Women’s Rights in International Law

updated November 2016

The pursuit of equal rights for women through international law has been a slow process. The principle that everyone is entitled to rights “without distinction of any kind, such as race, colour, sex…” was given voice in Article 2 of the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

However, the Declaration was non-binding and it took over 30 years for the international community to create a robust legal framework against gender injustice. The Convention to Eliminate All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) was adopted by the UN General Assembly in 1979.

CEDAW has been described as a bill of rights for women; it spells out the areas in which women experience discrimination and commits countries to amend their laws, construct national gender policies and create institutions to deliver them.

For example, CEDAW places an obligation on countries to ensure that women have the same rights as men to decide the “number and spacing of their children and to have access to the information, education and means to enable them to exercise these rights.”

Progressing from recognition of women’s rights to positive actions for the empowerment of women is particularly associated with the Fourth UN World Conference on Women, held in Beijing in 1995. The Beijing Platform for Action, a detailed policy template for empowerment, has proved a source of inspiration for policy on women’s rights.

An overdue development in 2011 was the launch of the UN Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women, known as UN Women. This new body merged the four UN agencies previously engaged in gender issues, elevating the seniority of input within the UN decision-making process.

The stronger voice for women’s rights ensured that the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), approved by world leaders in 2015, include Goal 5: “achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls.” With a primary target to “end all forms of discrimination against all women and girls everywhere,” SDG 5 unambiguously merges human rights concerns with development aspirations.

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