At international level, the Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), adopted by the UN General Assembly in 1979, is often described as an international bill of rights for women.
It sets out what constitutes discrimination against women and sets out an agenda to address such discrimination, providing the basis for equality between women and men in areas such as political and public life, education, health, employment, and equality before the law.
Once CEDAW is ratified by a State, gender equality must be enshrined in domestic legislation, all discriminatory provisions must be repealed in their laws, and new provisions must be enacted to guard against further discrimination. Tribunals and public institutions must be established to guarantee women effective protection against discrimination by individuals, enterprises, and organisations.
Currently 185 countries have signed the Convention, known as "state parties" which report on their progress at least every four years.
Involvement of UK Government and Scottish Government
The UK signed the Convention in 1981 and ratified it in 1986. The UK's Government Equalities Office (GEO) is responsible for overseeing and promoting the delivery of commitments to CEDAW and, for the 4-yearly reports, co-ordinates input from all other UK Government Departments and the devolved administrations, including Scottish Government. These reports provide progress information on the situation of women in regards to all the areas of discrimination detailed within the Convention as well as on the UN CEDAW Committee's previous recommendations. After submission of the reports, the CEDAW Committee examines them and may ask questions. The State party then prepares a response for verbal examination.
Recent UK reports to CEDAW
The UK's 7th report was submitted to the United Nations in June 2011 and published on the UK Government Equalities Office website. The report provides progress since the 2007 report as well as on the UN CEDAW Committee's recommendations of 2008. Scotland along with the other Devolved Administrations contributed to the UK's report.
The UN's verbal examination of the UK’s Report took place on 17 July 2013 at the UN in Geneva. Devolved administrations, including the Scottish Government, were part of the UK delegation.
The UN's Concluding Observations were published on 29 July 2013 and, as required by the CEDAW Committee, the UK will report on progress within one year on one of the recommendations (in July 2014) and two years on one other (July 2015).
The role of Stakeholders – CEDAW Shadow Reports
A number of NGOs, in Scotland as well as at UK level, produce shadow or alternative CEDAW reports to that of the UK Government, that evidences where they feel there are continuing areas of discrimination against women. These shadow reports are submitted alongside the UK Government’s report. The Shadow Reports are also produced for the examination process, and are published on the UN CEDAW webpages.
The Optional Protocol
The Optional Protocol to CEDAW provides individual women and groups whose rights are violated with a way to seek international remedy. This is especially important for women in countries who have no other means for gaining redress when their rights have been violated. The Optional Protocol came into force in 2000 and offers two mechanisms for holding governments accountable for their obligations under CEDAW:
- A communications procedure that provides individuals and groups the right to lodge complaints with the CEDAW committee.
- An enquiry procedure which enables the CEDAW committee to conduct inquiries into serious and systematic abuses of women's rights.
These mechanisms are only applicable in countries that are states parties to the Optional Protocol.
Women in the UK can also take their case to the CEDAW committee. However, this would generally only be after they have exhausted all channels and procedures of United Kingdom law.
The Equality and Human Rights Commission have published a guide, 'A Lever for Change: Using the Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women' The guide explains how the CEDAW Convention and, in particular, its Optional Protocol procedure can be used to guarantee the rights of women and girls in the UK.