Canada has ratified the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women and the Optional Protocol to the Convention.
Adoption: The Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women was adopted by the United Nations General Assembly on 18 December 1979 and was opened for signature on 1 March 1980. Its Optional Protocol was adopted by the General Assembly on 6 October 1999 and opened for signature on 10 December 1999.
Entry into force: Convention – 3 September 1981. Optional Protocol – 22 December 2000.
Number of signatories and ratifications/accessions: As of September 2020, there are 189 state parties to the Convention. Two additional states have signed but not ratified the Convention. There are 114 state parties to the Optional Protocol. An additional 11 states have signed but not ratified the Optional Protocol.
The Convention established an international bill of rights for women and an agenda for action by countries to guarantee the enjoyment of those rights. “The spirit of the Convention is rooted in the goals of the United Nations: to reaffirm faith in fundamental human rights, in the dignity and worth of the human person, [and] in the equal rights of men and women.”
There is one optional protocol to the Convention. State parties that ratify the Optional Protocol recognize the competence of the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women to receive and consider complaints from individuals or groups within its jurisdiction.
“Equality of rights for women is a basic principle of the United Nations. The Preamble to the Charter of the United Nations sets as one of the Organization’s central goals the reaffirmation of “faith in fundamental human rights, in the dignity and worth of the human person, [and] in the equal rights of men and women.”
“The Convention was the culmination of more than thirty years of work by the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women, a body established in 1946 to monitor the situation of women and to promote women’s rights.” To support the codification of the legal rights of women, the Commission first researched and produced a detailed picture of the political and legal standing of women in each country. Subsequently, the Commission drafted the early international conventions on women’s rights, such as the 1953 Convention on the Political Rights of Women, which was the first international law instrument to recognize and protect the political rights of women; and the first international agreements on women’s rights in marriage, namely the 1957 Convention on the Nationality of Married Women, and the 1962 Convention on Consent to Marriage, Minimum Age for Marriage and Registration of Marriages. The Commission also contributed to the work of other UN offices and agencies, such as the International Labour Organization’s 1951 Convention concerning Equal Remuneration for Men and Women Workers for Work of Equal Value, which enshrined the principle of equal pay for equal work.
“In 1963, efforts to consolidate standards on women’s rights led the UN General Assembly to request the Commission to draft a Declaration on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women”. The General Assembly of the United Nations proclaimed the Declaration on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women in November 1967. The Declaration followed the structure of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and was an important precursor to the CEDAW Convention adopted in 1979. Article 1 of the Declaration states that “Discrimination against women, denying or limiting as it does their equality of rights with men, is fundamentally unjust and constitutes an offence against human dignity.” The subsequent articles called for inter alia:
The abolition of laws, customs, regulations and practices which are discriminatory against women;
Women to enjoy full electoral rights, including the right to vote and the right to seek and hold public office;
An equal right to education regardless of gender; and
Equal rights in the workplace, including non-discrimination in employment, equal pay for equal work, and paid maternity leave.
In 1972, the Commission considered the possibility of preparing a binding treaty that would give normative force to the provisions of the Declaration and requested that the Secretary-General call upon Member States to transmit their views on such a proposal. The following year, a working group was appointed to consider the elaboration of such a convention. In 1974, at its twenty-fifth session and in the light of the report of this working group, the Commission decided in principle to prepare a single, comprehensive and internationally binding instrument to eliminate discrimination against women.
The text of the Convention was prepared by working groups within the Commission during 1976 and by a working group of the General Assembly from 1977 to 1979. It was adopted by the General Assembly in 1979 by a vote of 130 to none, with 10 abstentions. In adopting the Convention, the General Assembly “expressed the hope that the Convention would come into force at an early date and requested the Secretary-General to present the text of the Convention to the mid-decade World Conference of the United Nations Decade for Women (1976 – 1985).” The Convention entered into force on 3 September 1981.
At a ceremony during a Copenhagen Conference on 17 July 1980, 64 States signed the Convention and two States submitted their instruments of ratification. “On 3 September 1981, 30 days after the twentieth member State had ratified it, the Convention entered into force – faster than any previous human rights convention had done – thus bringing to a climax United Nations efforts to codify comprehensively international legal standards for women.”
