What does international human rights law say about women’s rights?

Women's rights are human rights. Despite formal equality in human rights law, gender inequality remains a barrier to women's equal enjoyment of human rights.

July 1, 2022

Montanasuffragettes, 2018 Women’s March in Missoula, Montana 149, CC BY-SA 4.0

By Carrie Booth Walling

What does international human rights law say about women’s rights? 

Women’s rights are human rights. LGBTQ+ rights are human rights. Yet gender equality remains one of the most controversial human rights challenges.

Discrimination against women, sexual minorities, and persons whose gender identity doesn’t conform with societal norms is widespread and condoned by many governments and societies. Women and girls and LGBTQ+ people everywhere must have the right and opportunity to live lives of dignity, free from violence and discrimination, and to realize their human potential. Gender-based discrimination in all forms violates human rights.

Every core human rights treaty contains a provision guaranteeing that the rights it protects apply equally to all human beings without distinction of any kind.

If women’s rights are human rights, why is there a special women’s rights treaty?

Despite formal equality in human rights law, gender inequality and gender subordination remain barriers to women’s equal enjoyment of human rights. Women are over-represented among the world’s poor, underrepresented in the world’s legislative bodies, are more likely than men to face food insecurity, are disproportionately impacted by climate change, are more likely to be victims of violence, and are paid significantly less than their male counterparts in the workplace.

The Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) was created to prioritize women’s equal human rights and to eradicate discrimination that is directed specifically at women. It is often described as an international bill of human rights for women. Its 30 articles are considered “an agenda for action by countries to guarantee the enjoyment of those rights.”

What rights does CEDAW protect?

CEDAW details women’s civil rights and promotes their equal legal status. It protects women’s reproductive rights and declares that the role of women in procreation may not be a basis for discrimination. It also acknowledges the influence that culture and tradition have had on restricting women’s enjoyment of their fundamental rights. CEDAW requires governments to eliminate prejudices that limit the rights of women so that men and women can achieve equal rights in education and employment and have equal responsibilities in family life.

Has the United States adopted the women's rights treaty? Toggle Accordion

No. 187 countries have adopted CEDAW. The United States is not one of them. The U.S. is the only industrialized democracy and only country in the Western Hemisphere that has not ratified the treaty. Only 7 United Nations member nations have not adopted CEDAW including the U.S., Iran, Somalia, and Sudan.

The Cities for CEDAW campaign is a grassroots effort that empowers local women’s organizations and municipalities to pass legislation establishing the principles of CEDAW in cities and towns across the United States. Over 40 U.S. cities have passed an ordinance or resolution that protects the rights of women and girls by reaffirming the principles of CEDAW.

What does CEDAW say about reproductive rights? Toggle Accordion

CEDAW protects women’s reproductive rights but does not explicitly address abortion.

Article 16 of CEDAW guarantees women equal rights in deciding “freely and responsibly on the number and spacing of their children” and to have access to information, education, and healthcare services that allow them to do so.

Article 12 of CEDAW requires women have equal access to health care services, including those related to family planning.

Treaty bodies that oversee implementation of human rights treaties produce general recommendations that serve as authoritative guides on how a treaty should be interpreted. General recommendations are designed to help governments implement human rights treaties and to help human rights defenders monitor government compliance with them.

General recommendation 21 clarifies the meaning of women’s reproductive freedom contained in Article 16. It argues that women’s responsibilities for child-bearing and child rearing affect their right of access to education, employment, and other activities related to personal development. It also affects their physical and mental health. For these reasons “women are entitled to decide on the number and spacing of their children.” Further, “decisions to have children, or not, while preferably made in consultation with spouse or partner, must not nevertheless be limited by spouse, parent, partner or Government.”

General recommendation 24 interprets Article 12 on women’s health. Governments must not obstruct women from pursuing their health goals. Laws that criminalize medical procedures only needed by women or laws that punish women who undergo those procedures is inconsistent with human rights law. Denying access to health services that only women require is discriminatory.

