International Agreements on Women’s Rights: A Framework for Action

Mike Clulow | Nov 13, 2017
Maasai women holding up SDG 5
Over the past 60 years, the international community has made many agreements to promote and defend women’s rights, contributing to the creation of national laws and influencing the social norms that we all live by.

As our new report “Standing with the changemakers” explains, these agreements are not in themselves a guarantee of positive change and there are many political pressures that threaten to roll back progress. Nevertheless, they provide a powerful framework for action to realise the rights of all women and girls.

Women’s movements driving the agenda

Women’s movements have pushed long and hard for women’s rights to be enshrined in international law. It is questionable whether there would be any such agreements without their action. As Mary E. Hawksworth argues in her review of global feminist activism:

"Neither male-dominant states nor male-dominant international organisations have been particularly inclined to engage the multiplicity of women’s concerns and interests. By engaging in the intricate and time-consuming work of crafting an issue agenda … transnational feminist activists step into a breach."

Much of this activity has been conducted in the background and is poorly documented but some examples demonstrate its importance:

• The first inter-governmental women's rights agency, the Inter-American Commission of Women, was established in 1928 following five years of lobbying by the Pan American Association for the Advancement of Women.

• International campaigning by women in the 1920s and '30s paved the way for developments following the Second World War, including the establishment in 1946 of the UN Commission on the Status of Women (CSW), the UN body that brings together governments to review progress on women’s rights.

Campaigning and lobbying by women’s rights activists, including a petition signed by half a million people from over 80 countries, led the 1993 UN World Conference on Human Rights to formally declare that women’s rights are human rights.

Participation by 4,000 NGO representatives in the 1995 UN Conference on Women and by 30,000 women’s rights advocates in the parallel NGO Forum made a substantial difference in conference outcomes, directly contributing to the creation of the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action.

• UN Security Council Resolution 1325 on women, peace and security owes its existence to action by women’s movements and their allies. Ruth Ochieng, former Executive Director of Womankind’s Ugandan partner Isis WICCE testifies that:
"The women's movement came to UN headquarters and said it would like a resolution whereby women must be part and parcel of peace negotiation, peace building and making sure that wars end."

• The development of the Maputo Protocol, agreed by African governments in 2003, began at a 1995 meeting organised by Womankind partner Women in Law and Development in Africa (WiLDAF). Persistent action by WiLDAF and other NGOs, including new Womankind partner FEMNET, ensured the final development and approval of the protocol.

The role of global agreements in advancing women’s rights

The UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), agreed in 1979, comprehensively defines gender discrimination and provides the foundation for achieving gender equality in many areas of life. Countries that have ratified the convention are legally bound by its provisions and must regularly report on the measures they take. The binding nature of CEDAW gives women’s movements the right to demand its implementation and legitimises their proposals.
Disappointingly, CEDAW did not include violence against women and girls (VAWG) but the UN has made important moves to remedy this by passing the Declaration on the Elimination of Violence against Women in 1993 and the CEDAW committee has made several, authoritative, “general recommendations” on VAWG.

Two decades after the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action (BPfA) was adopted in 1995 at the UN Fourth World Conference on Women, it still provides a visionary grounding for international debate on women’s rights. The BPfA called for strong and specific commitments by governments and other institutions to take action in 12 areas, including health, VAWG, economics, the environment, and decision-making. Progress and challenges on their implementation are discussed each year at CSW.

UN Security Council Resolution 1325, agreed in 2000, recognises women’s role in peace building and the impact of armed conflict on women. It promotes women’s participation and representation at all levels of decision-making, the protection of women and girls, and the integration of a gender perspective in post-conflict processes and UN activities. 1325 and seven later resolutions together make up the Women, Peace and Security Agenda and provide vital support for women’s rights organisations working on the ground.

In 2015, the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) were adopted by UN members. Encompassing 17 goals on economic, social, and environmental issues, they apply to all countries. Gender equality is promoted through goal 5, which aims to ‘achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls’ and is mainstreamed into many of the other goals. SDG 5 sets specific objectives on legal frameworks to end discrimination; VAWG; harmful practices such as child marriage and FGM; unpaid care and domestic work; participation and leadership in public life; sexual and reproductive health and reproductive rights; and, economic rights.

Regional Agreements

Several regional agreements commit governments to action. The most comprehensive of these is the Maputo Protocol, adopted by the African Union in 2003. This agreement affirms women’s rights in many areas and is binding on member states, requiring them to address laws, policies and culture so that these rights may be realised. In contrast to CEDAW, the Maputo Protocol specifically addresses VAWG, requiring the state parties to prohibit all forms of violence against women and to adopt all necessary measures to ensure the prevention, punishment and eradication of all forms of violence against women.

There are two other binding regional agreements on VAWG.

The Inter-American Convention on the Prevention, Punishment, and Eradication of Violence against Women (Convention of Belém do Pará) was agreed by the Organisation of American States (OAS) in 1994. “Belem do Pará” defines violence against women as “any act or conduct, based on gender, which causes death or physical, sexual or psychological harm or suffering to women, whether in the public or the private sphere”. Combined with other OAS human rights instruments, it provides the framework for women’s human rights and gender equality in the Americas and has increased awareness of the severity of violence against women.

In 2011, the Council of Europe agreed the Istanbul Convention on preventing and combating violence against women and domestic violence. It has been described as the most advanced treaty in the world on VAWG, going beyond Belém do Pará by including economic violence and the threat of violence as well as its actual commission and by recognising VAWG as a form of gender discrimination.

We can see that with this framework, women’s rights are, to a great extent, enshrined on paper. Yet women still face violence, discrimination and inequality in all aspects of their lives - so implementation is key. Together with our partners and allies, Womankind works for the implementation of all women’s rights frameworks – we won’t stop until women’s rights are realised.

Find out more about women's rights on our Women's Rights pages.

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