Discrimination against Women

According to Article 1 of the Declaration on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women, “the term “discrimination against women” shall mean 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.”

Though gender discrimination and sexism refers to beliefs and attitudes in relation to the gender of a person, such beliefs and attitudes are of a social nature and do not, normally, carry any legal consequences. Sex discrimination, on the other hand, may have legal consequences.

Though what constitutes sex discrimination varies between countries, the essence is that it is an adverse action taken by one person against another person that would not have occurred had the person been of another sex. Discrimination of that nature is considered a form of prejudice and in certain enumerated circumstances is illegal in many countries.

Socially, sexual differences have been used to justify different roles for men and women, in some cases giving rise to claims of primary and secondary roles.

The United Nations had concluded that women often experience a "glass ceiling" and that there are no societies in which women enjoy the same opportunities as men. The term "glass ceiling" is used to describe a perceived barrier to advancement in employment based on discrimination, especially sex discrimination.

Discrimination against women persists in both public and private spheres in times of conflict and in peace. It transcends national, cultural and religious boundaries and is often fuelled by patriarchal stereotyping and power imbalances which are mirrored in laws, policies and practice.

Gender equality is essential for the achievement of human rights for all. Yet discriminatory laws against women persist in every corner of the globe and new discriminatory laws are enacted. In all legal traditions many laws continue to institutionalize second class status for women and girls with regard to nationality and citizenship, health, education, marital rights, employment rights, parental rights, inheritance and property rights. These forms of discrimination against women are incompatible with women’s empowerment.

Women form the majority of the world’s poorest people and the number of women living in rural poverty has increased by 50% since 1975. Women work two-thirds of the world’s working hours and produce half of the world’s food, yet they earn only 10% of the world’s income and own less than 1% of the world’s property1. Violence against women throughout the world and in all cultures prevails on an unimaginable scale, and women’s access to justice is often paired with discriminatory obstacles – in law as well as in practice. Multiple forms of discrimination based on gender and other factors such as race, ethnicity, caste, disability, persons affected by HIV/AIDS, sexual orientation or gender identity further compounds the risk of economic hardship, exclusion and violence against women.

In some countries women, unlike men, cannot dress as they like, drive, work at night, inherit property or give evidence in Court. The vast majority of expressly discriminatory laws in force relate to family life, including limiting a woman’s right to marry (or the right not to marry in cases of early forced marriages), divorce and remarry, thus allowing for sex discriminatory marital practices such as wife obedience and polygamy. Laws explicitly mandating “wife obedience” still govern marital relations in many States.

International human rights law prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex and includes guarantees for men and women to enjoy their civil, cultural, economic, political and social rights equally. While the human rights machinery reaffirm the principles of non-discrimination and equality, Article 15 (1) of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women explicitly provides that States who have ratified the Convention shall accord to women equality with men and article 2 commits States who have ratified the Convention “to take all appropriate measures, including legislation, to modify or abolish existing laws, regulations, customs and practices which constitute discrimination against women.”

Activities of the UN human rights office

• Supports the activities of Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women. The Committee oversees implementation of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women. The Convention sets out, in legally binding form, internationally accepted principles on the rights of women.

• Assists the Special Rapporteur on Violence against Women. The Special Rapporteur, who is an independent expert, publishes annual reports on violence against women, receives urgent appeals from individuals and undertakes fact-finding country visits.

• Assists the Independent Expert on Trafficking. Acknowledging that women in all regions of the world continue to be the victims of traffickers in order to be sexually exploited or exploited for their work force, the Independent Expert address these human rights violations.

• Through its Women’s Rights and Gender Unit, furthers the struggle against discrimination against women. The unit builds national capacity to eliminate gender discrimination through advisory services, conducts research and analysis, services intergovernmental and expert mechanisms addressing the situation of discrimination of women, and engages with the Human Rights Council and the wider community forging partnerships, raising awareness and mobilizing support for anti-discrimination measures, such as legislation, policies and programmes.

• In March 2008, the Women’s Right and Gender Unit published a commissioned report on laws that discriminate against women.

Special Rapporteur on violence against women, its causes and


The United Nations Commission on Human Rights in resolution 1994/45, adopted on 4 March 1994 , decided to appoint a Special Rapporteur on violence against women, including its causes and consequences. At its 59th session in resolution 2003/45 the Commission on Human Rights:

"Strongly condemning all acts of violence against women and girls and in this regard called, in accordance with the Declaration on the Elimination of Violence against Women, for the elimination of all forms of gender-based violence in the family, within the general community and where perpetrated or condoned by the State, and emphasized the duty of Governments to refrain from engaging in violence against women and to exercise due diligence to prevent, investigate and, in accordance with national legislation, punish acts of violence against women and to take appropriate and effective action concerning acts of violence against women, whether those acts are perpetrated by the State, by private persons or by armed groups or warring factions, and to provide access to just and effective remedies and specialized, including medical, assistance to victims;
Affirmed, in this light, that violence against women constitutes a violation of the human rights and fundamental freedoms of women and that violence against women impairs or nullifies their enjoyment of those rights and freedoms."

According to his/her mandate the Special Rapporteur is requested to:

(a) Seek and receive information on violence against women, its causes and consequences from Governments, treaty bodies, specialized agencies, other special rapporteurs responsible for various human rights questions and intergovernmental and non-governmental organizations, including women's organizations, and to respond effectively to such information;

(b) Recommend measures, ways and means at the local, national, regional and international levels to eliminate all forms of violence against women and its causes, and to remedy its consequences;

(c) Work closely with all special procedures and other human rights mechanisms of the Human Rights Council and with the treaty bodies, taking into account the request of the Council that they regularly and systematically integrate the human rights of women and a gender perspective into their work, and cooperate closely with the Commission on the Status of Women in the discharge of its functions;

(d) Continue to adopt a comprehensive and universal approach to the elimination of violence against women, its causes and consequences, including causes of violence against women relating to the civil, cultural, economic, political and social spheres.

In the discharge of the mandate the Special Rapporteur:

-Transmits urgent appeals and communications to States regarding alleged cases of violence against women. See Individual Complaints

-Undertakes fact-finding country visits. See Country Visits

-Submits annual thematic reports. See Annual Reports

Working Group on the issue of discrimination against women in law

and in practice

The establishment of the Working Group by the Human Rights Council at its 15th session in September 2010 was a milestone on the long road towards women’s equality with men. Over the years, many constitutional and legal reforms to integrate women’s human rights fully into domestic law have occurred, but there remains insufficient progress. The Working Group focus is to identify, promote and exchange views, in consultation with States and other actors, on good practices related to the elimination of laws that discriminate against women. The Group is also tasked with developing a dialogue with States and other actors on laws that have a discriminatory impact where women are concerned. It is also mandated to prepare a compendium of best practices related to the elimination of  laws that discriminate against women or are discriminatory to women in terms of implementation or impact as well as to undertake a study on the way and means it can cooperate with States to fulfill their commitments in that regard. 

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