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Treaties and conventions promoting women’s rights: an overview

Published 8 March 2023 in Facts and figures

Women have historically been marginalized and discriminated against in many areas, such as education, employment, health and political life. Today, many inequalities remain and no country in the world can claim to have achieved perfect gender equality in all areas. For several decades now, international organizations have been addressing the promotion of women’s rights, symbolized by the creation of UN Women in 2010, which has become the United Nations body specifically dedicated to achieving gender equality. The Sustainable Development Goals also recognize this issue through SDG n°5.

Many international and regional instruments (conventions, declarations, treaties) aim to protect and promote women’s rights. Most of these texts are not legally binding, meaning that states are not bound to respect them. Nevertheless, they are essential to strengthen the responsibility of governments to protect and promote women’s rights. They provide standards and guidelines for governments to ensure that women fully enjoy their rights and are protected from gender-based discrimination and violence. In addition, they are regularly re-appropriated by women’s rights activists to promote more egalitarian laws.

The map below is a visual representation of the countries that are signatories to various international and regional texts in defense of women’s rights (non-exhaustive list):

  • The Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) is an international treaty adopted in 1979 by the United Nations General Assembly. As the primary international legal instrument for the promotion and protection of women’s rights, the Convention recognizes gender equality and prohibits discrimination against women in all spheres, including the private and public spheres. To date, 189 states have ratified CEDAW.
  • The Inter-American Convention on the Prevention, Punishment and Eradication of Violence against Women (1994), or "Convention of Belém do Pará" is an international treaty adopted in 1994 by the member states of the Organization of American States (OAS) to combat violence against women. Considered a legally binding instrument, it has been ratified by most OAS member states (with the exception of Canada and the United States, which have neither signed nor ratified it) and has become a core component of the regional commitment to combat violence against women in the Americas. The Convention sets international standards for the prevention, punishment and elimination of violence against women. It defines violence against women as "any act or conduct, based on gender, that results in death or physical, sexual or psychological harm to women, whether occurring in public or private life".
  • The Protocol to the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights on the Rights of Women in Africa or "Maputo Protocol" is an additional protocol to the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights on the Rights of Women in Africa. Adopted in 2003 by the African Union, it aims to protect women from discrimination and violence, ensure their participation in political life and promote their economic empowerment. To date, 43 African states have signed the protocol and 41 have ratified it. The two states that have not yet ratified are Sudan and Somalia.
  • The Council of Europe Convention on Preventing and Combating Violence against Women and Domestic Violence or "Istanbul Convention" is an international treaty signed in 2011 by the member states of the Council of Europe to prevent and combat violence against women and domestic violence. Forty-five states have signed the Convention and 34 have ratified it. These 34 states include all the member states of the European Union, as well as several other European and non-European countries. The Istanbul Convention defines violence against women as a violation of human rights and a form of discrimination against women. It obliges signatory states to put in place coherent and effective legislation and policies to prevent and combat violence, prosecute perpetrators, protect and support victims, and strengthen international cooperation.
  • The International Labor Organization Convention No. 190 on Violence and Harassment is an international convention adopted in June 2019, aimed at eliminating violence and harassment at work. This convention recognizes that violence and harassment can affect all workers, both men and women, and can take many forms, such as physical violence, sexual harassment, gender-based harassment, psychological harassment, etc. It sets out principles and measures to prevent, eliminate and combat workplace violence and harassment, including the establishment of national legislation and policies, the promotion of a culture of zero tolerance, awareness-raising and training for workers and employers, protection of victims and the use of appropriate sanctions. To date, ILO Convention 190 has been ratified by 25 countries.

Check this link to discover Focus 2030 women’s rights special edition.