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Women & International law

Women's rights > Women & International law

Women are entitled to enjoy the same human rights and fundamental freedoms as other individuals. International human rights treaties require State parties to take proactive steps to ensure that women’s human rights are respected by law and to eliminate discrimination, inequalities, and practices that negatively affect women’s rights. Under international human rights law, women may also be entitled to specific additional rights such as those concerning reproductive healthcare.

As a particularly vulnerable group, women have special status and protection within the United Nations and regional human rights systems. International human rights treaties prohibit discrimination on the basis of gender and also require States to ensure the protection and realization of women’s rights in all areas – from property ownership and freedom from violence, to equal access to education and participation in government.

Legal Protections

The following international human rights instruments specifically address women’s rights:

Additional treaties, which may address specific human rights or protect the rights of other vulnerable groups, apply equally to women. Human rights treaties also generally include a non-discrimination provision that prohibits discrimination on the basis of gender and other grounds, and entitles women to full and equal enjoyment of those treaties’ provisions.


The United Nations (UN) Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) is the most comprehensive treaty on the rights of women. It condemns any form of discrimination against women and reaffirms the importance of guaranteeing equal political, economic, social, cultural and civil rights to women and men. See Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination against Women (adopted 18 December 1979, entered into force 3 September 1981), 1249 UNTS 13. As of May 2014, 188 States are party to CEDAW, out of 193 UN Member States.

CEDAW provides that there should be equal political, economic, social, cultural and civil rights for women regardless of their marital status and requires States to enact national legislation banning discrimination (articles 1, 2 and 3). It permits States to take temporary special measures to accelerate the achievement of equality in practice between men and women (Article 4), and to take actions to modify social and cultural patterns that perpetuate discrimination (Article 5). States parties agree that contracts and other private instruments that restrict the legal capacity of women “shall be deemed null and void” (Article 15). The Convention also addresses the need for equal access to education (Article 10).

CEDAW requires States to take appropriate measures to eliminate discrimination in matters relating to marriage and family and underlines the equal responsibilities of men and women in the context of family life (Article 16). The Convention also emphasizes the need for childcare facilities and other social services to help women satisfy family obligations along with work responsibilities and participation in public life (Article 11).

CEDAW calls for non-discriminatory health services for women, including family planning services (Article 12). Special attention is given to the problems faced by rural women (Article 14), sexual trafficking of women, and other sexual exploitation of women (Article 6).

States have made numerous reservations to CEDAW, purporting to limit the treaty’s domestic application. Most of the reservations are designed to preserve the authority of national or religious law that may contradict CEDAW, or to withdraw the State from the arbitration provision found in Article 29. Nonetheless, CEDAW remains the most widely applicable human rights treaty dedicated to women’s rights.

Regional Treaties

Some regional human rights treaties also focus specifically on women’s rights. In Africa, the Protocol to the African Charter on the Rights of Women in Africa, known as the “Maputo Protocol,” addresses issues of particular importance in Africa, such as genital mutilation. Protocol to the African Charter on the Rights of Women in Africa (“Maputo Protocol”) (adopted 11 July 2003, entered into force 25 November 2005), CAB/LEG/66.6 (15 September 2000); reprinted in 1 Afr. Hum. Rts. L.J. 40, art. 5. It also specifies that women have the right to dignity (Article 3), the right to equality in marriage (Article 6), and the right to decide whether to have children (Article 14). The protocol also addresses the problem of trafficking in women (Article 4).

In the Americas, the Inter-American Convention on the Prevention, Punishment and Eradication of Violence Against Women, known as the “Convention of Belém do Pará,” recognizes the rights of women to be free from violence in both the public and private spheres. Inter-American Convention on the Prevention, Punishment and Eradication of Violence Against Women (adopted 6 September, entered into force 3 May 1995), 33 I.L.M. 1534 (“Convention of Belém do Pará,”) art. 3. The Convention also reaffirms the right of all women to enjoy and exercise the rights protected by other regional and international human rights instruments (Article 4). The State parties recognize that violence prevents a woman from “the free and full exercise of her civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights” (Article 5). The Convention also imposes duties on States to take affirmative steps to prevent, punish, and eradicate violence against women and to progressively undertake measures to address the social and cultural factors contributing to violence or discrimination against women (Article 7).

