United Nations Issues a Declaration on Equality for Women Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

After two decades of work, the U.N. adopted a declaration on the rights of women that reiterated the principles of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and called for equal rights for men and women.

Summary of Event

The Declaration on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women had a long history that preceded its issuance on November 7, 1967. At the 1945 San Francisco conference, which established the United Nations, the Brazilian delegation had suggested the establishment of a committee on the status of women, but the United States and other countries questioned the need for a special committee, and the conference took no action. A subcommittee on the status of women was formed at the first session of the U.N. Economic and Social Council Economic and Social Council, U.N. (ECOSOC), which was headed by Milan Klusak. This subcommittee’s first report to ECOSOC recommended that the group be elevated to the rank of a full committee. ECOSOC approved this recommendation in June, 1946. Women;political and legal rights United Nations;women’s rights[womens rights] Declaration on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women, U.N. (1967) [kw]United Nations Issues a Declaration on Equality for Women (Nov. 7, 1967) [kw]Declaration on Equality for Women, United Nations Issues a (Nov. 7, 1967) [kw]Equality for Women, United Nations Issues a Declaration on (Nov. 7, 1967) [kw]Women, United Nations Issues a Declaration on Equality for (Nov. 7, 1967) Women;political and legal rights United Nations;women’s rights[womens rights] Declaration on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women, U.N. (1967) [g]North America;Nov. 7, 1967: United Nations Issues a Declaration on Equality for Women[09480] [g]United States;Nov. 7, 1967: United Nations Issues a Declaration on Equality for Women[09480] [c]United Nations;Nov. 7, 1967: United Nations Issues a Declaration on Equality for Women[09480] [c]Diplomacy and international relations;Nov. 7, 1967: United Nations Issues a Declaration on Equality for Women[09480] [c]Women’s issues;Nov. 7, 1967: United Nations Issues a Declaration on Equality for Women[09480] [c]Human rights;Nov. 7, 1967: United Nations Issues a Declaration on Equality for Women[09480] Klusak, Milan Sipila, Helvi Thant, U [p]Thant, U;women’s rights[womens rights]

The Commission on the Status of Women Commission on the Status of Women, U.N. reports to ECOSOC, and occasionally to the Commission on Human Rights, on issues regarding the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and its covenants, adopted December 10, 1948. Political rights were viewed by the Commission on the Status of Women and ECOSOC as being the cornerstone for equality of rights in economic, cultural, and social arenas. In June, 1946, ECOSOC requested that the U.N. secretary-general prepare a detailed study of political conditions for women. Questionnaires were sent to member states for five years. Data from them were analyzed and became the backbone for the committee’s subsequent recommendations.

In 1949, a Mexican representative proposed a U.N. convention on political rights of women; again, the United States and other countries questioned the need for a convention. Finally, in 1952 the U.N. General Assembly adopted the Convention on the Political Rights of Women Convention on the Political Rights of Women (1952) as a result of the committee’s efforts. The committee’s work on a convention on the nationality of married women began in 1948. Data were collected by the secretariat on the conflicting laws of member states, and eventually, over objections of U.S. delegates, a draft was approved by the General Assembly in 1955. The convention itself was adopted by the General Assembly in 1957. In 1962, the Convention on a Minimum Age at Marriage, Free Consent to Marriage, and the Registration of Marriage Convention on a Minimum Age at Marriage, Free Consent to Marriage, and the Registration of Marriage (1962) was adopted.

During the 1960’s and 1970’s, more agencies of the United Nations, which was then headed by Secretary-General U Thant, began examining the status of women within the context of their own agencies. The U.N. Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) was interested in discrimination against women and girls in education; the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) focused on the plight of rural women; and Planned Parenthood International, a nongovernmental organization (NGO) with consultative status in the United Nations, collected data on family planning and services. The Declaration on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women emerged from this background and was adopted by the General Assembly in 1967.

Various U.N. world conferences convened during the 1970’s on women’s issues as well as on energy, the environment, population, housing, and other topics quickly demonstrated the inadequacy of a mere declaration. The committee began working on a convention, which carries more force. During the 1960’s and 1970’s, more of the world’s countries began to look at human rights issues within their own countries. In the United States, extensive legislation was passed during the 1960’s protecting women’s rights.

Significance

Declarations have no legal force: They are nonbinding agreements. The 1967 U.N. Declaration on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women focused on the need for equality for women and men in the political sphere, in civil law, in economic and social life, and in all levels of education. It called for the abolition of all laws and customs that discriminate against women and of all practices based on the idea of female inferiority. Child marriage and betrothal before puberty were to be prohibited.

The declaration requested measures to combat the traffic Slavery in women and the exploitation of prostitution Prostitution . Certain rights were also enumerated for women: A woman can freely choose her husband, a married woman can retain her nationality, and women are to have equality of treatment with men with respect to work of equal value. Various groups perceived a need for a stronger statement of women’s rights and equality than this nonbinding declaration.

