Since the United Nations General Assembly adopted the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) in 1979, great strides in gender equality have been made. Women now make up 40 percent of the global labor force, 43 percent of the world’s agricultural labor force and more than half the world’s university students. The gender disparity for women and girls with regard to educational enrollment, life expectancy and labor force participation has considerably shrunk. Yet gender gaps persist, particularly with regard to higher mortality rates of girls and women, disparities in girls’ education, unequal access to economic opportunities and differences in household and societal decision-making. These gender gaps are exacerbated by legal discrimination against women. Where there are laws providing equal rights, they are not always known, implemented nor adequately enforced. Women and girls often have unequal access to the judicial system. Where laws may exist, local traditions, culture and religion may affect a woman’s decision to bring her case forward, but also any subsequent enforcement of the laws.  Gender equality affects both men and women and empowers everyone and contributes to economic efficiency, more inclusive institutions and representative political climates.

The Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) was adopted by the United Nations General Assembly on December 18, 1979; it came into force on September 3, 1981. CEDAW is commonly described as an international bill of rights for women. The preamble and thirty articles define discrimination against women and establish an agenda for national governments to end discrimination against women.

CEDAW 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 of 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.”

There are currently 99 signatories and 188 states parties to CEDAW. The United States is the only signatory that has not yet ratified the Convention. The other five UN member states that have not ratified or acceded to the Convention are Iran, Nauru, Somalia, Sudan and Tonga.

Countries that have ratified CEDAW commit to end discrimination against women in all forms, including by:

  • incorporating the principle of equality of men and women in their legal system, abolish all discriminatory laws and adopt appropriate ones prohibiting discrimination against women;
  • establishing  tribunals and other public institutions to ensure the effective protection of women against discrimination; and
  • ensuring elimination of all acts of discrimination against women by persons, organizations or enterprises.

CEDAW Assessment Tool

In 2002, the American Bar Association’s Rule of Law Initiative (ABA ROLI) developed the CEDAW Assessment Tool as a resource to measure the status of women with regard to a country’s effective implementation of CEDAW. The CEDAW Assessment Tool evaluates a country’s laws and the degree to which they protect the rights of women as mandated by CEDAW. Designed to uncover the legal obstacles that frustrate the achievement of greater gender equality, the tool separately measures the degree to which women are accorded the rights and status guaranteed to them under CEDAW in practice (de facto), as opposed to through legislation (de jure). ABA ROLI has conducted the CEDAW Assessment Tool in Armenia, Georgia, Russia, Serbia and Moldova. The CEDAW Assessment Tool itself is also available online.