This paper examines whether frequent engagement with the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women, the body of independent experts monitoring the implementation of the Convention of the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, is linked to improved compliance with women’s rights commitments. It further explores whether the relationship between treaty body interaction and compliance holds for states that have made reservations to articles concerning women’s rights. Data from state reports submitted to the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women and indicators from the Social Institutions and Gender Index show that frequent engagement with the body is associated with improved equality for women, irrespective of state reservations. The results from this study challenge the idea that reservations undermine global governance regimes and are detrimental to human rights. Finally, this paper illustrates how compliance mechanisms work using a case study from Iraq. Through participation in the report-and-review process, states engage in negotiation around contentious areas of women’s rights with experts, civil society and the public, which facilitates respect for women’s rights.
A central debate in human rights concerns the extent to which human rights treaties improve outcomes on the ground. Several scholars suggest that human rights law has been an important tool in moving states to comply with international human rights norms (Simmons 2009). Skeptics suggest that human rights treaties do little to affect state behavior due to weak compliance mechanisms and low violation costs (Hathaway 2002, Hurst 2015). Yet much of the literature neglects the role of compliance mechanisms like the report-and-review process in influencing state behavior. All major human rights treaties require states to regularly submit reports on treaty implementation for review to treaty-monitoring bodies, which are committees made up of independent human rights experts (Dai 2002). Recent research indicates participation in report-and-review processes led by treaty bodies improves human rights compliance outcomes (Creamer and Simmons 2018; Creamer and Simmons 2019).
However, it is unclear under what conditions engagement with treaty bodies leads to improved outcomes and whether reservations to treaty articles dull the effect. Reservations are declarations made by states when signing or ratifying a treaty, reserving them the right not to abide by certain treaty provisions. Reservations are controversial among human rights defenders, often considered a signal of a state’s unwillingness to comply with international treaties and therefore detrimental to global governance regimes (Committee on the Elimination of Violence Against Women 2009). Yet motivations behind reservations and their effects remain poorly understood.
So far, no research exists that combines what is known about compliance mechanisms and how it affects women’s rights in the family.
Previous studies on women’s rights treaties and outcomes have often focused on women’s political rights (Hathaway 2002; Creamer and Simmons 2018). The Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (hereafter CEDAW or the Women’s Convention) is a radical document because it addresses a controversial part of women’s rights, often relegated to the realm of culture and tradition: women’s rights in the family. So far, no research exists that combines what is known about compliance mechanisms and how it affects women’s rights in the family. In addition, while experts, scholars, state representatives, and activists alike have expressed concern about reservations to core articles of the treaty, no work systematically explores how reservations affect outcomes for women in this domain.
If engagement with the treaty body is what drives compliance with women’s rights commitments, then reservations should not mitigate the positive impact of those interactions. However, if reservations affect participation in the review process, or which areas of women’s rights are discussed during the process, reservations could mitigate the positive effect of treaty body engagement. This paper will contribute to research on women’s rights by quantitatively exploring if engagements with the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women (hereafter CmDAW or the Committee) is associated with equality for women in the family and whether reservations to CEDAW has a detrimental effect on equality in this domain.
Ratification of the CEDAW
The Women’s Convention was adopted in 1979 by the United Nations General Assembly and remains the most ambitious and comprehensive treaty for women’s rights, seeking to end discrimination against women in all domains (Simmons 2009). The treaty embodies a multidimensional conception of equality that includes formal and substantive equality. Formal equality requires that state parties abolish discriminatory laws, while substantive equality focuses on outcomes and women’s experience of equality (Englehart and Miller 2014). The CEDAW emphasizes women’s de facto enjoyment of rights, recognizing that there can be a discrepancy between law and practice. The treaty addresses women’s rights in the public and private spheres, including the home and the family, a historically neglected area of women’s equality in human rights treaties and research. For instance, the CEDAW explicitly asserts women’s reproductive rights, notably the only human rights treaty to do so (Simmons 2009). The treaty recognizes that cultural norms often hinder women from enjoying their human rights and emphasizes that state parties are obliged to modify social and cultural patterns to eliminate bias and practices that harm women.
The near universal ratification of the treaty is notable: more states have become party to the Women’s Convention than the two oldest and most foundational human rights covenants.
The near universal ratification of the treaty is notable: more states have become party to the Women’s Convention than the two oldest and most foundational human rights covenants. The CEDAW has 189 state parties, in comparison to the 173 state parties to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the 170 parties to the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights 2014). Table 1 shows a map of the world by CEDAW ratification, highlighting the two states that have signed but not ratified (the United States and Palau) and states that have taken no action (Somalia, Sudan, Iran, Holy See, Tonga, and Niue).
