Forty years ago, from 14 to 30 July 1980, delegations from 145 national governments around the globe gathered in Copenhagen for the World Conference on the United Nations Decade for Women. During the conference, 64 of these governments signed the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW). As a legally-binding international treaty, the convention established a comprehensive definition of discrimination against women and set out the obligations of states parties to eliminate it. The CEDAW is important – and worth remembering – because it continues to serve as a basis for women’s rights mobilisations in Africa and around the world.
At the Copenhagen conference, deep disagreements about the nature, causes and significance of inequality between men and women threatened to overwhelm international co-operation. The conference was held at the mid-point of the United Nations Decade for Women, to review progress on decisions taken at the first world conference on women in Mexico City five years earlier, and to formulate a Programme of Action for the remaining five years. In her preliminary report on the conference to United Nations Secretary-General Kurt Waldheim, the secretary-general for the conference, Lucille Mair, explained why it had proved impossible to achieve a unanimous vote in favour of the Programme of Action.
Four delegations, representing the governments of the United States, Canada, Australia and Israel, had voted against, whilst a further 22 (including many western European) delegations had abstained. The objections and abstentions focused on proposals originating from the Group of 77 non-aligned developing countries, to which most independent African nations belonged. The Group of 77 introduced to the Programme of Action a statement on the elimination of ‘imperialism, colonialism, zionism, racism and racial discrimination’, and a pledge to establish a special fund for Palestinian women, ‘in consultation and co-operation with the Palestinian Liberation Organization’. The African Group of States further proposed a resolution to the conference which denounced the ‘criminal acts of the cynical and reactionary apartheid regime before the international community’.
Blaming the Cold War
These proposals and resolutions were passed by large majorities at the conference. But a minority of governments would not permit their delegations to vote in favour of the resulting Programme of Action. The opposing and abstaining governments concluded that the conference had been ‘politicised’, with countries in the Eastern bloc and Group of 77 treating it as an opportunity to score points against the United States and its allies.
Such conclusions glossed over two broader arguments that were articulated in various ways, not only by some of the Group of 77 official delegations, but also in the parallel forum of non-governmental organisations (NGOs). Firstly, relations between men and women varied in societies around the world. It could not therefore be assumed that women in the Eastern bloc or the global south would simply agree with definitions of inequality devised in western Europe and north America, or seek the same remedies. Secondly, if oppressive and exploitative regimes were clearly implicated in the ‘problems’ of the women (and men) who lived under them, then equality, peace, and development could not be fully achieved unless such regimes were challenged.
CEDAW by consensus?
Governmental delegations that disagreed fundamentally on the nature and causes of inequalities between men and women, and thus on the Programme of Action, nonetheless lined up to sign the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women at two ceremonies organised during the conference. Today, 189 member states of the United Nations have ratified the CEDAW, suggesting a surprising degree of consensus around it. Some countries, however, lodged formal reservations about specific articles in the convention. The United States government, having signed the convention at Copenhagen, did not go on to ratify it.
Why was the CEDAW necessary?
In 1945, the founding charter of the United Nations had affirmed the faith of its member states ‘fundamental human rights’, ‘the dignity and worth of the human person’ and ‘the equal rights of men and women’. The 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights emphasised the principle of equality of all persons before the law, and their enjoyment of rights and freedoms without distinction on grounds of sex.
But throughout the 1950s and 60s, the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women noted that inequality persisted around the world, albeit in differing forms and degrees. The Commission undertook surveys of domestic legislation among member states, and drafted conventions that would tackle specific issues such as the nationality of married women and the minimum age of consent to marriage. But ultimately, the Commission recommended that a more comprehensive Declaration on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against women should be drafted. Justice Annie Jiagge of Ghana played an important role in the drafting of the declaration, which was adopted by the United Nations General Assembly in 1967.
A declaration, however, is not a legally-binding international treaty. Some of the governments that voted in favour of the declaration at the United Nations General Assembly subsequently failed to participate in the voluntary reporting system. Proposals to upgrade the declaration into a convention were thus formulated in the Commission on the Status of Women and given additional impetus by the World Conference of the International Women’s Year, held in Mexico City in 1975. The schedule for the work for the drafting of the convention was undertaken with a view to encouraging government delegations to sign at the World Conference in Copenhagen in July 1980.
What does the CEDAW say about discrimination?
The CEDAW established a comprehensive definition of discrimination against women: ‘any distinction, exclusion or restriction made on the basis of sex which has the effect or purpose of impairing or nullifying the recognition, enjoyment or 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’.
