CEDAW applied to the Women Peace and Security Agenda

March 26, 2023


by Rebecca Manson

Introduction to CEDAW

Entering into force in 1981, the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) establishes an international bill of rights for women, while also promoting a continued effort to advance equality for women around the world. The rights contained within the convention focus on securing equality and non-discrimination for women across social, political, economic, and cultural spheres.

Despite its separation from the Women, Peace and Security Agenda (WPS), CEDAW has the potential to work in conjunction with WPS to affirm the importance of women’s rights in conflict and their participation in peacekeeping and security. The importance of participation is alluded to in the preamble of the convention:

‘Convinced that the full and complete development of a country, the welfare of the world and the cause of peace require the maximum participation of women on equal terms with men in all fields…’

Alongside this, there are provisions within asserting the need to ensure that women have equal access to participation in political and international roles, and the right to the same employment opportunities.  

The convention also established a committee made up of 27 gender equality experts responsible for monitoring implementation of the convention and responding to specific issues and challenges to women’s rights. This advisory function was utilised in response to concerns that the convention did not say enough about the unique experiences and impacts of conflict for women. The committee produced General Recommendation 30 (GR30), specifically focused on conflict prevention, conflict and post conflict transitions.

GR30, therefore, attempts to bring CEDAW in line with the developments that have taken place within the WPS agenda. While a lot of GR30, like the WPS agenda, relates to women’s protection in conflict, there are sections devoted to women’s participation throughout the cycle of conflict. Notably, the recommendation recognises the role that women play as combatants, and calls for states to ensure that women are equally represented at all decision-making levels in institutions such as the armed forces, police and in judicial processes. It also recognises the unique challenges that women face as ex-combatants, as well as asking states to undertake gender sensitive and gender responsive reform to create representative security sector institutions that address women’s different experiences and priorities.

Accountability Mechanisms

While considerations of women’s participation in security and peacekeeping have been part of a central pillar of the WPS agenda since the first UN Security Council resolution in 2000, the accountability mechanisms offered by CEDAW have the potential to provide a much-needed boost to securing representative security sector institutions.

Firstly, as repeatedly stated throughout, states are required to take all appropriate measures to ensure that the rights contained within the convention are realised within their country. To ensure that this is taking place, article 18 introduces the requirement for state parties to the convention to create reports every four years detailing the legislative, judicial, administrative, or other measures which they have adopted to give effect to the provisions within. These reports are submitted to the CEDAW committee who then communicate any concerns or recommendations to the state in the form of concluding observations.

This reporting mechanism has been deemed ‘a critical accountability tool’,[i]shining the light on state failures, and continually pushing each state to eliminate discrimination and improve the living conditions for women. While there is the risk that the reports submitted by states will not highlight the reality of the situation in the state, the CEDAW committee also enables civil society organisations operating in the state in question to provide shadow reports on the state’s adherence to the treaty. This ensures that a realistic picture of the situation of women in each state is presented, leading to a more robust and informed discussion on the steps that must be taken.

Crucially, due to GR30, the CEDAW committee have used their concluding observations to take a concrete stance on increasing women’s participation in security forces and in peacekeeping. Examples of this can be found in the recent concluding observations following Ukraine’s report to CEDAW, in which the committee recommends that Ukraine continue to promote equal participation of women in security and defence sectors, and ensure that there is meaningful participation of women at all levels of decision making in the response to the armed conflict and in the future peace and recovery processes. Going even further in a recent concluding observation for the United Arab Emirates, the committee recommends that the state introduces targeted measures, including the preferential recruitment of women, to increase participation in the judiciary and national emergency and security services. By ensuring that participation remains a focus for CEDAW and the state parties, the committee gives it a renewed energy and prioritisation lacking within the WPS agenda.

(For concluding observations see: https://tbinternet.ohchr.org/_layouts/15/treatybodyexternal/TBSearch.aspx?Lang=en&TreatyID=3&DocTypeID=5 )

As such this reporting procedure offers a good opportunity for the international community to advance the participation of women in the security sector. By holding states to high standards, and ensuring that there is a concrete follow up procedure, CEDAW committee has the potential to be a powerful tool in the advancement of women’s participation.