While ratification of the CEDAW is nearly universal, reservations to provisions and whole articles of the treaty are abundant. As defined by the Vienna Convention, a reservation is any statement made by a state representative when ratifying a treaty that “purports to exclude or to modify the legal effect of certain provisions of the treaty in their application to that State” (United Nations General Assembly 1969). While a state has the right to make reservations to articles or provisions, these reservations are deemed impermissible if they are incompatible with the fundamental aims of the treaty. Reservations are often considered a public declaration of the state’s intention to only partly implement a particular section of a treaty or to avoid implementing all together. After the Convention of the Rights of the Child, the CEDAW is the human rights treaty with the most reservations: there are 108 non-technical reservations to the CEDAW (Cho 2013). Against this backdrop, scholars have argued that reservations to the CEDAW are problematic, as they indicate that many states are party to the treaty without truly committing themselves to its goal: achieving equality for women. For instance, Keller argues that “reservations purport to allow states to become parties in name only, while not requiring crucial changes in the country’s laws or society’s practices.” (Keller 2014).
The usual suspect: Article 16
Article 16 has the highest number of state reservations and concerns women’s rights in the family (Freeman 2009). It addresses rights in marriage and divorce, as well as rights concerning work, children, property ownership and inheritance, and family planning. Specifically, Article 16(e) mentions the right for women “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.” (United Nations General Assembly 1979). The most common reason for state parties to reserve the rights in Article 16 cite Sharia law as regulating affairs concerning marriage, divorce, and custody (Freeman 2009).
The tools and compliance mechanisms of the CEDAW
Each of the nine core human rights treaties have a body made up of independent experts that monitors compliance with the treaty. The Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women (hereafter CmDAW, to avoid confusion with the treaty abbreviation CEDAW) is made up of 23 experts on women’s rights from around the world elected by the state parties to the Women’s Convention. The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) provides secretariat services for the independent experts.
The CEDAW mandates state parties to submit a report on the legislative, judicial, and administrative measures they have taken to implement the treaty one year after ratification and every four years thereafter or at the request of the CmDAW (UN Women 2020). The reports are taken under consideration by the Committee. The CmDAW convenes three times per year and during these sessions state representatives present their reports to the Committee on a rotating basis. The initial report from each country is meant to describe the status of women in the country, and subsequent reports are intended to build on the initial one, noting trends in women’s equality and obstacles to treaty implementation. The Committee members may ask for clarification, and state representatives are given time to respond. After considering the state party’s report, the Committee formulates concluding comments that include positive developments, areas of concern, and recommendations for implementing the treaty going forward.
Critics have emphasized the shortcomings of self-reporting as a means to ensure treaty implementation; critiques include the lack of expertise among “expert committees,” the backlog in reporting, the varying quality of reports, and that countries simply ignore the recommendations (Creamer and Simmons 2018). While state parties are expected to report every fourth year following their initial report, in reality, there is a significant backlog of submissions. Capacity issues can make reporting to various treaty bodies burdensome and states express concerns about “reporting fatigue.” To ease the burden, the Committee has allowed state parties to submit combined periodic reports. However, delays are still widespread: an estimated 67 reports are currently delayed, suggesting that timely reporting is not a state priority. Despite severe backlogs, all state parties but two have submitted their initial reports to the CmDAW (Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights 2020).
Complementary reports from civil society organizations (CSOs) help challenge bogus reports, proving an important avenue for strengthening the report-and-review mechanism. National and international CSOs can provide oral or written information on the state parties before the Committee. CSOs are encouraged to submit so-called “shadow reports,” which are distributed to Committee members and made public to complement state reports (United Nations Division for the Advancement of Women 2020). These reports are particularly useful in cases where governments are unwilling to self-report on actual conditions. They are frequently used in follow-up questions to the state representatives and the Committee members rely on them to make their final recommendations.
General recommendations, while not a compliance mechanism per se, are tools the CmDAW uses to draw attention to specific areas of women’s rights. The CmDAW has issued a total of 38 recommendations as of 2020, ranging from topics like equality in marriage and family relations to trafficking of women and girls in the context of global migration. States are encouraged to address these issues in their reports (Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights 2019).
