Empowering Women: Understanding the Significance of CEDAW’s Ratification Status

In this post, we evaluate The Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), the primary treaty dedicated to upholding women’s human rights by defining discrimination and promoting the adoption of national action plans to address such discrimination. The convention’s Article 1 explicitly defines discrimination against women as: 

any distinction, exclusion, or restriction 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 an equal basis with men, of human rights and fundamental freedoms in the political, economic, social, cultural, civil, or any other field. 

To bolster the convention’s implementation, the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women, comprising 23 experts, periodically reviews state parties’ efforts to adhere to the convention’s objectives and provisions. 

To analyze the treaty’s ratification status, we generated a choropleth map using the ggplot2 package in R. This map categorizes states into three groups based on data sourced from the UN Treaty Collection’s website: “state party,” “signatory state,” or “no action.” “State party” denotes states that have ratified the treaty or taken additional steps beyond signing it. “Signatory state” indicates those that have signed the treaty but not yet ratified it. Finally, “no action” signifies states that have neither ratified nor signed the treaty.


The United States stands among a select group of seven countries, including Iran, Sudan, Somalia, Nauru, Palau, and Tonga, that have yet to ratify the convention. Notably, it is the sole Western Hemisphere state that has not ratified the convention, underscoring existing gaps in the application of international law. Additionally, this stance reflects the U.S. position on abortion, given that reproductive rights are a central tenet of the treaty. Article 16(e) explicitly guarantees women’s autonomy in making informed decisions regarding the number and spacing of their children. The CEDAW Committee has urged state parties to eliminate punitive measures against women seeking abortions and to legalize abortion under certain circumstances. Without ratifying this treaty, there is a lack of both international and national acknowledgment of the urgency behind its creation and its overarching goal of establishing systems that prevent sex-based discrimination. As a leading funder of the United Nations and a key architect of the post-World War II global order, the United States’ failure to adhere to the treaty undermines norms of adherence to international principles.

CEDAW recognizes that discrimination extends beyond individual actions, acknowledging the influence of cultural norms and traditional gender roles in perpetuating inequalities. The treaty calls upon states to actively protect, respect, and promote women’s human rights. Article 3 addresses gender disparities across various domains, encompassing family dynamics, community norms, economic opportunities, and government policies. Through investigations and recommendations, CEDAW aims to combat these disparities. The reluctance of certain countries to ratify CEDAW raises concerns regarding their commitment to women’s human rights, often stemming from two main factors: reluctance to garner public support and claims of moral exemption.

The article “Why Ratifying the Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) is Good for America’s Domestic Policy” by Melanne Verveer & Rangita de Silva de Alwis explicitly highlights how the United States’ failure to ratify this treaty aligns it with countries with poor records on gender equality. These authors from the Georgetown Institute for Women, Peace, and Security underscore the importance of domestic movements like #MeToo and Black Lives Matter (BLM) in addressing the intersections of race, class, and gender. While some perceive CEDAW ratification as mere lip service amidst calls for substantive action for equality, criticisms of the human rights agenda often overlook its tangible benefits. These benefits include imposing a legal obligation on the government to uphold its principles, signaling a national commitment to gender equality on the global stage, serving as a catalyst for domestic policy reform, and empowering civil society organizations dedicated to gender equality.

In summary, CEDAW stands as both a symbolic and tangible commitment on the international stage to combatting discrimination against women worldwide and fostering collective efforts to acknowledge and address the barriers hindering women’s advancement. Moreover, the convention’s committee has demonstrated adaptability and innovation by evolving to address the evolving needs of women, including those with disabilities and women of color. This ongoing commitment underscores the pursuit of equality for all women.

About the authors:

Christine Joseph is a senior at Drew University majoring in Political Science and minoring in International Relations and Law, Justice, & Society.

Marianela Piña De La Hoz is a junior at Drew University studying Economics and International Relations and minoring in Spanish.

Editor's note: This entry was written for Drew University's PSCI 329 Principles of International Law course.

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