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Conference Proceeding

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Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), gender inequality, human rights, international law


This paper was prepared for the International Law Colloquium at the University of Maryland School of Law, November 18, 2009.


Although the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (“CEDAW” or the “Convention”) has succeeded in some respects, even its supporters acknowledge broad failures. CEDAW’s weakness draws on the titular mistaken diagnosis: “women” are not the issue&#;gender disparities are. The 1970’s drafting of CEDAW focused on bringing women to their place at the international law table. What’s wrong with women’s rights? In the international context, CEDAW attempts to empower women but fails to respect other gender inequality. As the preeminent treaty on gender inequality, CEDAW cannot succeed in creating gender equality if its scope remains limited to women. Men are external to core debates over gender inequality. CEDAW’s focus on “women” enshrines the male/female binary in international law, when it should seek the elimination of the categories themselves. Under this model, women are the victims, while men are presumed to be the perpetrators. Catharine MacKinnon recently asked “Are women human?,” and CEDAW’s answer, by its existence outside of human rights, is that they are not. The Convention removes women’s issues from human rights discussions, isolating their concerns. The identitarian category of “women” serves to reify rather than undermine gender disparities. For international law to foster gender equality, it is imperative that CEDAW undergo a radical refashioning.


Human Rights Law | International Law | Law and Gender