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The Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW): Sex Discrimination - International Activities

Discrimination Sex Discrimination
Friday 14 December, 2012

The Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW)


CEDAW was adopted in 1979 by the UN General Assembly, and entered into force on 3 September 1981. Australia signed CEDAW on 17 August 1983.

Rights contained in CEDAW

In signing CEDAW, Australia committed itself to being a society that promotes policies, laws, organisations, structures and attitudes that ensure women are guaranteed the same rights as men.

The rights listed in CEDAW cover many aspects of women’s lives, and relate to political participation, health, education, employment, housing, marriage, family relations and equality before the law.

CEDAW defines discrimination against women as:

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)

All States that have signed CEDAW commit to take:

all appropriate measures, including legislation, to ensure the full development and advancement of women, for the purpose of guaranteeing them the exercise and enjoyment of human rights and fundamental freedoms on a basis of equality with men. (Article 3).

Appropriate measures may include amending existing laws, regulations, customs and practices which discriminate against women, and adopting gender-sensitive laws and policies. Under CEDAW, governments are also responsible for ensuring that individual citizens and private organisations do not discriminate against women.

Some States make reservations when they sign a convention. A reservation allows a State to identify a part of the Convention that it does not agree to be bound by. This can happen when a country's policy or laws do not fulfil certain Convention requirements. States can withdraw a reservation at any time, and the United Nations and other human rights organisations regularly recommend States to do so. Australia has two reservations to CEDAW which relate to women in the armed forces and provision of paid maternity leave.

What is the CEDAW Committee?

  • The CEDAW Committee monitors the progress made by the countries, which have ratified or acceded to the convention, in implementing CEDAW.

  • The CEDAW Committee is made up of 23 independent elected members (elected by countries who have signed CEDAW) who serve in their personal capacity as ‘gender experts.’

  • The CEDAW Committee meets three times a year to address specific topics related to CEDAW and to monitor and report on the progress of individual countries that have signed CEDAW.

  • Countries that have signed CEDAW are required to submit reports to the CEDAW Committee at least every four years.

  • In 2008, the Australian Government provided its 6th and 7th combined report to the CEDAW Committee. In 2010, the Australian Government appeared before the CEDAW Committee for its periodic review. The CEDAW Committee has issued its Concluding Obserbations on its review of the Australian Government’s report.

  • The CEDAW Committee also issues General Recommendations on specific issues affecting women. For example:

    • General Recommendation No 19 on violence against women

    • General Recommendation No 25 on temporary special measures

    • General Recommendation No. 27 on older women and protection of their human rights

    • General Recommendation No 28 on the core obligations of States Parties under Article 2 of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women

To view the CEDAW Committee’s General Recommendations, click here

The Optional Protocol to CEDAW

Australia signed the Optional Protocol to CEDAW in 2009.

The Optional Protocol allows individuals to make a communication to the CEDAW Committee about a violation of rights protected under CEDAW. The Optional Protocol also enables the CEDAW Committee to investigate claims of serious or systematic violations of CEDAW through an inquiry.

To bring a communication, a person must first demonstrate that that there are no other ways to deal with their complaint on a domestic level.

You can find the Model Form for Submission of a Communication to the CEDAW Committee under the Optional Protocol to CEDAW here.

Governments are required to respond to the findings of the CEDAW Committee about a communication or inquiry within six months, including providing information about action taken in light of the views and recommendations of the Committee.

For more information on the OP-CEDAW and how it can be used to advance women's rights in Australia see:

Australia's Implementation of CEDAW

Since signing (becoming a party to) CEDAW, Australia has developed many mechanisms for implementing the rights enshrined within the Convention. The Sex Discrimination Act 1984 (Cth) (SDA) is one of the most important mechanisms.

The SDA is federal legislation, which prohibits sex discrimination. The SDA was passed in 1984 and gives effect to many of the obligations under CEDAW. The Australian Human Rights Commission is responsible for receiving complaints about breaches of the Commonwealth Sex Discrimination Act 1984 (Cth). It also holds public inquiries into issues of national importance, provides independent advice to assist courts in cases that involve human rights principles, and advises parliaments and governments on developing laws, programs and policies. More information about the SDA, and how to make a complaint under the federal law, is available here.
All states and territories have anti-discrimination laws that also prohibit sex discrimination. These laws are administered by equal opportunity or anti-discrimination bodies in each state.

