CEDAW – The International Women’s Rights Treaty You Never Heard Of


Sarasota, Florida has added its name to the cities seeking local CEDAW ordinances.

We hope to join San Francisco, Los Angeles, Louisville, and many other cities bringing CEDAW to their communities.

Stay tuned and see here for more info on the Cities for CEDAW initiative.


June 2014

A Primer: What the hell is CEDAW and why should I care?

What is CEDAW?

CEDAW – conveniently pronounced “see-daw” – is the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women. Admittedly, this is a mouthful, but most international treaties are, so we won’t let that stop us.

A variety of international human rights documents agreed to shortly after the birth of the United Nations in 1945 set out the fundamental rights of men and women. Persistent discrimination against women after that time, however, led to the call in 1974 for a special treaty to protect and promote the rights of women.

CEDAW is from 1945?

imagesNope. It was first created and adopted by the United Nations in 1979. Many countries ratified it promptly. In 1980, the Carter administration quickly endorsed it and sent it to the Senate for ratification. And, to make a long and painful story short, it’s been languishing there in the US Senate for the past 34 years.

So what does it say?

You know all the rights men have? It says women have them too.

There must be more to it than that?

Sure: CEDAW promotes women’s full participation in economic, civil, political, and social life. There are 30 articles covering topics such as health, education, employment, nationality, international work, inheritance, and participation in public life. Countries agree to ensure equal rights for women and remove discriminatory barriers.

Why do we need all that?

This helps in two ways: first, it unambiguously sets out goals toward which we should strive; and second, the language of CEDAW can be used to advocate for changes in specific discriminatory laws or practices and to promote a better understanding of women’s rights.

So which other countries HAVE ratified this treaty?

Every other country in the WORLD has ratified CEDAW except – ready for the glorious list of non-endorsing countries? – seven: The Sudan, Somalia, Iran, Palau, Tonga, and the USA. Interesting company.

What’s happened in the countries that have ratified CEDAW?

Here are just a few examples:

imgresIn Afghanistan, CEDAW is used as a tool to educate women and girls, a critical step especially in isolated areas or regions where education is weak. When women and girls do not know their rights they are more likely to be dependent and vulnerable.


In Ghana, CEDAW recommendations were relied on to create and pass a domestic violence act in 2007.

imgres-1In Tanzania, CEDAW was cited by a Judge who refused to allow a forcible abduction and rape to be considered a “traditional marriage.”

imgresIn Thailand, CEDAW was relied on when the Thai constitution was amended in 2007. The new constitution contains explicit provisions protecting the rights of women.

imgres-3In Saudi Arabia, CEDAW was used to push for the rights of female lawyers to represent women in court without the presence of a male ‘guardian.’

imgres-1In Kenya, CEDAW was instrumental in a number of cases challenging customary inheritance laws, thus helping to ensure the property rights of widows and daughters.

imgres-4And in India, a place near and dear to my heart, CEDAW was used to create guidelines against sexual harassment in the workplace after the 1997 gang rape of a publicly employed social worker visiting a village to investigate a claim of child marriage.

But wouldn’t ratification mean the UN would be interfering in US domestic laws?

Not at all. CEDAW creates no enforcement mechanism or penalties. So banish the fear of international meddling. Countries agree to implement the provisions in whatever ways appropriate. As with other human rights treaties, each member country submits a regular progress report to an independent committee for review. These progress reports in turn become useful both domestically and internationally: they help provide models for successful practices and laws, and they shine a light on countries where discriminatory policies persist.

But if there’s no enforcement mechanism, why bother?

Most societal norms are changed slowly, not by penalties and enforcement police, but by dint of changed understandings, informed public opinion, and progressive education. So standing up and saying “this is the right thing to do” IS the right thing to do and does help bring about long- term change.

Why won’t the US ratify CEDAW?

Good question. As Senator Barbara Boxer said this past summer, “It’s ridiculous, it’s embarrassing, it’s inexplicable” that the United States has not yet joined 187 other countries in ratifying CEDAW.

imgres-5So America, what’s up?

Why are we not out front, helping secure better enforcement of rights here and helping out our colleagues around the globe? Can’t we lend weight to the rights of women worldwide simply by ratifying this treaty? Hey, Senate Foreign Relations committee, precisely WHAT are you waiting for? This is so objectionable exactly why?

Looking for more information? Email me, or check out some of the resources listed below. And, BTW, many progressive US cities have individually adopted statements endorsing CEDAW. How about a groundswell from below?

CEDAW 2015

ICRW – International Center for Research on Women; Report on CEDAW and its implementation

CNN Report, 2013