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

The UN General Assembly adopted the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) in 1979 and Canada followed with adoption in 1981 – the same year in which the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms was being drafted. CEDAW is often described as “the bill of rights for women.” It defines discrimination against women and establishes an agenda for putting an end to sex-based discrimination.

Discrimination against women is defined by the CEDAW to mean any distinction, exclusion or restriction made on the basis of sex that is meant to, or that results in preventing women from fully enjoying their human rights and fundamental freedoms. Even though much progress has been made in recent decades, and many women have increased access to education, proper health care and participation in the workforce, nowhere in the world can women claim to have all the same opportunities and rights as men. On average, women continue to receive less pay than men earn for the same work, and the majority of the world’s absolute poor are women. Violence against women, including rape and domestic violence, continue to be significant causes of disability and death for women worldwide. It is often said that the face of poverty is a woman’s.

By adopting CEDAW, states commit to:

  • incorporate the principle of the equality of men and women into their legal systems and to get rid of any existing discriminatory laws and replace them with laws that prohibit discrimination against women
  • set up tribunals and public organizations to make sure that women are being protected against discrimination by the government
  • eliminate all acts of discrimination against women by individuals, organizations or corporations.

The rights protected under CEDAW include the right to vote and to run for election and rights to education, health care and employment. In addition, CEDAW protects women from discrimination when engaging in any of those activities. For example, CEDAW protects the right of women to enter the workforce and also protects women from being discriminated against in the workplace. States that have ratified CEDAW are legally required to put its provisions into practice. States must also submit reports to the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women every few years so that the Committee can monitor whether countries are living up to their obligations under CEDAW.

For every report that a state submits to the CEDAW Committee, NGOs prepare an alternative, or “shadow” report for the Committee on what the reality is for women in the country and provide a critique or evaluation of what the government has reported. In Canada, these shadow reports have been submitted by national and provincial NGOs. For example, in 2010 the B.C. CEDAW Group, a coalition of women’s NGOs and non-profit organizations in British Columbia, submitted a report to the CEDAW Committee discussing the failure of BC to respond to specific recommendations made by the Committee as part of Canada’s review in 2008. These recommendations were with regard to women’s poverty and inadequate social assistance rates, and police and government failure to prevent or investigate violence against Aboriginal women and girls. The BC CEDAW Group’s report can be found here.


The IWRP was responsible for writing the first report on the impact of CEDAW in ten countries. The study gathered information from NGOs in the ten countries in order to develop better measurements of the implementation of the CEDAW human rights guarantees from the perspective of women’s rights activists. The First CEDAW Impact Study is available on the IWRP website.

In 1999, the UN General Assembly adopted the Optional Protocol to CEDAW. An optional protocol to a treaty is a multilateral agreement that governments can ratify or agree to, that is intended to further a specific purpose of the treaty or assist in the implementation of its provisions. The Optional Protocol to CEDAW provides two mechanisms to assist in the promotion of women’s human rights. The first is a communications procedure that allows individual women or groups to submit claims of violations of rights under CEDAW. The second is an inquiry procedure that enables the CEDAW Committee to initiate inquiries into situations of grave or systemic violations of human rights. These mechanism put the CEDAW on the same footing as other human rights treaties, such as the Convention on All Forms of Racial Discrimination, and the Convention against Torture and other Forms of Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (discussed below), that provide for procedures for communication and inquiry. The procedures established under the Optional Protocol also provide women with additional tools to encourage governments to respect and protect women’s rights through their laws and policies.

Case Study - Inquiry into Ciudad Juárez

To date, only one inquiry into a grave and systematic violation of human rights has been conducted by the CEDAW Committee. It dealt with a series of murders, rapes and disappearances of women in the Ciudad Juárez region of Mexico. In 2002, two NGO’s, Equality Now and Casa Amiga, made a request to the CEDAW Committee for an inquiry into the incidents.

In October 2003, two CEDAW members visited Mexico to meet with authorities from federal, state, and local levels, as well as victims’ families, human rights defenders, and NGO workers. Based on these discussions, a report was prepared and adopted by the Committee in January 2004 which outlined 16 recommendations for the Mexican government. The recommendations addressed two main areas where action was required by the Mexican government: the first involving the investigation of the crimes, punishment of perpetrators, and support to families; and the second addressing violence prevention and promotion of women’s human rights. A series of follow-up investigations showed that while the inquiry did not resolve the vast number of issues that factored into this situation, including social, cultural, and socioeconomic concerns, it did place added international pressure on the government to take action.

Special Rapporteur on Violence Against Women

In addition to the Committee established under CEDAW, the UN has also appointed a Special Rapporteur on Violence Against Women. The purpose of the Rapporteur is to receive and seek out information on the causes and consequences of violence against women from governments, international organizations and NGOs and provide recommendations on how to eliminate violence against women and remedy its consequences. The Rapporteur will appeal to governments for clarification if it is notified of cases of violence against women in that country. These cases may involve one or more women, or may be the result of social conditions in that country that result in violence against women being condoned or perpetrated. The Rapporteur does not accuse or judge states that it receives complaints against; rather it works with the government to try to prevent, investigate and punish acts of violence against women and provide compensation for the victims.