Inquiry and complaints procedures
In 1999, the UN General Assembly adopted the Optional Protocol to CEDAW, which established inquiry and complaints procedures, allowing the Committee to hear complaints from individuals or launch inquiries into “grave or systematic violations” of the Women’s Convention (United Nations General Assembly 1999). Only 114 of the 189 state parties to CEDAW have ratified the Optional Protocol to date (Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights 2014). Since the Optional Protocol was implemented in 2000, the CmDAW has issued jurisprudence on 38 cases of individual complaints (Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights 2021). Areas include domestic violence and forced sterilization. CmDAW has also launched inquiries in six countries on issues like the systematic killing of women in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico. Individuals, CSOs, or state parties can bring cases to the Committee if domestic remedies have been exhausted. If the Committee finds that the state has violated the Convention, it transmits recommendations to both the state and the complainant. The state needs to provide a written response to the Committee within six months after receiving the recommendations, outlining their progress.
Treaty ratification and compliance with women’s rights
Much of the literature on human rights regimes focuses on the relationship between treaty ratification and human rights outcomes. For instance, Oona Hathaway, one of the most influential international law scholars, explores the effectiveness of human rights treaties in improving outcomes. On average, Hathaway finds that treaty ratification does not lead to better human rights outcomes (Hathaway 2002). Hathaway looks at state ratification of the 1954 Convention on the Political Rights of Women to explore how it affected political equality for women, finding that treaty ratification has no significant effect on political equality for women. Hathaway argues that the lack of compliance mechanisms in human rights law is central to the regime’s failure to improve human rights outcomes. However, her research focuses on CEDAW's predecessor and therefore does not consider compliance mechanisms like the report-and-review process. More recently, Beth Simmons explored how CEDAW ratification affects equality for women, focusing on education, reproductive rights, and employment. Conversely to Hathaway, for all three indicators, Simmons finds that CEDAW ratification has a positive impact on women’s equality (Simmons 2009).
CEDAW compliance mechanisms and women’s rights
Creamer and Simmons attempt to fill the knowledge gap on the mechanism that links treaty ratification and state compliance by exploring the impact of the report-and-review process on human rights outcomes. The authors argue that self-reporting to treaty bodies contributes to compliance by improving access to information domestically, which results in the mobilization of domestic groups that put pressure on the state to improve compliance (Creamer and Simmons 2019). Specifically, the international review process triggers the mobilization of civil society, generates media attention which increases citizens' expectations of compliance, and leads to legislative deliberation over the CmDAW recommendations. Simmons and Creamer suggest that self-reporting provides useful tools for domestic stakeholders: “Self-reporting is important not because it completely reorients human rights, but rather because it sets in motion processes that cumulatively nudge implementation and practice in the right direction.” (Creamer and Simmons 2019, 1054).
The report-and-review process puts women’s rights on national agendas and encourages local actors to demand change.
In the case of the CEDAW, the authors conclude that cumulative reporting through periodic review has a modest yet statistically significant positive effect on women’s rights. The report-and-review process puts women’s rights on national agendas and encourages local actors to demand change. The mechanism involves local and international civil society organizations (CSOs) that follow the process closely and provide supplementary information to the treaty bodies and demand change domestically. This occurs in tandem with increased media reporting on women’s rights during the review period, which leads domestic legislatures to factor in CmDAW recommendations in the law-making process. While one might assume that the review process goes unnoticed in mainstream media, Simmons and Creamer find evidence supporting substantial media interest: “Far from finding that no one pays attention to this process outside the halls of Geneva, in Latin America at least the review process literally piques the media’s—and potentially the public’s—interest.” (Creamer and Simmons 2018, 37). In their Latin American case study, the authors find that each engagement in the report-and-review process is followed by an uptick in media mentions of the CEDAW, suggesting a link between state participation, public awareness, and mobilization. Their theory lays the groundwork for how compliance mechanisms improve women’s rights but fails to factor in the role of reservations.
The relationship between reservations and compliance
Compared to treaty ratification and compliance, fairly little scholarly attention has been paid to the role of reservations in compliance with human rights treaties (Zvobgo, Sandholtz, and Mulesky 2020). The literature on the relationship between reservations and compliance can broadly be divided into two perspectives. The position held by CmDAW maintains that reservations are problematic and signal an unwillingness on behalf of state parties to implement the necessary domestic legal, administrative, and substantive changes to fully comply with treaty obligations. CmDAW has invoked the impermissibility principle for reservations to Article 16, arguing that reservations to core articles are incompatible with the goals of the CEDAW. Specifically, the Committee suggest reservations to the core articles, “…whether lodged for national, traditional, religious or cultural reasons, are incompatible with the Convention and therefore impermissible,” (Committee on the Elimination of Violence Against Women 2009) yet 34 state reservations remain (Freeman 2009). In line with this perspective, Simmons (2009) finds that democracies are less likely to make reservations than non-democracies. She attributes this to preferences; democracies are less likely to make reservations, because they are aligned with the content of human rights treaties.