The Convention defines discrimination against women as “any distinction, exclusion or restriction made on the basis of sex which has the effect or purpose of impairing or nullifying the recognition, enjoyment or exercise by women, irrespective of their marital status, on a basis of equality of men and women, of human rights and fundamental freedoms in the political, economic, social, cultural, civil or any other field.”
“By accepting the Convention, States commit themselves to undertake a series of measures to end discrimination against women in all forms, including:
- to incorporate the principle of equality of men and women in their legal system, abolish all discriminatory laws and adopt appropriate ones prohibiting discrimination against women;
- to establish tribunals and other public institutions to ensure the effective protection of women against discrimination; and
- to ensure elimination of all acts of discrimination against women by persons, organizations or enterprises.”
- “take all appropriate measures to eliminate discrimination against women in the political and public life of the country.” This includes the right to vote, to hold public office, to “participate in non-governmental organizations and associations concerned with the public and political life of the country” and to “to represent their Governments at the international level and to participate in the work of international organizations”;
- “grant women equal rights with men to acquire, change or retain their nationality”;
- ensure “equal rights with men in the field of education,” including the same opportunities “to participate actively in sports and physical education”;
- “take all appropriate measures to eliminate discrimination against women in the field of employment” including the right to equal remuneration; to social security; to protection of health and safety in working conditions; and to preventing discrimination against women on the grounds of marriage or maternity, including the introduction of “maternity leave with pay or with comparable social benefits without loss of former employment, seniority or social allowances”;
- “eliminate discrimination against women in the field of health care in order to ensure, on a basis of equality of men and women, access to health care services, including those related to family planning”;
- “eliminate discrimination against women in other areas of economic and social life” including ensuring the “right to bank loans, mortgages and other forms of financial credit,” and the “right to participate in recreational activities, sports and all aspects of cultural life”;
- “take all appropriate measures to eliminate discrimination against women in rural areas in order to ensure, on a basis of equality of men and women, that they participate in and benefit from rural development”;
- “accord to women equality with men before the law”; and
- “eliminate discrimination against women in all matters relating to marriage and family relations.”
Canada ratified the Convention on 10 December 1981. The Option Protocol, which recognizes the competence of the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women to receive and consider complaints from individuals or groups, was ratified by Canada on 18 October 2002. A minor declaration by Canada with respect to Article 11 (1) (d) of the Convention, made at the time of ratification, was withdrawn on 28 May 1992.
The implementation of the Convention is monitored by the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW). The Committee is composed of 23 experts nominated by their Governments and elected by the States parties as individuals “of high moral standing and competence in the field covered by the Convention.”
State parties are expected to submit a national report to the Committee within one year after the entry into force for the State concerned and thereafter at least every four years, “indicating the measures they have adopted to give effect to the provisions of the Convention. During its annual session, the Committee members discuss these reports with the Government representatives and explore with them areas for further action by the specific country. The Committee also makes general comments (including recommendations) to the States parties on matters concerning the elimination of discrimination against women.”
Canada submitted combined sixth and seventh periodic reports in May 2007. The reports covered the period from April 1999 to March 2006. A draft outline for the combined eighth and ninth periodic reports (presumably for the period from 2006 to 2013) was circulated by the Department of Canadian Heritage in January 2014 to a limited number of Non-Governmental Organizations for comments, but to date there is no record that the new Canadian reports have been submitted to the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women.
Canada submitted combined eighth and ninth periodic reports in April 2015. The reports covered the period from April 2007 to March 2014. https://tbinternet.ohchr.org/_layouts/15/treatybodyexternal/Download.aspx?symbolno=CEDAW%2fC%2fCAN%2f8-9&Lang=en
In November 2016, the Committee provided its concluding observations with respect to the combined eighth and ninth periodic reports. https://tbinternet.ohchr.org/_layouts/15/treatybodyexternal/Download.aspx?symbolno=CEDAW%2fC%2fCAN%2fCO%2f8-9&Lang=en
The Committee welcomed adoption of new Federal legislation, in particular: Zero Tolerance for Barbaric Cultural Practices Act, in 2015; Protecting Canadians from Online Crime Act, in 2014; Family Homes on Reserves and Matrimonial Interests or Rights Act, in 2013 and amended in 2014; Protection of Communities and Exploited Persons Act, in 2014; and Gender Equity in Indian Registration Act, in 2010.