The Council of Europe Convention on Preventing and Combating Violence against Women and Domestic Violence (“Istanbul Convention”), which entered into force in August 2014, includes similar provisions. Council of Europe Convention on Preventing and Combating Violence against Women and Domestic Violence (“Istanbul Convention”) (adopted 11 May 2011, entered into force 1 August 2014), ETS 210. The Istanbul Convention recognizes that sexual harassment, rape, forced marriage, honor crimes, genital mutilation, and other forms of violence constitute serious human rights violations and “a major obstacle to the achievement of equality between women and men.” Istanbul Convention, preamble. The Convention also establishes a monitoring mechanism consisting of 10 to 15 independent experts that will monitor the implementation of the Istanbul Convention. Istanbul Convention, art. 1(2), 66.


In addition to the protection offered by international and regional human rights conventions, specialized treaties from other areas of international law also address gender discrimination and women’s rights.

International Humanitarian Law

The Geneva Conventions provide special protections for women who are civilians and members of the armed forces, and generally obligate States to treat such women “without any adverse distinction founded on sex…” See, e.g., Geneva Convention (I) for the Amelioration of the Condition of the Wounded and Sick in Armed Forces in the Field (adopted 12 August 1949, entered into force 21 October 1950), 75 UNTS 31, arts. 3, 12. Other provisions require that women prisoners of war be given separate accommodations and conveniences. See Geneva Convention (III) relative to the Treatment of Prisoners of War (adopted 12 August 1949, entered into force 21 October 1950), 75 UNTS 972, arts. 29, 97, 98, 108.

The fourth Geneva Convention also requires the protection of women from “rape, enforced prostitution, or any form of indecent assault”. Geneva Convention (IV) relative to the Protection of Civilian Persons in Time of War (adopted 12 August 1949, entered into force 21 August 1950), 75 UNTS 973, art. 27. Additional Protocol I to the Geneva Conventions re-iterates this protection in Article 76, which places particular importance on the treatment of pregnant women and mothers of dependent infants. Protocol Additional to the Geneva Conventions of 12 August 1949 and relating to the Protection of Victims of International Armed Conflict (adopted 8 June 1977, entered into force 7 December 1978), 1125 UNTS 17512 (Protocol 1) art. 76.

Additional Protocol II to the Geneva Conventions also prohibits “outrages upon personal dignity, in particular humiliating and degrading treatment, rape, enforced prostitution and any form of indecent assault.” Additional Protocol to the Geneva Conventions of 12 August 1949 and relating to the Protection of Victims of Non-International Armed Conflicts (Protocol II) (adopted 8 June 1977, entered into force 12 July 1978), 1125 UNTS 17513, art. 4.

In a similar vein, in 1974 the UN General Assembly adopted a declaration calling on all States to fulfill their obligations under the Geneva Conventions and to take appropriate measures to protect women and children during times of conflict. See UN General Assembly, Declaration on the Protection of Women and Children in Emergency and Armed Conflict (adopted 14 December 1974) UN Doc. A/RES/3318(XXIX).

Finally, the CEDAW Committee identified States parties’ obligations to address gender discrimination that arises in conflict situations, and recognized that women’s rights are protected by both international humanitarian law and international human rights law. CEDAW Committee, General Recommendation No. 30 on women in conflict prevention, conflict and post-conflict situations, UN Doc. CEDAW/C/GC/30, 2013, paras. 6, 19, 21.

International Criminal Law

Rape, sexual slavery, enforced prostitution, forced pregnancy, enforced sterilization and other forms of sexual violence qualify as crimes against humanity under Article 7 of Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court and as war crimes under Article 8 of the Rome Statute. As a result, individuals who commit these offenses as part of a widespread or large-scale practice may be investigated and prosecuted by the International Criminal Court subject to its jurisdictional limits.

The international criminal tribunals established for the prosecution of crimes committed during the crises in Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia have each adjudicated a number of cases involving the special vulnerability of women during armed conflict. See, e.g., Prosecutor v. Jean-Paul Akayesu (Case No. ICTR-96-4-T), ICTR, Trial Chamber, Judgment of 2 September 1998; Prosecutor v. Dragoljub Kunarac, Radomor Kovac, and Zoran Vukovic, (Case Nos. IT-96-23 & IT-96-23/1-A), ICTY, Appeals Chamber, Judgment of 12 June 2002. In Prosecutor v. Jean-Paul Akayesu, the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR) held that sexual violence is not limited to physical invasion and defined rape as “a physical invasion of a sexual nature, committed on a person under circumstances which are coercive.” Prosecutor v. Jean-Paul Akayesu (Case No. ICTR-96-4-T), ICTR, Trial Chamber, Judgment of 2 September 1998, §688. The ICTR emphasized that coercive circumstances need not be evidenced by a show of physical force, and that “threats, intimidation, extortion and other forms of duress” may constitute coercion. Id. Rape and sexual violence can also constitute genocide if committed with the specific intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a particular group. Id. at §§731-734.

