologically and socially constructed differences. Other approaches are protectionist approach and systemic approach 2. Principle of Non Discrimination 3. Principle of State Obligations, which is the framework with which states are held responsible or accountable.
CEDAW has three-fold obligation for state parties to respect, protect and fulfill women’s human rights. To respect - the State must abstain from any conduct or activity that violates women’s human rights. To protect - the State must prevent violations by non-state actors, including individuals, groups, institutions and corporations. To fulfill - the State must take whatever measures that are needed to move towards the full realization of women’s human rights. CEDAW addresses issues at both public and private spheres. CEDAW allows use of temporary special Measures (TSMs) (Article 4) which are positive steps directly undertaken or sponsored by the states in favour of women. The TSMs are aimed at accelerating substantive equality which are of a temporary nature. The measures do not give women privileges but they address embed discrimination in the societies.
CEDAW also recognizes the roles of culture and traditions in the sustenance of discrimination against women hence state parties are obligated to eliminate stereotypes that reinforce discrimination against women.
CEDAW is comprehensive as it mentioned almost all segments of life and issues that promote or give rise to discrimination against women. CEDAW establishes the concept of substantive equality and strengthens the concept of indivisibility of human rights, buttressing the facts that women’s rights are human rights and that women are also rights holders. Over the years, the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women makes recommendations on issues affecting women to which the Committee believes the States parties should devote more attention. Twenty-eight (28) general recommendations were made as at 2010.
Having provided a positive legal framework for getting rights for women, CEDAW will not automatically confer those rights on women. It is for women activists all over the world to rise up to work so that women of the world can be transformed from passive beneficiaries to active claimants. Though CEDAW is largely dependent on the political will of the states, strong and highly conscious constituency of women can assist to create this political will. Women’s groups at the ground level need to be mobilized into this constituency hence the urgent need to raise awareness and develop skills at various levels in relation to the CEDAW Convention. This is to be done among women themselves, government functionaries, lawyers, and members of judicial system. Women’s groups should form advocacy units for application of the norms of CEDAW Convention in the states and form linkages with the Committee, exploring the use of the following mechanisms: Shadow Report; Special Rapporteur; Universal Periodic Review.