Women’s Rights are Human Rights

“Our vision is of a society made stronger for all because women and our rights are equally valued and respected and because we have equal power and influence in decisions that affect our lives and the wider world”

Millicent Fawcett and our suffragist founders saw winning the vote for women as a key step to achieving full equal rights for women. Their colours – Green, White and Red – stood for “give women rights”.  They believed, as we still do today, that whilst such major inequalities still exist between how the rights of women and men are treated, whether political, civil, social, cultural or economic, it is not only women but our wider society that will fail to become all that it could be.

Fawcett has always campaigned not for special or different rights for women, but for our rights as citizens and human beings to be given the same value and worth as men’s.

We believe that the basic human rights – such as political voice, access to healthcare, the ability to earn an income and freedom from violence,  represent the things that every person – male or female – needs to flourish and reach their potential.  We also believe that unless people have these, they cannot play their full part in contributing to their communities, the economy or to wider society.

All states or governments have a duty to not just respect, but protect and in many cases take steps to fulfill these rights – in other words – make rights real. All people, and all women are “rights holder” and when it comes to campaigning, Fawcett takes the approach that we are holding government to account on their duty to respect these.

These rights are set out in variety of UK, European and International laws and treaties that apply to both men and women. But because women have traditionally faced specific barriers or discrimination in realising their rights, in 1979 the UN adopted a dedicated Convention for the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women – commonly known as CEDAW

What is CEDAW?

CEDAW represents the most comprehensive piece of global legislation aimed at ending discrimination against women and is often referred to as an ‘international bill of rights for women’. Currently, 185 countries (‘State parties’), including the United Kingdom are party to the Convention – over ninety per cent of the members of the United Nations.

CEDAW defines what constitutes discrimination against women and sets up an agenda for national action to end such discrimination. Discrimination against women is defined 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.”

CEDAW outlines a comprehensive set of rights for women in all fields and covers areas such as: Sex Role Stereotyping and Prejudice; Prostitution; Political and Public Life; Representation; Nationality; Education; Employment; Health; Economic and Social Benefits; Rural Women; Law; Marriage and Family Life.
CEDAW is the only international treaty which affirms the reproductive rights of women and targets culture and tradition as influential forces in shaping gender roles.

What are countries legally bound to do?

State parties that have ratified CEDAW commit themselves to undertake a series of measures to end discrimination against women in all forms. These include:

–           incorporating the principle of equality of men and women into their legal systems, abolishing all discriminatory laws and adoptnig appropriate ones prohibiting discrimination against women;

–          establishing tribunals and other public institutions to ensure the effective protection of women against discrimination; and

–          ensuring the elimination of all acts of discrimination against women by persons, organizations or enterprises.

State parties are also required to submit national periodic reports to the UN every four years. These reports provide information on the situation of women in regards to all the areas of discrimination outlined in the Convention and are reviewed by the UN CEDAW Committee – the overseeing body of the Convention, which is composed of 23 independent experts on women’s issues from around the world.

The Committee then seeks further detail, usually around a year after the submission of the periodic report, on the State parties’ progress on tackling discrimination against women at a 1-day oral examination of relevant government officials. Following this examination, the Committee publishes a set of observations – the ‘concluding observations’ – which outline remaining areas of concern and recommendations for action.


How can NGOs engage in this process?

As well as considering the information provided by state parties in their reports and during oral examinations,  the UN can also consider written evidence submitted by national non-governmental organisations (NGOs) on the status of women’s rights – these ‘shadow reports’ often raise areas of concern that NGOs feel have not been sufficiently covered by governments in their report.

CEDAW and the UK

The government submitted it most recent report on the UK’s progress under CEDAW – its 7th periodic report – to the UN in June 2011.

A wide range of UK women’s sector organisations then submitted a joint ‘shadow report’ to the CEDAW Committee to provide additional evidence and data on remaining areas of inequality for women in the UK. This was compiled by the Women’s Resource Centre, and includes contributions from over 40 women’s sector organisations, including Fawcett.

This report – Women’s equality in the UK’– a  health check’   provides a wealth of information on the status of women’s equality in the UK today and raises many concerns on remaining inequalities including on: the continued failure to address the high levels of violence against women and girls; concern about the current review of the Public Sector Equality Duty – the key piece of domestic legislation that underpins the government’s role in furthering equality for women in the UK and; concern about welfare reforms which are pushing more women into poverty and insecurity. The report also calls on government to ensure that there are sufficiently resourced mechanisms to enable women to communicate their experiences of inequality, in order to inform the governments understanding of, and response to, these issues.

The oral examination of the UK’s 7th periodic report took place at the UN Palais des Nations in Geneva on 17th July 2013. This was attended by a UK delegation headed up by the Government Equalities Office with further officials joining the discussion via video conference from London.  The CEDAW Committee posed a wide range of questions to the delegation including on the issues of changes to funding for legal aid, funding for violence against women services, trafficking, equality in the curriculum, the sexual objectification of women in the media, hate crimes against BME women, extreme pornography, women in prison, abortion in Northern Ireland and rural women, amongst many other issues.

In the out-coming concluding observations the Committee makes recommendations for improvements in the situation of women across a wide range of areas, including that the UK government develop an overarching national strategy to implement the rights set out in the Convention.

Read the Government Equalities Office opening address to the CEDAW Committee here

See a full recording of the examination here


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