The Australian Government works with State and Territory governments to prepare its regular report to the CEDAW Committee on its implementation in Australia.

During 2008-2009, a range of NGOs dealing with both women's and human rights collaborated to produce an NGO report and an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Women's report. These reports were considered by the Committee in July 2010.
ementing and reporting under CEDAW.

Reporting by the Australian Human Rights Commission

The Australian Human Rights Commission provides both an independent report and oral evidence to the CEDAW Committee on the Australian Government’s implementation of its obligations under CEDAW. The Sex Discrimination Commissioner independently monitors progress on Australia’s implementation of CEDAW and the promotion of gender equality in Australia. In July 2010, the Australian Sex Discrimination Commissioner, Elizabeth Broderick, addressed the CEDAW committee and presented the Commission’s first independent report.

In its independent report, the Commission congratulated the Australian Government for positive developments. These development included signing the Convention’s Optional Protocol, delivering Australia’s first Paid Parental Leave Scheme, introducing specific provisions into Australia’s industrial relations legislation requiring equal pay for work of equal or comparable value and supporting the first equal pay test case under that legislation.

The report also identified a number of areas in Australia’s implementation of the Convention that could be strengthened. In particular, the Commissioner highlighted the need to strengthen national gender equality laws in order to promote equal representation of men and women in leadership. She also highlighted the need for increased efforts in the prevention of violence and sexual harassment against women, in balancing paid work and caring responsibilities and in ensuring the lifetime economic security of women.

Concluding observations of the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination of Women

 In August 2010, the CEDAW Committee released its Concluding Observations on the Government’s combined 6th and 7th periodic report. The Committee raised concerns about the lack of harmonisation within the federal structure to implement CEDAW and the continued gender segregation and pay gaps in the Australian workforce.

In the Concluding Observations, the CEDAW Committee requested the Australian Government provide, within two years, written information on the steps undertaken to implement the recommendations contained in paragraphs 29 and 41.

Paragraph 29 encourages the Australian government to continue its efforts to tackle the persistent problem of violence against women. Paragraph 41 encourages the Australian Government to adopt targeted measures, including temporary special measures, to improve the enjoyment by indigenous women of their human rights in all sectors, taking into account their linguistic and cultural interests.

Independent Interim Report to CEDAW Committee (2012)

In July 2010 the Committee requested that the Australian Government provide, within two years, written information on the steps undertaken to implement the recommendations contained in paragraphs 29 and 41 of its Concluding Observations. In 2012 the Australian Human Rights Commissioner submitted an Independent Interim Report on Australia’s Implementation of CEDAW to the CEDAW Committee. This Independent Report updates the Committee on the implementation of recommendations in paragraph 29 on measures to address violence against women and paragraph 41 on measures to improve Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women’s enjoyment of their human rights. Annexed to the report is the Commission's report on the UN Special Rapporteur on violence against women, Ms Rashida Manjoo, study tour in Australia undertaken from 10-20 April 2012.

NGO Reporting to the CEDAW Committee

 The CEDAW Committee encourages the community sector (non-government organisations or NGOs) to provide reports with country- specific information so it can gather alternative views to those provided by governments. These can take the form of reports and oral evidence.

NGOs play a vital role in monitoring and implementing CEDAW by:
• spreading awareness of CEDAW and the rights in it to people around the world
• lobbying governments, businesses and individuals to implement CEDAW
• providing information to governments on progress, difficulties and strategies to enable more effective human rights implementation.

The community sector plays a key role in monitoring the implementation of CEDAW in Australia. They can do this by reporting on the achievements of the Australian Government in this regard, as well as by reporting on any violations of the the rights in CEDAW and reporting the aspects of CEDAW that remain unimplemented in Australia.

In 2008, the Australian Government funded NGOs to prepare an independent NGO report and an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Women’s report in response to the Government’s combined 6th and 7th CEDAW report. NGO interim reports were also submitted in 2012.