CEDAW – 40 years as a superhero of women’s human rights

You probably know the phrase “Women’s Rights are Human Rights”, one of the favourite slogans of the feminist movement in the 80s and 90s. It is perhaps most notably known from Hilary Rodham Clinton’s landmark speech at the Beijing Conference 1995. It may have been a radical move by Clinton to use that slogan at that point in time, but women’s rights had already been integrated as one of the core international human rights treaties in 1979 by the adoption of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) by the United Nation’s General Assembly. And on this day 40 years ago, the 3rd of September 1981, the treaty entered into force as an international treaty. This is definitely worth celebrating! 

Today the CEDAW convention is one of the nine core international human rights treaties and has been ratified by 189 states, making it one of the most widely ratified international human rights treaties. At the same time, this superhero of women’s human rights is also the international human rights treaty with the most reservations. Isn’t it ironic?  

Time to celebrate progress made and continue to push forward

I think it’s worth taking a moment and reflecting on the notion that women’s rights are human rights in the light of the current push back. The notion could certainly not be taken for granted at the time of the adoption of the CEDAW convention. Sadly, the same can be said now. Admittingly, many things have happened in terms of gender equality since 1979 or 1981, but we have also seen some real push back. 

We see it everywhere. In different countries around the world, new bills are introduced to “protect the family”. Anti-rights actors are mobilising on the global arenas to stop progressive and inclusive language in agreed conclusions and resolutions. While in ecumenical conversations some persons and churches are starting to question the use of the term gender justice which has been used in the ecumenical movement for decades.

The content of the convention is still highly relevant today. Only 25% of all national parliamentarians are women (article 7 on political and public life), over 50 countries around the world have nationality laws that discriminate on the basis of sex (article 9 on nationality), it is estimated that 12 million women may have been unable to access family planning services due to the COVID-pandemic (article 12 on health services incl family planning), nearly 40% of all states still have laws that constrain women’s decision to join and remain in the work force (article 11 on employment), only 45% of mothers with newborns receive a maternity benefit (article 11 on employment), and in 23 countries the marriage age is under 18 and in 116 countries it’s 18 years but with exceptions – which means allowing for child marriage (article 16 on marriage and family matters). The list can go on and on. 

CEDAW – What’s religion got to do with it? 

If you look at the 440 normative reservations entered by states against CEDAW, over 60% are based on/motivated by religion, belief or religious tradition. Yet, religion and religious actors can play a crucial role in gender equality and the fulfilment of the obligations under the CEDAW convention, in particular when it comes to family law (and stereotypes and norms). And so much work is also being done in this field. 

Family law is one area of legislation that is crucial for the fulfilment of women’s rights. It regulates matters such as women’s legal status before, during or after marriage, the legal age of marriage, domestic violence, marital rape, custody of children, inheritance as well as ownership of land and property. It covers several rights set out in the CEDAW convention, particularly article 15 on equality before the law and article 16 on marriage and family relations (the CEDAW Committee has further elaborated on family law in its general recommendation No 21). Article 16 is the most reserved article of all UN human rights treaties and researchers Basak Cali and Mariana Montoya describe the article as “alighting rod’ for religion-based reservations”

Family law is also an area of legislation that religious authorities tend to have significant influence or direct power over. Many countries recognize parallel religious authority over marriage and family matters through religious family law as well as through religious court jurisdiction over such matters.  This means for instance that religious leaders and institutions have direct power over issues such as legal age of marriage and whether men and women have equal rights to own and inherit property, issues that are covered in CEDAW art 16. Under Christian family laws, there are often unequal grounds for divorce (making it easier – but not necessarily easy – for men to divorce). Domestic violence is extremely seldom considered as grounds for divorce or annulment. 

Faith actors are and can play a crucial role through advocacy in their own religious communities to promote legislative and normative change as well as through shadow reporting to the CEDAW committee regarding discriminatory religious legislation, norms or practices. And perhaps just as important in this time of polarisation, through showcasing positive examples of how these can be changed. One example is the work of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Jordan and the Holy Land (ELCJHL) to adopt a gender equal family law.* 

To achieve real change in the lives of women and girls around the world, we must work for legal reform as well as address destructive norms that keep people, you and me, from realising our full potential. And the CEDAW convention is a great tool to push for change. It is really a superhero for human rights.


Joanna Lilja

Joanna Lilja is Deputy Policy Director and Policy Adviser for Gender Justice and Equality at Act Church of Sweden. Joanna also serves on the ACT Alliance Gender Justice Reference Group, and chairs the Gender Policy and Advocacy Task Group.  

* Read more about how faith based actors can use CEDAW to hold states accountable and the work of the ELCJHL in Affirming Women’s Human Rights, 2019. You can also listen to Scarlet Bishara, judge in the ELCJHL’s Ecclesiastical court, sharing the experiences of the church in this recording of the CSW65 event Equality in Family Law: Committing to Reform.