Women's rights

International agreements on women's rights

Students in Tunis

The international community has applied the principle of gender equality since the United Nations was founded in 1945. It is enshrined in the UN Charter. The United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948 also contains the principle that no distinction shall be made "on account of sex". The two human rights covenants that were adopted in 1966, which incorporated a ban on discrimination, made gender equality a legally binding principle for signatory states.

The UN Commission on Women

The United Nations instituted a Commission on the Status of Women in 1946. It aims to promote women’s legal empowerment in political, economic and social life in a targeted fashion. In contrast to the Human Rights Commission, the Commission on Women does not, however, have the competence to hold to account any countries that discriminate against women. Since 1992, its annual meetings have taken place in New York.

The Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women

In 1979, the UN General Assembly adopted the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW). It came into force in 1981. The Programme of Action associated with the Convention obligates those states that have ratified the Convention to implement measures that are aimed at creating not only 'de jure' (legal) but also 'de facto' (actual) equality between men and women.

In 1999, the UN General Assembly adopted the Optional Protocol to CEDAW. The Protocol enables individual women or groups to file individual applications with the UN Committee for the Elimination of Discrimination against Women if a particular country violates the Convention.

UN Women

In July 2010, the United Nations General Assembly decided to found the new "United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women", UN Women for short. The organisation started work on 1 January 2011. It combines the previously existing units and programmes of the United Nations dealing with the issue of women and gender. The task of UN Women is to promote the cross-cutting theme of equality in the entire UN system and in development cooperation.

Declaration on the Elimination of Violence against Women

The issue of "Violence against Women" was discussed at the second UN World Conference on Human Rights held in Vienna in 1993. Following the World Conference the United Nations adopted a Declaration on the Elimination of Violence against Women. The following forms of violence against women in the public and private domain were defined as human rights violations:

  • Physical, sexual and psychological violence occurring in the family, including physical and sexual abuse of female children;
  • Dowry-related violence;
  • Marital rape;
  • Genital mutilation and other traditional practices harmful to women;
  • Non-spousal violence and violence related to exploitation;
  • Physical, sexual and psychological violence occurring within the general community, including rape, sexual abuse, sexual harassment and intimidation at work, in educational institutions and elsewhere;
  • Trafficking in women and forced prostitution;
  • All forms of physical, sexual and psychological violence perpetrated or condoned by the state.

In 1994, the UN Human Rights Commission established the office of a permanent Special Rapporteur on violence against women.

Programme of Action of the World Conference on Population and Development in Cairo

At the World Conference on Population and Development held in Cairo in 1994, the 179 participating states adopted a wide-ranging programme of action for the next 20 years. The programme brings together polices on population, development and women’s rights. It obligates governments around the world to invest in sex education and reproductive health measures, and to facilitate access to sex education, contraception and pertinent healthcare for every individual, including women during pregnancy and childbirth, and enable people to protect themselves against sexually transmitted diseases such as HIV/AIDS.

Beijing Platform for Action

The motto of the fourth World Conference on Women held in Beijing in 1995 was "Action for Equality, Development and Peace". Participants signed a wide-ranging catalogue of demands called the Beijing Platform for Action, in which 189 states set out strategic targets regarding the issue of gender equality:

  • Women’s rights are human rights
  • Women have the right to sexual self-determination
  • Equal inheritance rights for daughters and sons, equal access to economic resources and education
  • All forms of violence against women and girls will be regarded as a human rights violation and dealt with accordingly

The Platform for Action is a frame of reference for individuals and women’s organisations. However, there are no means of imposing sanctions when these commitments are not met.

UN Security Council Resolution 1325 and subsequent resolutions

Armed conflicts affect women in various ways: they may be the victims of war, nurses and caregivers, or even combatants. In Resolution 1325, adopted in 2000, the UN Security Council thus calls for women’s "equal participation and full involvement in all efforts for the maintenance and promotion of peace and security".

Several German federal ministries are tasked with implementing this resolution. Besides the Federal Foreign Office as lead ministry and the Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ), they also include the Federal Ministries of Defence (BMVg), of Family Affairs, Senior Citizens, Women and Youth (BMFSFJ), of the Interior (BMI), and of Justice and Consumer Protection (BMJV).

