ArticlesVolume 1, Number 1 (1991)

Women’s Rights and International Law: The Struggle for Recognition and Enforcement


In 1945, the signers of the United Nations (U.N.) Charter reaffirmed their faith in “fundamental human rights” and included “the equal rights of men and women” in this category. It was a unique period in history for human rights in general and for women’s rights in particular. The U.N. Commission on the Status of Women, created just two years after the Charter was signed, promised international commitment to women’s rights. It convened world conferences to promote strategies for raising women’s status and to develop international treaties on women’s rights. It drafted three such treaties between 1952 and 1962: the Convention on the Political Rights of Women; the Convention on Consent to Marriage, Minimum Age for Marriage and Registration of Marriages; and the Convention on the Nationality of Married Women.

In 1975, the U.N. General Assembly united the principles of these Conventions in one comprehensive, nonbinding Declaration on the Elimi- nation of Discrimination Against Women. The Declaration was then ex- panded and redrafted as the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (“Convention”). A comprehensive bill of rights for women, the Convention has the potential to provide an im- portant international legal mechanism for enforcing women’s rights in countries that have ratified it.

The lives of many women, however, represent a sharp contrast from the equal status with men that the Convention has granted them. While the Convention is the most comprehensive treaty ever developed on the rights of women, it has several shortcomings. It fails to specifically delineate women’s rights in important areas; its enforcement mechanisms are among the weakest in international human rights treaties; and reservations entered by many states make it even less effective. Moreover, the human rights community traditionally has relied on a narrow definition of human rights, which has blinded its members to the particular ways in which women’s rights are violated.

This article presents an overview of the advancement of women’s rights through the Convention. It contrasts the rights that have been obtained in theory with the current poor status of women, examines probable causes for the disparity, and suggests mechanisms to help women secure the rights they have been granted under international law.