The competing perspective suggests state parties who make reservations take their obligations seriously and are committed to complying with human rights treaties. Goldsmith and Posner (2006) argue that authoritarian states are less likely than democracies to issue reservations, because they have no intent to comply with the treaty in the first place. Particularly, the low cost of non-compliance with human rights treaties allows authoritarian states to ratify treaties without making reservations. Their idea on the motivation behind reservations aligns with the logic of sincere ratifiers and strategic ratifiers: the former join treaties because they value their content and anticipate compliance, while the latter ratify to reap immediate diplomatic rewards or avoid criticism, predicting low compliance costs in the future (Simmons 2009). Neumayer (2007) explores the characteristics of states with reservations to six core human rights treaties and finds that liberal democracies tend to have more, not fewer, reservations to human rights treaties. However, this was not the case for CEDAW, which raises questions about the role of reservations and compliance with women’s rights. Neither perspective seems to fit the CEDAW pattern of reservations.
These studies suggest that states selectively apply reservations to specific provisions of treaties to avoid having to implement costly changes, where domestic laws are laxer, and courts are likely to enforce the obligations.
Different regression models could explain part of the divergent results of Simmons and Neumayer. Notably, Simmons controls for GDP per capita, while Neumayer does not. Simmons consistently finds that reservations are “the prerogative of the rich” as the higher a country’s per capita GDP, the more likely it is to enter a reservation upon ratification. It takes resources to comb through legal treaties and find conflicts with domestic law, and democracies are, on average, wealthier than non-democracies, which could explain part of the relationship between democracies and reservations captured by Neumayer.
Other scholars argue that states enter reservations to prevent costly legal obligations. Hill (2016) rejects the idea that reservations relate to regime type, suggesting instead that they are driven by expectations that human rights treaties will be enforced by domestic courts. Hill finds that states are more likely to use reservations when treaty provisions are stricter than domestic law, and domestic courts are powerful and likely to enforce the treaty. A reservation “…allows governments to have it both ways, expressing commitment to widely shared norms about human rights while avoiding the legal consequences of ratification” (Hill 2016, 1150). In a similar vein, Zvobgo, Sandholtz, and Mulesky (2020) suggest that factors at the treaty provision level can affect the likelihood that a state will enter reservations. Specifically, states are more likely to reserve against provisions that are more demanding, qualified as provisions that contain obligations that are strong, precise, and require domestic action. Combined, these studies suggest that states selectively apply reservations to specific provisions of treaties to avoid having to implement costly changes, where domestic laws are laxer, and courts are likely to enforce the obligations. This theory seems to fit the CEDAW case, since reservations are most frequently applied to Article 16, which contains provisions that are strong and precise. Countries with weak domestic law in these areas should be most likely to enter reservations to avoid costly legal changes.
This paper focuses primarily on whether repeat engagement with the CEDAW treaty body CmDAW predicts compliance with the Women’s Convention in the domain of the family. Secondly, it aims to establish if failure to report to the CmDAW and non-compliance with the treaty is more widespread among states that maintain reservations to Article 16, which specifically concerns women’s rights in the family. Finally, the paper will evaluate whether reservations mitigate the effect of interactions with CmDAW.
Using data on state reports provided to CmDAW, the paper draws on the methodology of Creamer and Simmons to assess whether the number of state reports provided to the Committee predicts women’s equality in the family. The number of reports is a proxy for the quantity of engagements states have had with the Committee, as each report is followed by review and recommendations. A limitation is that this model does not account for the quality of state reports. Creamer and Simmons included a measure for report quality, developed through scrutinizing state reports, which adds a dimension of richness to their analysis that this paper lacks. However, this paper hopes to tackle the issue of entirely bogus reports by adding a variable for shadow reports submitted by CSOs. The idea is that shadow reports prevent states from getting away with false reporting. The dataset includes the available data on shadow reports submitted to the Committee since 2012, limited to the reports submitted specifically for the periodic review sessions.
The focus on Article 16 allows for state reservations to be connected with specific outcomes for women that are tied to the rights in the article.