When states parties ratify the CEDAW, they are pledging to give effect to the provisions of the convention. This often entails bringing national constitutions, domestic legislation and policies into line with the convention. The words ‘effect or purpose’ in the convention encompassed both direct and indirect forms of discrimination. This meant that it was not sufficient for states parties to simply repeal domestic legislation that explicitly and intentionally established differential treatment of men and women. States parties were also expected to revisit neutral legal standards and policies that had a disproportionate effect on women.
The convention’s emphasis on both de jure and de facto equality is important because it establishes that special measures aimed at accelerating the achievement of de facto equality are not discriminatory. Such measures would only be discriminatory if they remained in force when there was no longer a demonstrable need. This legal logic has underwritten campaigns for affirmative action. Quota systems have since enabled significant increases in the numbers of women in several parliaments in Africa and elsewhere around the world.
The reporting system
Upon ratification of the CEDAW, states parties take upon themselves the obligation to make an initial country report to the CEDAW Committee, detailing how each article of the convention has been or will be implemented, and then to report again on a four-yearly basis. The CEDAW Committee makes both general and country-specific recommendations – and expects the latter to be followed up in subsequent country reports. One of the obstacles to the implementation of the CEDAW is that states parties do not report regularly. Many states submit late or seek to combine two or even three four-yearly reports into a single document so as to ‘catch up’.
The reporting system contains a risk that governments place their emphasis on what the law in their country says, rather than on how effectively it is implemented, or that they downplay the extent of discrimination experienced by women. This is why the CEDAW Committee also considers ‘shadow’ reports from NGOs. Members of NGOs can apply to attend and speak at sessions of the CEDAW Committee, where governmental delegations are invited into a ‘constructive dialogue’. The CEDAW Committee therefore offers a space in which NGOs can present their own evidence and articulate their concerns independently of their government’s position.
The CEDAW and gender activism
The CEDAW Committee is made up of 23 experts from different parts of the world. Governments of the United Nations member states nominate individuals for the CEDAW Committee, but the nominees must then compete with one another for the votes of United Nations member states, and they ultimately serve in a personal capacity.
The recommendations of the CEDAW Committee can help to legitimise and act as a focus for activism around specific issues. In 1992, for example, the CEDAW Committee issued General Recommendation No. 19 on violence against women. This provided an additional impetus for NGOs and activists to conduct their own research on the nature, extent and causes of violence against women in their countries. This research formed a basis from which to campaign for new laws that defined violence against women and established penalties for it. The journey from CEDAW recommendations to new domestic legislation is often slow and arduous, as evidenced in the long period of research, sensitisation and advocacy that Ghanaian NGOs pursued before the Domestic Violence Bill finally passed into law in 2007.
NGOs can and do utilise CEDAW recommendations as a basis for action. Their ability to do so can be enhanced in various ways – for example, through participation in international and regional networks, the formation of national coalitions around specific issues, and injections of resources. Threats to freedom of expression and association, on the other hand, severely constrain NGO activism. Since December 2000, an Optional Protocol gave the CEDAW Committee authority to enquire into reliable allegations of grave or systematic violations of the convention, and to hear complaints from individuals and groups who have exhausted domestic remedies without finding satisfaction.
Forty years on from the Copenhagen conference, arguments about differences in relations between men and women around the world, and intersecting forms of privilege and oppression, are still highly relevant. The CEDAW has become a living instrument with considerable significance for women’s rights mobilisations. It is clear that the effectiveness of the CEDAW is influenced by many factors, including the manner in which national governments choose to engage with it, and the ability of NGOs to leverage CEDAW Committee recommendations.
This blogpost was written by Kate Skinner, drawing on research carried out under the Archives of Activism project with Akosua Adomako Ampofo and Jovia Salifu. The project received funding from the Global Challenges Research Fund through the British Academy Sustainable Development Programme. Additional contributions were made by the Institute of Global Innovation at the University of Birmingham.
Hilary Gbedemah was interviewed for the Archive of Activism project, but the views expressed in this blogpost are those of the author, and not those of Hilary Gbedemah or the CEDAW Committee.
 Kristen Ghodsee, ‘Revisiting the United Nation decade for Women: Brief reflections on feminism, capitalism and Cole War politics in the early years of the international women’s movement’, Women’s Studies International Forum 33 (2010), 3-12.
 United Nations archive, New York, AG 006 Walheim, S-0913-0020-05, World Conference for United Nations Decade for Women. Letter from Lucille Mair to Kurt Waldheim, 5 August 1980.
 The Group of 77 actually had about 120 member countries by 1980.
 As cited in Lucille Mair’s letter to Kurt Walheim.
 Lisa Baldez, Defying Convention: US resistance to the UN treaty on women’s rights (Cambridge University Press, 2014).
 Dubravka Simonovic, ‘Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women’ (United Nations, 2009). Available at www.un.org/law/avl