In 1974, work began on the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (1981) (CEDAW), which entered into force in 1981. A convention is a document containing certain agreed-upon principles that is then submitted to governments for action. Nations can support conventions in one of two ways. They may simply sign it; this means they agree with the stated principles and pledge not to contravene them. A state may instead ratify, or accede to, the convention. In this case, the government takes on the obligation to pursue the necessary actions to effect the convention’s principles. This also means that the convention has become an international treaty and is therefore enforceable. The guarantee of basic human rights for all and behavior based on the rule of law are U.N. goals. The understanding of this process by the Commission on the Status of Women and allied groups became the basis for the drafting, adoption, and ratification of the declaration, the convention, and other documents on elimination of discrimination against women.

At the beginning of the twentieth century, only New Zealand had suffrage for women. By the time the United Nations was established, women could vote in only thirty-one countries. The initial work of the Commission on the Status of Women, headed by Helvi Sipila, focused on extending political rights of women even further. During this process, other problems materialized.

The most serious problems were the lack of data specific to women and the lack of comparable data for within-country as well as cross-country comparisons: Women were statistically invisible. In addition, definitions of concepts as basic as “economic activity” varied from country to country, furthering the difficulties of making comparisons.

A collateral problem was that economic development was a first priority in most countries after World War II. Rights of women, equality, and human rights issues in general were put on hold. For example, the idea of an equal rights amendment was introduced in the U.S. Congress in 1923, but little action was taken on the idea until the 1960’s. The amendment did not pass Congress until 1972, and even then failed to be ratified.

With the demise of colonialism, beginning in earnest in the 1950’s, it became apparent that Western concepts of human and civil rights were different from those in the nonindustrialized world. In the “new” countries, human rights were associated with the colonial imposition of Western government forms and constitutions. The global spread of modern hygiene and medical technologies after World War II also caused the world’s population to grow rapidly. Women were affected more than were men. Their poverty, morbidity, and mortality rates increased, as did their rate of illiteracy. The welfare of children was also at risk. Many countries in the 1970’s and 1980’s recognized the need to reduce the inequality experienced by women, but few did anything substantive about it unless pushed by women’s groups.

By the early 1970’s, more people realized that both planned and unplanned development programs in the LDCs had the potential for adverse effects on women. There are wide global patterns, but accumulating research demonstrated that neither female subordination nor a patriarchal system withered with industrialization. Rather, patriarchal control expanded as a result of factors such as women’s decreasing access to resources, the devaluation of unpaid work, low wages in insecure jobs, and male control of female sexuality. It is within these contexts that the impact of the Declaration on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women must be assessed. Women;political and legal rights United Nations;women’s rights[womens rights] Declaration on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women, U.N. (1967)

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Editorial Research Reports. The Rights Revolution. Washington, D.C.: Congressional Quarterly, 1978. An unbiased series on various social movements in the United States during the 1960’s and 1970’s. Written for general readers. The factual presentation of contemporary historical events is centered on civil rights. References.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Federova, Masha, and Willem-Jan van der Wolf, eds. The United Nations and the Protection of the Rights of Women. Vol. 1. Nijmegen, the Netherlands: Wolf Legal, 2005. Contains selected documents on women’s global equality, beginning in 1945, the year the United Nations was created, until 1985. Includes texts of the major conventions, treaties, and declarations; selected resolutions of the U.N. bodies; reports; and other relevant documents.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Fraser, Arvonne S. The U.N. Decade for Women: Documents and Dialogue. Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press, 1987. Excellent overview and history of the decade of women’s conferences. College-level reading. References and abridged documents.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Green, James Frederick. The United Nations and Human Rights. Washington, D.C.: Brookings Institution, 1958. Excellent history of early U.N. activities. Unbiased and factual. College-level reading. References.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">MacKinnon, Catharine A. Are Women Human? And Other International Dialogues. Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press, 2006. Examines the legal status of women around the world. MacKinnon was instrumental in establishing sex harassment laws in the United States beginning in the mid-1970’s.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Momsen, Janet Henshall, and Janet Townsend, eds. Geography of Gender in the Third World. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1987. Excellent collection of articles (research and theory) on the developing world. Written for academics and upper-division college students. References.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">National Commission on the Observance of International Women’s Year. “. . . To Form a More Perfect Union . . .”: Justice for American Women. Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1976. A data-based government document written by the commission appointed by President Gerald Ford. Easy to read. Good for historical perspective of problems in the United States. References.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Staudt, Kathleen A., and Jane S. Jaquette, eds. Women in Developing Countries: A Policy Focus. New York: Haworth Press, 1983. Discusses the difficulties of development projects and their adverse impact on women and children. College-level reading. References.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Tinker, Irene, ed. Persistent Inequalities: Women and World Development. New York: Oxford University Press, 1990. This book originated from the realization that all the studies and data produced for the U.N. Decade for Women had very little impact on development economists or women’s studies scholars in universities. Designed for the academic community. Authors are advocates, practitioners, and scholars in development. Extensive bibliography.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

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    U.N. Chronicle 22, no. 7 (1985). A magazine published by the United Nations. Various issues contain major speeches, data, interviews, and assessments of conferences. This issue discusses the end of the U.N. Decade for Women. College-level reading.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Wylie, Eunice. “Women in the Picture.” World Health 37 (June, 1984): 14-15. World Health is a World Health Organization publication written for general readers. Contains excellent, short, data-based articles on health. This article deals with mortality, access to services, sexism, and other topics.

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