An inter-ministerial working group has been established at the BMZ's initiative to get women involved more effectively in conflict prevention and peace processes than they have been in the past, and to promote equality in corresponding missions. In December 2012, the working group adopted the National Action Plan to implement Resolution 1325.

The inter-ministerial working group also reports on progress made on implementing the National Action Plan, most recently in the Fourth Report of the Government of the Federal Republic of Germany on the Implementation of UN Security Council Resolution 1325.

UN Security Council Resolution 1820 of 2008 states that rape and other forms of sexual violence "can be a war crime, a crime against humanity or a constitutive act with respect to genocide”. The resolution calls on UN member states to meet their obligations to prosecute those who commit such crimes. It also permits sanctions to be imposed on countries in which acts of sexual violence are committed during armed conflicts.

In follow-up Resolutions 1888 (2009) and 1960 (2010) the UN Security Council reiterated the importance of protecting women and girls in conflict situations. It called on states to put an end to impunity, to prosecute the perpetrators of sexual violence and to adapt justice systems accordingly.

Resolutions 1889 (2009), 2106 and 2122 (both 2013) emphasise the need to involve women in all areas of conflict prevention and peacebuilding, particularly during peace negotiations at the highest political level (Resolution 2122). Resolution 2106 highlights the significance of the International Criminal Court (ICC) for the prosecution of sexual and gender-based violence during conflict situations.

Gender equality and women’s rights in the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development

Gender equality is a key precondition for achieving the goals set out in the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, which was adopted in New York in September 2015. During the negotiations on the Agenda the BMZ expressly and successfully worked to ensure that gender equality and the implementation of women’s rights were mainstreamed as cross-cutting issues and that actually overcoming gender-specific discrimination was included as a separate goal.

"Achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls" is Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 5. The targets to be achieved under SDG 5 address areas such as discrimination and violence against women and girls, harmful practices such as female genital mutilation and child, early and forced marriage, unpaid care and domestic work, sexual and reproductive rights and health, and access to ownership and control over land and other forms of property.

Gender has likewise been mainstreamed as a cross-cutting issue in the Agenda and is included in eight of the 17 SDGs, for example in the SDGs on poverty, health, education, employment and climate change.

European Union

At European level, the EU Member States undertook with the Treaty of Amsterdam (1999) to work at all levels towards eliminating inequality and promoting gender equality. In addition, the European Consensus on Development Policy (2005) identifies gender equality as a common value and a separate goal. The Treaty of Lisbon (2008) obliges the European Union to apply gender mainstreaming: all political strategies, programmes and measures must be subjected to a gender impact assessment, that is a review of whether and to what extent they have an effect on gender equality.

The EU adopted its first Plan of Action on Gender Equality and Women’s Empowerment in Development (2010–2015) back in 2010; the second Plan of Action covering the period 2016 to 2020 was adopted in September 2015.

In its Conclusions on Gender in Development, adopted in 2015, the Council of the European Union reiterated that the focus when implementing the 2030 Agenda must be on the rights of women and girls, gender equality, and empowering women and girls.

The Maputo Protocol

In 2003, 53 Member States of the African Union (AU) took part in a summit meeting in Maputo, Mozambique and adopted an Additional Protocol to the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights of 1986: The Protocol for the Rights of Women in Africa (known as the Maputo Protocol).

The Protocol entered into force in 2005. It reaffirms specific legal rights that protect and empower women and girls. Among other things, the Protocol explicitly condemns all forms of female genital mutilation.

In the Solemn Declaration on Gender Equality in Africa, the AU Member States declared their support for the implementation and observance of this legal framework; by undertaking to submit annual reports they are subjecting themselves to a strict monitoring mechanism.

In August 2008, the heads of state and government of the Southern African Development Community (SADC) signed the SADC Protocol on Gender and Development, a legally binding agreement aimed at boosting efforts to achieve gender equality in the region.

BMZ glossary

Close window


Share page