Additional accountability mechanisms were included within an optional protocol for CEDAW, adopted in 1999. This protocol introduces two accountability mechanisms for CEDAW – a communication procedure and an inquiry procedure. A communication can be made by or on behalf of an individual or a group of individuals who believe that their rights, as contained within the convention, have been violated. This creates a dialogue between the CEDAW committee, who provide recommendations on how to remedy the violation if there is found to be one, and the State, who must report back on measures they have taken.

On the other hand, the inquiry procedure is initiated when there is believed to be a grave or systematic rights violations based on reliable information reported to the committee. The subsequent inquiry would involve one or more members of the committee investigating the violation and reporting their findings back to the committee, who would then give recommendations to the violating state.

These procedures, therefore, offer the opportunity for anyone who believes the rights contained within CEDAW have been violated. As such, in theory, an individual or group of women, could submit a complaint directly to the CEDAW committee if they believed that they are unfairly treated or excluded from security institutions or from the opportunity to contribute to peace processes. However, these procedures are a last resort measure, and as such for a procedure to be initiated the complaint must meet a number of criteria, including that all possible domestic remedies must be exhausted. While the process may be long, its existence as an option for women may give states the motivation to take extra effort to amend violations and discrimination so as to avoid being confronted by a respected human rights body.

CEDAW’s Limitations

In theory, CEDAW’s accountability mechanisms demonstrate a strong commitment to women’s rights and equality, and as such could be utilised to defend women’s equal participation in security and peace processes. However, the overall effectiveness of CEDAW is limited by some practical drawbacks of the convention.

While only seven states have not ratified CEDAW, making it the second most ratified human rights convention following the Convention on the Rights of the Child, it is also subject to the second highest number of reservations, limiting its application in certain states. (https://indicators.ohchr.org/) Most troublingly, there remain a significant number of reservations to both article 2 of the convention, which stresses the importance of taking measures to eliminate discrimination against women, and article 16, which focuses on eliminating discrimination in matters relating to marriage and family relations. Both of these provisions have been declared by CEDAW to be central to the object and purpose of the convention, making the fact that states have denied their legal applicability to their nations an indication that they lack commitment to reducing inequality for women.

In addition, the lack of enforcement capabilities of the CEDAW committee, makes the accountability procedures dependent on the good will of the state involved. While[ii]this may limit the effectiveness of CEDAW in promoting instant change, the political impact of a recommendation or observation has been shown to empower civil society to continue to press for change in the face of a resistant state. (For an example of this, see discussion in: Women’s Rights are Human Rights: CEDAW’s Limits and Opportunities: berkeleyjournalofinternationallaw.com.


While CEDAW does have some practical limitations which limit the ability of the convention to instantaneously transform the lives of women around the globe, its continued commitment to equality and women’s rights even in the face of such obstacles demonstrates its potential to contribute to long-lasting change. Through the accountability mechanisms mentioned throughout, and the work of the CEDAW Committee, the commitments made within the Women, Peace and Security agenda are brought into the human rights realm, resulting in an inter-regime dialogue and dual system of accountability that has the potential to lead to concrete improvement in the rights of women around the world. However, states must continue, or begin, to take the process seriously, removing reservations and fully immersing themselves within the reporting and follow up procedures. Only if this is done, could CEDAW be best utilised to advance women’s participation in security.

For more on the interactions between WPS and CEDAW see chapter 12 of the Global Study on Implementation of 1325: https://www.peacewomen.org/sites/default/files/UNW-GLOBAL-STUDY-1325-2015%20(1).pdf

[i]Pramila Patten, ‘Unlocking the Potential of CEDAW as an Important Accountability Tool for the Women, Peace and Security Agenda’ in F Ni Aolain and N Cahn, The Oxford Handbook of Gender and Conflict (OUP 2018) 171

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