Discrimination needs to be eliminated, even if it's unintentional

CEDAW provides a framework for States to take responsibility for tackling discrimination against women and achieving substantive equality for women in both the private and public spheres. It outlines a comprehensive set of rights for women in a variety of areas including civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights. It is the first human rights treaty to affirm the reproductive rights of women. It targets culture and tradition as influential forces shaping gender roles and family relations. Unlike most other legislation, the Convention is solely concerned with the position of women.

Article 1 of CEDAW defines discrimination. The article reads:

“For the purposes of the present Convention, the term “discrimination against women” shall mean 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”

Article 1, CEDAW

In plain English, this means that the Convention defines discrimination against women as any distinction, exclusion or restriction on the basis of sex that has the effect or purpose of harming or reversing women’s human rights and freedoms in any aspect of their lives.

The definition of discrimination means that all the rights as set forth in the Convention need to be considered from a holistic point of view, i.e. it puts the onus on the State to consider both the direct and indirect consequences of their policies and practices. One example of this is austerity and its impact on women. Austerity has a disproportionate and negative effect on women since women tend to work and use public services to a larger extent than men. When public services are facing cuts, women are severely impacted. This is something the UK government is still struggling to understand. In their most recent State Report, submitted to the CEDAW committee in 2017, the UK government only commented on austerity once in a 42-page document and states that “government departments take careful account of the gender implications for women when developing and implementing the policies for which they are responsible”[1].

This is a remarkable sentiment. Given the large body of evidence and research[2] demonstrating the disproportionate negative impact austerity has on women, and particularly Black, minoritised and/or marginalised women, this paragraph makes one wonder if the government either does not know how to interpret evidence or they simply disregard it in its entirety.

The need to tackle discrimination through a holistic approach and to foresee both the direct and indirect/unintentional consequences is not news to the women’s sector and other women’s human rights defenders. However, as is made clear by the UK government’s response to austerity above, there are a lot of decision-makers and policy-makers who do not understand this.

CEDAW is therefore an excellent tool for the women’s sector to use in illuminating both explicit and implicit discrimination in the private and the public sphere. CEDAW can be used for the women’s sector in exposing and challenging structural inequalities.

Throughout the 16 days of Activism Women’s Resource Centre will published a series of blog posts on CEDAW, written both by WRC staff members and guest writers. These blogs will be an excellent way to learn more about CEDAW, how it has been used, what difference it makes, and how YOU can use it in your work and life. Stay tuned!


Evelina Svensson, Development Manager at Women's Resource Centre.


[1] Eighth periodic report submitted by the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland under article 18 of the Convention, due in 2017, p. 30

[2] Corry, D. (2018), Hearing Women's Voices: Why women 2018, Women's Resource Centre; Imkaan (2018) From Survival to Sustainability; Women’s Budget Group and Women’s Resource Centre (2019) Life-Changing and Life-Saving: Funding for the women’s sector.