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The Initiative Advocating for a New Optional Protocol to CEDAW

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The Initiative Advocating for a New Optional Protocol to CEDAW

By Vayuna Gupta

The United Nations (UN) was formed in the aftermath of World War II to promote international peace and harmony.[1] Adopted in 1945, the UN Charter affirms the principle of equality between men and women.[2]

Over the decades following the establishment of the UN, various UN bodies worked to address the issues of women’s rights. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (enacted in 1948) emphasized equal rights for women and men.[3] Both the International Covenant of Civil and Political Rights (enacted in 1966) and the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights (enacted in 1966) restated equal civil and political rights and economic, social, and cultural rights for both men and women, respectively.[4]

Although there was progress within the UN system to protect women’s rights, the approach was fragmented and there was no comprehensive procedure to prevent discrimination against women.

Finally, the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) was adopted by the UN General Assembly on December 18, 1979. CEDAW is often described as an international bill of rights for women. CEDAW is based on the principle of gender equality and aims to ensure that women around the world enjoy the same rights and opportunities as men. To date, CEDAW has been ratified by 189 out of 193 UN member states.[5]

The CEDAW committee, a group of 23 independent experts from around the world, is able to hold member states accountable through their periodic review on efforts undertaken by states to give effect to CEDAW[6] and by initiating an inquiry against a state upon receiving a complaint from an individual or NGO of violation of their duties under CEDAW.[7]

Under Article 21 of CEDAW, the CEDAW committee may make suggestions and general recommendations based on the examination of reports and information received from state parties. Exercising this authority, in 1992, the CEDAW Committee adopted General Recommendation No. 19 defining violence against women as a form of discrimination that impairs women’s rights to equality. The Committee recommended that states take a range of steps to overcome violence against women by both public and private actors:

  • provide adequate protective support services for victims of family violence
  • provide gender-sensitive training to police and judges
  • take measures to ensure media respects these rights
  • eliminate prejudicial attitudes
  • ensure women do not need to resort to illegal abortion

In 2017, the CEDAW Committee introduced General Recommendation No. 35[8] concerning Gender-Based Violence, which serves as an update to General Recommendation 19. This recommendation affirms that the prohibition of gender-based violence has evolved into a standard of international customary law. It underscores the importance of transforming societal norms and stereotypes that perpetuate violence, particularly within narratives that use culture, tradition, or religion to undermine the principle of gender equality.

Moreover, General Recommendation No. 35 outlines various degrees of accountability for states regarding actions and failures by its representatives or those acting on its behalf. General Recommendation No. 35 also calls for the abolishment of all laws and policies that directly or indirectly condone, excuse, or enable violence against women, and it stresses the significance of approaches that uphold and honor women’s autonomy and decision-making across all aspects of life.

While General Recommendation Nos. 19 and 35 represent significant progress toward advancing women’s human rights, the shortcoming lies in the fact that general recommendations are not treaties and do not require formal ratification by nation states. In a strict sense, they do not hold legal binding force, but are merely advisory; however, they are regarded as authoritative declarations on the obligations that state parties assume.[9] States typically give them thorough consideration, yet they may not automatically put them into practice.

In this legal backdrop, discussion and efforts towards a new optional protocol specific to addressing gender-based violence around the world are important to bring legally binding obligations on states. An optional protocol is an additional international legal instrument that member countries to the original treaty have the option to adopt, either to supplement an existing treaty or to introduce additional provisions.[10]

Every Woman Treaty (EWT) is a coalition of 3,800 women’s rights activists from over 147 countries advocating for a new optional protocol to end violence against women and girls.[11]

In December 2003, in response to EWT’s work, Antigua and Barbuda, Costa Rica, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and Sierra Leone released a joint statement on the need for such an optional protocol.[12]

The current UN Special Rapporteur on Violence Against Women, Reem Alsalem, has also indicated support for a new optional protocol, along with three previous Special Rapporteurs, Dr. Yakin Ertuk (2003-2009), Dr. Rashida Manjoo (2009-2015) and Ms. Dubravka Šimonović (2015-2021).[13] In fact, Reem Alsalem also made a statement at the 2024 annual Commission on the Status of Women, calling for the need for a new optional protocol to CEDAW addressing gender based violence–indicative of growing recognition of the need for a binding international instrument to address the epidemic of violence against women and girls.[14]

Global Rights for Women unequivocally supports Every Woman Treaty in their endeavors, and we encourage you to learn more about their work by visiting https://everywoman.org.

Vayuna Gupta is the Legal and Policy Advisor for GRW.


[1]UN Charter (1945), National Archives (March 28, 2024), https://www.archives.gov/milestone-documents/united-nations-charter#:~:text=The%20United%20Nations%20was%20established,circumstances%20following%20World%20War%20I.

[2] UN Charter Preamble, art.1 and art. 8.

[3] Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Preamble, Dec. 10, 1948, 217A (III).

[4] International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, Art.3, Dec. 16, 1966, 993 U.N.T.S 3 ; International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, Art.3, Dec. 16, 1966, 999 U.N.T.S 171.

[5] Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women, United Nations Human Rights Office of the High Commissioner (March 28, 2024), https://www.ohchr.org/en/treaty-bodies/cedaw.

[6] Convention for Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, Art.18, Dec. 18, 1979, 1249 U.N.T.S 13.

[7] Optional Protocol to Convention for Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, Oct. 6, 1999, 2131 U.N.T.S 83.

[8] UN Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), General Recommendation No. 35 on Gender-Based Violence Against Women, CEDAW/C/GC/35 (July 26, 2017).

[9] R.J.A McQuigg, The CEDAW Committee and Gender-Based Violence against Women: General Recommendation No 35, 6(2), International Human Rights Law Review, 1, 14 (2017).

[10] Convention for Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, UN Women (March 28, 2024), https://www.un.org/womenwatch/daw/cedaw/protocol/whatis.htm.

[11] The Coalition, Every Woman Treaty (March 28, 2024), https://everywoman.org/the-coalition/.

[12] Joint Statement by the Core Group of Friends of a new Optional Protocol to CEDAW to eradicate violence against women and girls (March 28, 2024), https://everywoman.org/wp-content/uploads/2024/02/Joint-Statement-on-OP-Core-Group-of-Friends-Update-logos-Dec-7-2023.docx.pdf

[13]Statement by current and former Special Rapporteurs on violence against women, its causes and consequences, UN Human Rights Special Procedures: Mandate of the Special Rapporteur on violence against women and girls (March 28, 2024), https://www.ohchr.org/sites/default/files/documents/issues/women/sr/statements/stm-op-vaw-sr-vaw-7-12-23.pdf

[14]Statement by Reem Alsalem, Special Rapporteur on violence against women and girls, its causes and consequences, UN Human Rights Special Procedures: Sixty-eighth Session of the Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) (March 28, 2024), https://www.ohchr.org/sites/default/files/documents/issues/women/sr/statements/SR-VAWG-CSW68-Opening-Statement.pdf.