International Human Rights Law

Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW)

I. Introduction🔗

The Committee’s outstanding achievements in facilitating international standard setting for women’s human rights, including through its concluding observations, the elaboration of general recommendations and jurisprudence stemming from individual complaints and inquiries under the Optional Protocol, is highly valued and critical to the realization of the fundamental human rights of women in all corners of the globe. Although much has been accomplished, much remains to be done for the human rights of women.

Silvia Pimentel, Chair of the CEDAW Committee (2011-12)1

The Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women was adopted by the United Nations (UN) General Assembly on 18 December 1979. The Convention entered into force on 3 September 1981 ‘as the first global and comprehensive legally binding international treaty aimed at the elimination of all forms of sex- and gender-based discrimination against women’.2 The Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women monitors States’ implementation of the CEDAW.3

Note to reader
For an explanation of the Committee’s powers and other international legal mechanisms that may be available to enforce a State’s obligations under the CEDAW, please consult the “Ratification and Enforcement of Treaties” chapter, “International Human Rights Law” section.

I.1 Sexual Violence under the CEDAW🔗

Under article 1, ‘discrimination against women’ means any distinction, exclusion or restriction made on the basis of sex which has the effect or purpose of denying women, irrespective of their marital status, on a basis of equality of men and women, their human rights and fundamental freedoms ‘in the political, economic, social, cultural, civil or any other field’. Discrimination against women includes gender-based violence.4

While gender-based violence typically describes violence committed against any persons because of their sex and socially constructed gender roles, under the CEDAW the term takes on a more woman-centric focus: the Committee has defined it as ‘violence which is directed against a woman because she is a woman or that affects women disproportionately’.5 Its prohibition has evolved into a principle of customary international law.6

‘Gender-based violence’ makes explicit the gendered causes and impacts of violence against women. It strengthens the understanding of such violence as a social rather than an individual problem, which is ‘affected and often exacerbated by cultural, economic, ideological, technological, political, religious, social and environmental factors’.7 It requires comprehensive responses, beyond those to specific events (including conflicts), individual perpetrators and victims/survivors.8 Sexual violence is a manifestation of gender-based violence.9

All acts of sexual violence may amount to torture or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment. The Committee has quoted with approval the Inter-American Court of Human Rights’ statement that ‘severe suffering of the victim is inherent in rape, even when there is no evidence of physical injuries or disease’.10 It has affirmed that the purpose and intent requirements for classifying acts of gender-based violence as torture ‘are satisfied when acts or omissions are gender-specific or perpetrated against a person on the basis of sex’. In determining whether gender-based violence amounts to torture or ill-treatment, ‘a gender-sensitive approach is required to understand the level of pain and suffering experienced by women’.11

I.2 When Is Sexual Violence Conflict-Related?🔗

The CEDAW’s focus on women and girls is motivated by the fact that, unlike other sections of the population, they are primarily and increasingly targeted by the use of sexual violence, ‘including as a tactic of war to humiliate, dominate, instil fear in, disperse and/or forcibly relocate civilian members of a community or ethnic group’. Sexual violence persists even after the cessation of hostilities: for most women in post-conflict environments, the violence does not stop with the official ceasefire or the signing of the peace agreement and often increases in the post-conflict setting.12 As the higher exposure of women and girls to CRSV are due to gender inequalities which have been and are economically, socially and culturally constructed, the CEDAW requires that States address them holistically.

Conflicts intensify existing gender inequalities. Growing gender inequalities place women at a heightened risk of sexual violence by both State and non-State actors;13 sexual violence is indeed common in humanitarian crises.14 It ‘happens everywhere, such as in homes, detention facilities and camps for internally displaced women and refugees; it happens at any time, for instance, while performing daily activities such as collecting water and firewood or going to school or work’.15 In the absence of social protection schemes and in situations in which there is food insecurity combined with impunity for gender-based violence, ‘women and girls are often exposed to sexual violence and exploitation as they attempt to gain access to food and other basic needs for family members and themselves’.16

The Committee has stated that the term ‘conflict’ can be interpreted to include a variety of circumstances: ‘conflict prevention, international and non-international armed conflicts, situations of foreign occupation and other forms of occupation and the post-conflict phase’.17 The meaning of ‘conflict’ under the CEDAW is more extensive than in IHL, as it may also cover ‘internal disturbances, protracted and low-intensity civil strife, political strife, ethnic and communal violence, states of emergency and suppression of mass uprisings, war against terrorism’ and organised crime.18

As a rule, ‘a backdrop of high levels of violence against women’ should raise suspicion.19 The Committee has recognised that the transition from conflict to post-conflict ‘is often not linear and can involve cessations of conflict and then slippages back into conflict, a cycle that can continue for long periods’.20 Nevertheless, the CEDAW continues to apply just as it does in peacetime. In situations that meet the threshold definition of international and non-international armed conflict, the CEDAW and IHL ‘apply concurrently and their different protections are complementary’.21

II. Legal Framework🔗

Note to reader
On the authoritativeness and the question of bindingness of the Committee’s work, consult the “International Human Rights Law” chapter, “Introduction” section, and the “Introduction” chapter, “Methodology” section.

III. Obligations🔗


III.1 States must criminalise CRSV🔗

III.2 States must incorporate the CEDAW in domestic law🔗

III.3 To protect women and girls from CRSV effectively, States must consider other instruments of international law when implementing their obligations under the CEDAW🔗

III.4 States’ obligations under the CEDAW must be fulfilled both within and outside their territory🔗

III.5 Decentralisation of power does not negate or reduce States’ obligations concerning CRSV🔗

III.6 States must address CRSV committed by private actors🔗

III.7 Special protection against CRSV is owed to women facing multiple, intersecting forms of discrimination🔗

III.8 States must address the underlying causes of CRSV and educate society on it🔗

III.9 States must provide girls with safe access to education🔗

III.10 States must provide women with access to safe employment🔗

III.11 States must eradicate trafficking🔗

III.12 States should regulate the arms trade🔗

III.13 States must collect data on CRSV🔗

III.14 States must include women, including victims/survivors of CRSV, in political decision-making and development planning🔗

III.15 States must report to the Committee on the measures they have adopted to eliminate CRSV🔗

III.16 States should ratify all international instruments relevant to the protection of women and girls🔗

III.17 States should rely on international cooperation to eliminate CRSV🔗

Justice and Accountability🔗

III.18 States must investigate and prosecute CRSV effectively🔗

III.19 States must ensure that victims/survivors of CRSV have access to justice🔗

III.20 States should abolish all practices and legal provisions that are discriminatory against women🔗

III.21 States must protect and assist women complainants of and witnesses to CRSV before, during and after legal proceedings🔗

Humanitarian Response🔗

III.22 States must provide victims/survivors of CRSV with appropriate care🔗


III.23 States must provide victims/survivors of CRSV with remedies🔗

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