Women’s Rights
From Past to Present

Primary Sources


Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of
Discrimination against Women (CEDAW)

“For the purposes of the present Convention, the term "discrimination against women" shall mean 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.”

Article 5: States Parties shall take all appropriate measures:

  • (a) To modify the social and cultural patterns of conduct of men and women, with a view to achieving the elimination of prejudices and customary and all other practices which are based on the idea of the inferiority or the superiority of either of the sexes or on stereotyped roles for men and women;

  • (b) To ensure that family education includes a proper understanding of maternity as a social function and the recognition of the common responsibility of men and women in the upbringing and development of their children, it being understood that the interest of the children is the primordial consideration in all cases.

Article 16 : Parties shall take all appropriate measures to eliminate discrimination against women in all matters relating to marriage and family relations and in particular shall ensure, on a basis of equality of men and women:

  • (a) The same right to enter into marriage;
  • (b) The same right freely to choose a spouse and to enter into marriage only with their free and full consent;

  • (c) The same rights and responsibilities during marriage and at its dissolution;

  • (d) The same rights and responsibilities as parents, irrespective of their marital status, in matters relating to their children; in all cases the interests of the children shall be paramount;

  • (e) The same rights to decide freely and responsibly on the number and spacing of their children and to have access to the information, education and means to enable them to exercise these rights;

  • (f) The same rights and responsibilities with regard to guardianship, wardship, trusteeship and adoption of children, or similar institutions where these concepts exist in national legislation; in all cases the interests of the children shall be paramount;

  • (g) The same personal rights as husband and wife, including the right to choose a family name, a profession and an occupation;
  • (h) The same rights for both spouses in respect of the ownership, acquisition, management, administration, enjoyment and disposition of property, whether free of charge or for a valuable consideration.

The betrothal and the marriage of a child shall have no legal effect, and all necessary action, including legislation, shall be taken to specify a minimum age for marriage and to make the registration of marriages in an official registry compulsory.

Declaration on the Elimination of Violence Against Women

Recognizing that violence against women is a manifestation of historically unequal power relations between men and women, which have led to domination over and discrimination against women by men and to the prevention of the full advancement of women, and that violence against women is one of the crucial social mechanisms by which women are forced into a subordinateposition compared with men.

Article 1: For the purposes of this Declaration, the term "violence against women" means any act of gender-based violence that results in, or is likely to result in, physical, sexual or psychological harm or suffering to women, including threats of such acts, coercion or arbitrary deprivation of liberty, whether occurring in public or in private life.

Article 2: Violence includes:

  • (a) Physical, sexual and psychological violence occurring in the family, including battering, sexual abuse of female children in the household, dowry-related violence, marital rape, female genital mutilation and other traditional practices harmful to women, non-spousal violence and violence related to exploitation;

  • (b) Physical, sexual and psychological violence occurring within the general community, including rape, sexual abuse, sexual harassment and intimidation at work, in educational institutions and elsewhere, trafficking in women and forced prostitution;
  • (c) Physical, sexual and psychological violence perpetrated or condoned by the State, wherever it occurs.

Dowry: Money and/or proerty brought by a bride to her husband at the time of marriage.

Brideprice: payment made by a man to the family from whom he takes a daughter in marriage.

Gender vs. Sex: Gender is the long-used tem in U.N. documents and other international organizations. It has been opposed by some countries and conservative political factions which feel that the term encompasses sexual orientations besideds heterosexuality.

Equity vs. Equality: Equity is used by some countries as bringing fairness or justice, to allow a more conservative interpretation of inheritance, imployment and divorce laws. Equality proponents say that the use of equity suggests that the rights of women are different from or less important than those of men.

Patriarchy: In a patriarchal pattern, the male head of the family has conrol over the destiny, life and death of other members. Historically most world civilizations, but not all, have been based on patriarchal social systems in which within the family, women and children have been considered property. Institutionalzied male supremacy might have risen in Mesopotamia in the 4th millennium, BCE.

Lyn Reese is the author of all the information on this website
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Women in World History Curriculum