What do other human rights treaties say about reproductive rights? Toggle Accordion

Women have the right to their sexual and reproductive health and autonomy, and to their bodily integrity. UN human rights bodies have characterized restrictive abortion laws as a form of discrimination.

The UN Working Group on Discrimination Against Women has emphasized that the “right of a woman or girl to make autonomous decisions about her own body and reproductive functions is at the very core of her fundamental right to equality and privacy, involving intimate matters of physical and psychological integrity, and is a precondition for the enjoyment of other rights.”

The decision to continue or terminate a pregnancy is fundamentally and primarily the woman’s decision because it may shape her whole future personal and family life and has a crucial impact on a woman’s enjoyment of other human rights.

The Human Rights Committee has confirmed that “although States parties may adopt measures designed to regulate voluntary terminations of pregnancy, such measures must not result in the violation of the right to life of a pregnant woman or girl, or her other rights under the Covenant.” This means restrictions on abortion must not jeopardize their lives, subject them to physical or mental pain or suffering, discriminate against them, or arbitrarily interfere with their privacy.

Laws must not force women to seek out unsafe abortions. Governments should not criminalize women and girls who undergo abortion or the medical service providers who assist them in doing so because preventing unsafe abortion is a core obligation of governments and a minimum requirement for respecting the right to sexual and reproductive health.

The UN urges governments to repeal or eliminate laws, policies, and practices that criminalize, obstruct, or undermine access by individuals to sexual and reproductive health facilities, services, goods, and information.

What about the argument that abortion violates the right to life? Toggle Accordion

Article 3 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and Article 6 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights protect the right to life. Abortion opponents argue that the practice violates the right to life and that abortion bans protect the right to life of an unborn child.

Article 1 of the UDHR states that “all human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights.” International human rights law has determined that those who believe personhood begins prior to birth have the freedom to act according to their beliefs and to have those beliefs respected; but that they may not impose their beliefs on others through the legal system.

What are international human rights organizations saying about the recent U.S. Supreme Court decision on Dobbs v. Jackson? Toggle Accordion

Michelle Bachelet, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights described the U.S. Supreme Court ruling on Dobbs v. Jackson as “a huge blow to women’s human rights and gender equality.”

Bachelet continues, “Access to safe, legal and effective abortion is firmly rooted in international human rights law and is at the core of women and girls’ autonomy and ability to make their own choices about their bodies and lives, free of discrimination, violence and coercion.”

UN Women, the UN organization dedicated to gender equality and the empowerment of women said, “Reproductive rights are integral to women’s rights, a fact that is upheld by international agreements and reflected in law in different parts of the world. To be able to exercise their human rights and make essential decisions, women need to be able to decide freely and responsibly on the number and spacing of their children and to have access to information, education, and services.”

“The ability of women to control what happens to their own bodies is also associated with the roles that women are able to play in society, whether as a member of the family, workforce, or government.”

Human Rights Watch, an international non-governmental organization that investigates and reports on human rights abuses around the world, believes that

reproductive rights are human rights, including the right of access to abortion. States have the obligation to provide women, girls, and other pregnant people with access to safe and legal abortion as part of their core human rights responsibilities…International human rights law and relevant jurisprudence support the conclusion that decisions about abortion belong to a pregnant person alone, without interference or unreasonable restriction by the state or third parties.”

Amnesty International, a global movement that campaigns to end abuses of human rights, believes that

access to safe abortion services is a human right. Under international human rights law everyone has a right to life, a right to health, and a right to be free from violence, discrimination, and torture or cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment. Human rights law clearly spells out that decisions about your body are yours alone – this is what is known as bodily autonomy. Forcing someone to carry an unwanted pregnancy, or forcing them to seek out an unsafe abortion, is a violation of their human rights, including the rights to privacy and bodily autonomy.”


For more information, visit United Nations Human Rights and their information series on sexual and reproductive health and human rights

Carrie Booth Walling is a Professor of Political Science and Director of the Albion Human Rights Lab. The views expressed here are her own and do not necessarily represent those of Albion College.