May 31, 2023
Women’s rights are human rights, and yet women across the world still face discrimination and inequality on a daily basis. The international community has recognised this issue and has worked to create laws and treaties to safeguard and protect the rights of women. So let’s explore some international laws and treaties  to protect women’s rights, recent developments, and the UK’s position on these issues. For anyone working in the legal profession, these are the key treaties you need to be aware of for the protection of women’s rights. 

Key Conventions Protecting Women’s Rights

The Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) is an international treaty that was adopted by the United Nations General Assembly in 1979. The treaty defines discrimination against women and establishes an agenda for national action to end such discrimination. It also obligates governments to take affirmative action to ensure women’s full and equal participation in all aspects of life. As of 2021, 189 countries have ratified CEDAW, making it one of the most widely accepted human rights treaties.

CEDAW provides a framework for the elimination of discrimination against women and is an essential tool for promoting women’s rights and gender equality. It covers a broad range of issues, including political participation, education, employment, health care, and access to justice. It also recognises the important role that women play in peacebuilding and conflict resolution.

In recent years, the implementation of CEDAW has become a key focus of the international community. The United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women regularly reviews state party reports on the implementation of the Convention and issues recommendations for further action.

UK’s Ratification of CEDAW

In 1986, the UK ratified (committed to abide by) CEDAW, which obligates it to implement measures aimed at ensuring that women have the same opportunities as men to fully enjoy their human rights, such as:

  • Eliminating gender stereotypes for both women and men
  • Guaranteeing women’s equal involvement in public affairs
  • Upholding equal treatment before the law
  • Eradicating discrimination in employment opportunities.

CEDAW has not been directly integrated into domestic law and policy by the UK and devolved governments. Therefore, the principles and provisions outlined in CEDAW cannot be enforced by domestic courts. However, some of the rights specified in CEDAW are partially implemented through various means, such as the Equality Act 2010, the Human Rights Act, and other legislation, policies, and programs.


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The Istanbul Convention

The Istanbul Convention, also known as the Council of Europe Convention on preventing and combating violence against women and domestic violence, is a treaty that was adopted in 2011. The convention is the first legally binding instrument in Europe that focuses specifically on preventing and combating violence against women and domestic violence. It obligates states to take a comprehensive approach to addressing violence against women, including prevention, protection, prosecution, and partnership with civil society.

As of 2021, 34 countries have ratified the Istanbul Convention, including the UK. However, there have been debates in the UK regarding the ratification of the convention, with some arguing that it would undermine the country’s sovereignty. In 2021, the UK government announced that it would not proceed with ratifying the Istanbul Convention, which sparked criticism from women’s rights organisations.

On 17 May 2022, Home Secretary Priti Patel announced the UK’s intention to ratify the convention. In her statement she said that tackling violence against women and girls was “a government priority and these crimes have no place in our society”.

The Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action

The Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action is a global policy framework that was adopted at the United Nations Fourth World Conference on Women in 1995. The document is a landmark agreement that outlines a comprehensive agenda for advancing gender equality and the empowerment of women. It covers 12 critical areas of concern, including women and poverty, education, health, violence against women, and women in power and decision-making. The declaration also calls for the elimination of all forms of discrimination and violence against women, and for the promotion of women’s human rights and participation in all spheres of life.

The UK government has expressed its commitment to the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action. In March 2021, the government launched a new Gender Equality Hub to support the delivery of the Beijing Platform for Action and the Sustainable Development Goals on gender equality. The Hub aims to bring together government departments, civil society organisations, and other stakeholders to coordinate and accelerate efforts to promote gender equality and women’s rights.

The UK government has played a leading role in advocating for the rights of women and girls internationally, such as by serving as the “penholder” on women, peace, and security at the UN Security Council and establishing the Gender Equality Advisory Council during its 2021 G7 presidency.

Overall, the UK’s position on the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action is one of support and commitment to advancing gender equality and women’s rights both domestically and globally.

The Sustainable Development Goals

The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are not specifically laws, but a set of 17 global goals adopted by the United Nations General Assembly in 2015. The goals aim to end poverty, protect the planet, and ensure that all people enjoy peace and prosperity. Goal 5 specifically focuses on gender equality and aims to “achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls.”

The SDGs provide a roadmap for countries to achieve gender equality and promote women’s rights. They cover a broad range of issues, including access to education, health care, and economic opportunities. The SDGs are a universal agenda and apply to all countries, regardless of their level of development.

UK’s Commitment to SDGs

The UK has made commitments to achieving the SDGs, including Goal 5. The government has launched initiatives such as the Girls’ Education Challenge, which aims to provide educational opportunities to girls in developing countries, and the Women Entrepreneurs Finance Initiative, which provides funding to women-led businesses in developing countries.

However, amid the Covid-19 pandemic in 2021, the UK government reduced its UK aid budget by £4.5 billion, which included a direct cut of over 40% (£1.9 billion) from gender equality projects. This cut severely undermined the UK’s commitments to SDG5.

The UK government also launched its International Development Strategy in May 2022, expressing a clear commitment to women and girls. However, the strategy did not fully incorporate gender equality throughout its framework.



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Impact of COVID-19 on Women’s Rights

The COVID-19 pandemic has had a significant impact on women’s rights and laws in the UK.

Surge In Domestic Violence

The lockdowns and social distancing measures have made it more difficult for women to escape abusive relationships, and there has been a surge in calls to domestic abuse helplines. In response, the UK government launched a campaign to raise awareness of domestic abuse and introduced a package of measures to support victims, including funding for refuge services.

Unequal Distribution Of Childcare

The pandemic has also highlighted the unequal burden of care responsibilities on women. With schools and nurseries closed, many women have had to take on increased childcare responsibilities, making it difficult to work and progress in their careers. This has highlighted the need for more flexible working arrangements and greater support for working parents.

Gender Gaps In The Labour Market

The pandemic has also exposed the gender pay gap in the UK, with women more likely to work in sectors with low pay and insecure employment. Women are also more likely to work part-time or in temporary roles, making them more vulnerable to job losses and economic insecurity. The pandemic has led to a disproportionate number of job losses for women, with many forced to leave the workforce to care for children or other family members. In response, the UK government has introduced measures to support women during the pandemic, including the furlough scheme and self-employment income support scheme.

Some other measures that the government put in place to safeguard the rights of women and girls, and promote gender equality include: 

  • Provision of funding to support rape and sexual abuse survivors, including increased funding for specialist services such as counselling and helplines.
  • Launching the Women’s Business Council to provide support and guidance for female entrepreneurs. This initiative aims to help women navigate the economic fallout from the pandemic, and promote gender equality and women’s participation in the workforce.
  • Addressing the impact of the pandemic on women’s mental health, including providing funding for mental health services and launching a mental health campaign
  • Introduction of a policy to allow women to take abortion pills at home, reducing the need for unnecessary hospital visits during the pandemic.

While these policies and initiatives are a step in the right direction, there is still much work to be done to address the structural inequalities that have been highlighted by the pandemic and ensure that women’s rights are protected and promoted in the UK.


The international community has made significant progress in safeguarding and protecting women’s rights through laws and treaties such as CEDAW, the Istanbul Convention, and the Sustainable Development Goals. The UK has made commitments to these international agreements, but there is still work to be done to fully realise women’s rights in the country. Recent developments, such as the COVID-19 pandemic, have highlighted the importance of continued efforts to promote gender equality and protect women’s rights. As we move forward, it is crucial that we prioritise these issues and work towards a world where all women are able to live free from discrimination and violence.

By Mallika Singhal


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