The International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY) recognized that rape and sexual violence can be elements of a widespread and systematic campaign of terror against a civilian population, even if rape itself was not widespread or systematic but was one of many types of crimes committed on a widespread or systematic basis. Prosecutor v. Dusko Tadić (Case No. IT-94-1), ICTY, Trial Chamber II Judgment of 7 May 1997. 

International Labor & Employment Law

Various International Labour Organization (ILO) conventions recognize the right of working women to equal treatment. Elimination of gender discrimination is specifically addressed in the areas of remuneration (ILO Convention No. 100), employment and occupation (ILO Convention No. 111), workers with families (ILO Convention No. 156), and standards of social security (ILO Convention No. 102). Additionally, the ILO has elaborated standards to help ensure that women receive adequate maternity leave with financial benefits and medical care (ILO Convention No. 183).


The Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (“CEDAW Committee”), the treaty body that monitors compliance with CEDAW, reviews States parties’ reports on their implementation of the convention’s provisions and identifies areas for improvement. The CEDAW Committee also publishes “General Recommendations” interpreting the convention’s protections.

For States that have elected to become party to the Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women, the Committee may receive individual complaints, or “communications,” alleging violations of CEDAW by States parties. As of May 2014, there are 104 States parties to the Optional Protocol.

Additionally, the Committee may initiate inquiries when it receives reliable information concerning serious, grave or systematic violations of CEDAW by a State party that has accepted the inquiry procedure provided for in articles 8 and 9 of the Optional Protocol. The inquiry procedure is confidential and the Committee seeks the cooperation of the State at all stages. States parties to the Optional Protocol may opt out of the inquiry procedure at the time of signature or accession.

Two United Nations Human Rights Council’s “special procedures” specifically monitor women’s human rights worldwide. In 1994, the United Nations Commission on Human Rights (predecessor to the UN Human Rights Council) established a Special Rapporteur on Violence against Women to report on the causes and consequences of violence against women. In 2010, the UN Human Rights Council established an expert Working Group on the issue of discrimination against women in law and in practice, which is charged with studying and promoting dialogue and policy reform to eliminate laws that discriminate against women. Other UN human rights treaty bodies and special procedures may also monitor States’ progress in respecting and guaranteeing women’s rights to the extent that such issues fall within their mandates.

More generally, through the Universal Periodic Review process, States engage in a peer review of all UN Member States’ progress toward the comprehensive implementation of human rights including freedom from discrimination and equal treatment for all persons regardless of gender.

Furthermore, the courts and commissions of the regional human rights systems are each empowered to monitor conditions in Member States and to decide complaints concerning alleged violations of women’s human rights within the framework of the treaties each body interprets. These bodies include the African Commission and Court of Human and Peoples’ Rights, Inter-American Commission and Court of Human Rights, European Court of Human Rights, and European Committee of Social Rights. In addition, dedicated experts within the African and Inter-American human rights systems specifically monitor women’s human rights. The Inter-American Commission created a Rapporteurship on the Rights of Women in 1994 and the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights created a Special Rapporteurship on Rights of Women in Africa in 1999.

Several intergovernmental bodies work with national governments and civil society to implement policies and practices that protect and advance women’s rights. The UN Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) established the Commission on the Status of Women, a policymaking body composed of forty-five UN Member States. Each year, the Commission produces agreed conclusions on priority themes, which include concrete recommendations to be implemented by governments, intergovernmental bodies and all other relevant stakeholders. The Commission, through its Communication Procedure, also accepts complaints concerning alleged human rights violations, which it considers and uses to help “identify emerging trends and patterns of injustice.”

Two other UN bodies also work toward the achievement of gender equality: UN Women and the United Nations Population Fund. UN Women, the UN Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women, was established in 2010 by the UN General Assembly to consolidate and strengthen the efforts of various UN agencies working to support inter-governmental bodies and UN Member States in creating and implementing policies to advance gender equality and women’s empowerment. The United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) works to promote women’s rights and equality through its partnerships with governments, other agencies, and civil society. The UNFPA’s diverse efforts include support of national legislation, aid for victims of domestic abuse, and the protection of women’s rights during conflict.

At the regional level, the Inter-American Commission of Women (CIM) serves as an intergovernmental forum for States to discuss policies related to women’s rights and gender equality in the Americas. Similarly, the Council of Europe established a Gender Equality Commission, which helps ensure inclusion of gender equality into Council of Europe policies, provides technical assistance to States, and engages in other promotion and coordinating functions.