CEDAW Advances Women's Human Rights

Publication Document Type


Primary Content

The United Nations Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) is the only comprehensive international treaty guaranteeing women’s human rights and the prevention of discrimination against women. CEDAW provides a universal international standard for women’s human rights — a framework for governmental policy to combat gender inequality. CEDAW’s scope is wideranging, addressing discrimination in areas such as education, employment, health care, marriage and family relations, politics, finance, and law.

The U.S. Has Failed To Ratify CEDAW for More than 20 Years

CEDAW was unanimously adopted by the UN General Assembly on December 18, 1979, and became effective in 1981. The U.S. was instrumental in drafting CEDAW, and President Jimmy Carter signed the convention on behalf of the U.S. in 1980. The Senate Foriegn Relations committee held hearings in 1994 and 2002 and voted favorably each time to send the treaty to the Senate floor. Since that time, for various political reasons, the Senate has not voted on this treaty.

The U.S. Appears Isolationist

As of May 2003, 173 countries have ratified CEDAW. The U.S. stands out as the only industrialized nation that has failed to do so. In fact, in refusing to ratify CEDAW, the U.S. is in the company of countries such as North Korea and Iran, where violations of women’s human rights are particularly rampant.

In 1995, the U.S. made a public commitment at the UN Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing, China to ratify CEDAW by the year 2000. The U.S. must live up to that commitment.


CEDAW defines discrimination against women as:
"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."

U.S. Ratification Would Increase U.S. Credibility and Influence Worldwide

The U.S. should be leading the international fight against gender discrimination, yet, it is one of the few countries that has failed to ratify CEDAW. This failure is an international embarrassment and an obstacle to effective U.S. foreign policy. Other nations accuse the U.S. of hypocrisy when it seeks to call attention to human rights violations or to build consensus among governments for improved human rights standards.

Furthermore, in refusing to ratify CEDAW, the U.S. has relinquished the opportunity to influence further development of women’s human rights. By its failure, the U.S. cannot nominate an expert to the CEDAW Committee, which monitors compliance with the treaty.

If the U.S. ratified CEDAW it could exercise greater political and moral leadership on human rights in the international community and would strengthen its position as a champion of international human rights.


"And repressed people around the world must know this about the United States… We will always be the world’s leader in support of human rights." President George W. Bush (May 18, 2001)

Ratification Is Consistent with U.S. Policy

Ratification of CEDAW is consistent with both the foreign and domestic policy of the U.S. The U.S. has a track record of ratifying international human rights treaties. Among those treaties are the International Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide (1988), the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (1992), the Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (1994), and the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (1994). Most recently, the U.S. ratified the International Labor Organization Convention on the Worst Forms of Child Labor (1999).

CEDAW is consistent with U.S. constitutional principles opposing discrimination against women. In fact, U.S. law is already in substantial compliance with CEDAW. Where discrepancies exist between CEDAW’s principles of nondiscrimination and U.S. law, CEDAW permits progressive implementation. The U.S. can submit — and previous administrations have proposed — reservations, understandings and declarations with its instrument of ratification addressing such discrepancies, as it has done with other human rights treaties. *

Furthermore, previous administrations have submitted an understanding that the federal government will respect the principles of federalism, and that ratification of CEDAW will not violate states’ rights. A reservation has also been proposed that CEDAW is non-selfexecuting, meaning that it would not have immediate domestic legal effect. CEDAW is not punitive against countries that are not in full compliance with its principles of gender equality. Instead, CEDAW provides a roadmap for advancement of women’s human rights. CEDAW’s only mandatory mechanism for monitoring implementation is through written and oral reports to the CEDAW committee by countries that have ratified CEDAW. The CEDAW committee issues nonbinding suggestions and recommendations regarding progress in implementation of the treaty.


CEDAW contains several provisions that confirm women’s reproductive rights, including one that provides for the right "to decide freely and responsibly on the number and spacing of . . . children and to have access to the information, education and means to enable [excercise of] these rights."

U.S. Citizens Support Ratification of CEDAW

U.S. citizens want the United States to ratify CEDAW. Over 190 national organizations — including religious, legal, medical, academic, and environmental organizations — have endorsed CEDAW. Examples include the American Association of Retired Persons, American Bar Association, American Nurses Association, Amnesty International USA, Episcopal Church, Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, Jewish Women International, League of Women Voters of the United States, Muslim Women’s League, National Conference of State Legislatures, National Audubon Society, National Council of Negro Women, National Education Association, United Church of Christ and United Methodist Church. These organizations represent millions of voters across the country who support U.S. ratification of CEDAW.

Many state and local governments have passed resolutions in support of CEDAW, including California, the Connecticut State Senate, Hawaii, the Illinois House of Representatives, Iowa, Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New York, North Carolina, South Dakota, and Vermont.

In 1993, 68 Senators — more than the 2/3 majority necessary to ratify a treaty — signed a letter in favor of CEDAW ratification. Members of Congress have an obligation to represent the will of their constituents.

* The Center for Reproductive Rights believes it would be preferable to ratify CEDAW without such restrictions in order to ensure subsequent implementation of CEDAW’s principles of non-discrimination in the U.S. To date, however, the State Department has remained firmly committed to ratification with these reservations, understandings and declarations.