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On December 18, 1979, the United Nations General Assembly voted to adopt the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), informally known as the Treaty for the Rights of Women. Today, 30 years later, the international community commemorates the adoption of this critical instrument for the preservation and practice of women’s rights.

The Treaty for the Rights of Women is an international instrument for governments, activists, advocates and citizens joined in a global movement towards the full realization and practice of women’s rights. Adopted by the United Nations General Assembly in 1979, the Treaty has since been ratified by 186 nations as the preeminent treaty acknowledging the comprehensive rights of women as fundamental human rights. In defining discrimination against women, the Treaty includes any restriction or exclusion, made on the basis of sex, which has as its purpose or effect a denial of the full recognition and exercise of a woman’s fundamental freedoms in the political, economic, social, cultural, civil, or any other sphere.

CEDAW uniquely addresses prejudice as a social construct with systemic and systematic consequences, citing social and cultural patterns of conduct based on perceived inferiority or superiority as root causes that perpetuate discrimination against women. Written in the progressive spirit that was later echoed by the historic 1995 Beijing Platform for Action, the Treaty urges that women and men recognize and remedy a reality that permits socially constructed gender roles to dictate the experience and opportunity afforded an individual.

The Treaty is a decisive call for the promise of equal opportunity to be practically extended to women in areas of political and public life, education, employment, health care, economic and social rights, as well as in marriage and family relations. In distinguishing de facto equality from de jure equality, the Treaty seeks to engage signatories as partners in an active movement to realize women’s rights, promoting concrete measures to be taken by states parties in an effort to accelerate equality between men and women.

Currently, only the United States, Sudan, Somalia, Iran and three other countries have not ratified CEDAW. A signatory since President Jimmy Carter signed the treaty in 1979, the U.S. has been at an impasse in Congress since then, and despite several attempts, the Treaty for the Rights of Women remains unratified. The Obama Administration has declared ratification of CEDAW a priority. Failure to ratify has often undermined American credibility in its rebuke of human rights abuses abroad and calls for women’s human rights.

Following their ratification of the Treaty, various countries across the world have taken action based on CEDAW in efforts to empower women and legitimize and enforce their rights.

  • Nicaragua, Jordan, Egypt and Guinea are among other nations that have seen significant increases in literacy rates after improving access to education for women and young girls.
  • Colombia has, since ratification, criminalized domestic violence and required protection for victims.
  • Ukraine, Nepal, Thailand and the Philippines are among other states that have passed legislation to address sex trafficking.
  • Uganda, South Africa, Brazil and others have incorporated provisions of the Treaty into their constitutions and domestic legal codes.
  • India developed national guidelines on workplace sexual assault after the Supreme Court found that CEDAW required such protections.

Vital Voices Global Partnership stands with hundreds of NGOs in support of U.S. ratification of the Treaty, so that our country, long respected as an advocate and example of human rights, may lend its full support and credibility to its commitment to ensure the human rights of women across the world.

If you are interested in supporting CEDAW, here are a few ways that you can express your support:

Ratify CEDAW on its 30th Anniversary -Citizens for Global Solutions

Working Group on CEDAW

Physicians for Human Rights

Related: The Significance of CEDAW in Turkey: Interview with Urun Guner-Vital Voices