In addition, the Committee welcomed adoption of the Federal Framework for Aboriginal Economic Development, in 2009; the National Action Plan to Combat Human Trafficking, in 2012; and the Action Plan to Address Family Violence and Violent Crimes against Aboriginal Women and Girls, in 2014 and the reinstatement of the Interim Federal Health Program in 2015 and the Court Challenges Program in 2017.
The Committee identified several areas of concern, including that:
- the provisions of the Convention and Optional Protocol are not sufficiently known in Canada or invoked before courts, nor is the Federal Government ensuring that Provincial/Territorial governments are establishing measures that are fully compliant with the Convention;
- there is “continued discrimination against indigenous women, in particular regarding the transmission of Indian status” and with regard to their access to employment, housing, education and health care;
- financial support for civil legal aid programs has considerably diminished in the past 20 years which has affected women in particular;
- the conduct of transnational companies, in particular mining corporations operating abroad, is negatively impacting the rights of local women and girls;
- there is “the absence of a comprehensive national gender equality strategy, policy and action plan”;
- 12 of the 16 Status of Women Canada regional offices have been closed, which has limited women’s access to services in particular in remote and rural areas;
- there is a “continued high prevalence of gender-based violence against women … in particular against indigenous women and girls” with “low rates of prosecution and conviction and the lenient penalties” and a “lack of shelters, support services and other protective measures for women who are victims”;
- with respect to the national inquiry into missing and murdered indigenous women and girls, measures taken to ensure that all cases are investigated and prosecuted are insufficient and there is a “lack of an explicit assurance of adequate support and protection provided to witnesses”;
- the rates of prosecution and conviction in cases of trafficking in women and girls are low and there are inadequate “mechanisms to identify and refer victims of trafficking in need of protection”;
- there are structural obstacles to the realization of women’s political rights and engagement in public life as reflected by the low representation of women in the Federal, Provincial/Territorial and municipal governments.;
- “women are still concentrated in traditionally female-dominated fields of study and career paths” and are underrepresented in fields such as mathematics, information technology and science”;
- there is a “persistent gender wage gap, in both the public and private sectors, which adversely affects women’s career development and pension benefits, and there is a lack of effective legislation on the principle of equal pay for work of equal value at the federal level, even in the public sector”;
- there is a “lack of affordable childcare facilities and the low use of parental leave by fathers”;
- there are disparities in access to abortion services and to affordable contraceptives;
- sexual harassment is prevalent in the workplace, especially in male-dominated sectors, such as the policing and military environments, and there is a lack of effective measures to deal with such harassment and to inform women of their rights; and
- there is the “continuing presence of male guards in female prisons, which increases the risk of sexual harassment or assault and violates the right to privacy of women in detention”.
The Committee made recommendations as to how Canada could address these concerns. It also requested that Canada provide written information on the steps taken to implement the recommendations within two years and also called upon Canada to use the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action in its efforts to implement the provisions of the Convention.
The Committee also invited Canada to submit its tenth periodic report in November 2020.
Complaint under the Optional Protocol
The Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women received a complaint against Canada in 2008 from Cecelia Kell. The complainant had been involved in a property dispute and had fought to regain her property rights through the Canadian legal system over a period of ten years. “In 2008, contending that she had exhausted all domestic remedies, Kell filed an individual complaint against Canada through the UN Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women, claiming to be the victim of violations of a number of articles of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women.”
In 2012 the “Committee established that Canada, as party to the Convention and its Optional Protocol, had failed to fulfil its obligations under articles 1, 2 and 16 and that it should provide monetary compensation and housing matching what Kell was deprived of. The Committee also recommended recruiting and training more aboriginal women to provide legal assistance, as well as review Canada’s legal system to ensure that aboriginal women victim of domestic violence have effective access to justice.”