The scope of this paper is women’s rights explicitly mentioned in Article 16 of the CEDAW, including rights concerning marriage, divorce, property, and reproductive autonomy. The focus on Article 16 allows for state reservations to be connected with specific outcomes for women that are tied to the rights in the article. The OECD Development Centre’s Social Institutions and Gender Index (SIGI) is a cross-country measure of discrimination against women in social institutions, including formal and informal laws, social norms, and practices across 180 countries (Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development 2019). The paper uses a metric of women’s equality composed of four SIGI indicators weighted equally: laws regarding child marriage, reproductive autonomy, divorce, and inheritance. For more details about the outcome variable, see Appendix 2. All 189 CEDAW signatories were included in the baseline analysis, however some were lacking complete indicator data from the SIGI dataset and were therefore dropped from the regression analysis.  The lack of complete data is a shortcoming of the dataset, which disproportionately excludes small nations. Unfortunately, many human rights datasets lack indicators for some of the world’s smallest nations. Sensitivity analysis with imputed median values for the outcome variable did not affect results.
In the following regression, the dependent variable women’s equality is an index of equality in country i composed of the four variables child marriage, reproductive autonomy, inheritance, and divorce, weighted equally. The basic model uses the explanatory variables β1, equal to the number of state reports submitted to CEDAW by country i, and β2, a dummy variable equal to one if country i has at least one reservation to Article 16 of CEDAW and zero otherwise.
Model (1) Women’s equality.ι = β0 + β1 * state reports.ι + β2 *reservations.ι
The intermediate model adds covariates β3, representing the logged GDP per capita in country i, as well as β4, a dummy variable equal to one if Islam is the official or preferred state religion in country i and zero otherwise.
Model (2) Women’s equality.ι = β0 + β1 * state reports.ι + β2 *reservations.ι + β3 * l.GDP_capita.ι + β4 * Islam.ι
Finally, the advanced model contains covariates for logged population size, level of democracy, the year of CEDAW ratification, and the number of shadow reports submitted by CSOs pertaining to country i.
Model (3) Women’s equality.ι = β0 + β1 * state reports.ι + β2 *reservations.ι + β3 * l.GDP capita.ι + β4 * Islam.ι + β5 * democracy.ι + β6 * ratification year.ι β7 * shadow reports.ι
Introducing relevant covariates to the multiple regression model is necessary to avoid picking up outcomes attributable to state characteristics rather than the review-and-report process. Building on Creamer and Simmons, the model introduces logged GDP per capita and logged population size as covariates, since they found those variables correlate strongly with likelihood of reporting to CmDAW in a given year (Creamer and Simmons 2019, 41). Effectively, the larger and richer a polity, the more likely countries are to report to CmDAW. Given the high number of reservations referring to Sharia as the basis for law relating to family, the model uses a covariate for whether the state has Islam as an official or unofficial but preferred religion according to Pew Research Center (Masci 2017). As an example, neither Syria and Turkey have Islam as the official state religion, but their governments favor Islam over other religions, which is why they qualify as having Islam as an unofficial but preferred religion in this index. In addition, democracy generally promotes government respect for human rights. Therefore, the model controls for level of democracy using the Polity V index (Center for Systemic Peace 2017). Since the time of treaty ratification may predict the number of engagements a state party has had with CmDAW, the model controls for years since ratification. Finally, since a country with substantial shadow reporting by CSOs is less likely to submit bogus reports, the number of shadow reports is included in the model.
The findings draw on descriptive data on women’s equality in the family grouped by committee interactions and reservations, as well as multiple regression with relevant covariates to establish if the findings are statistically significant. The paper does not make causal claims but uses statistical inference to understand the relationship between compliance mechanisms, reservations, and women’s rights better.
Findings and Discussion
Finding 1: States with reservations are richer, have Islam as state religion, and have spent fewer years in the treaty
As seen in Figure 2, compared to states without reservations, states with reservations are likely to be richer, have Islam as state religion, and joined the treaty later in time. States with reservations have spent an average of 26 years in the treaty, compared to 31 years for states without reservations. The relationship between democracy and reservations seems to be tenuous. On its own, democracy has a negative but only borderline statistically significant (p-value: 0.055) relationship with reservations, i.e., democracies are less likely to have reservations than non-democracies. However, once we combine the democracy variable with controls for GDP per capita and Islam as state religion, which are strong positive and negative correlates of democracy respectively, the relationship is no longer significant. GDP per capita and Islam as state religion seem to be the strongest predictors of states having reservations, which provides evidence for the idea that reservations are “the prerogative of the rich” and makes sense given the high number of countries referencing Sharia when introducing reservations.
Finding 2: Reservations do not affect the likelihood of engaging with the treaty body
There is no difference in the frequency of reporting between the states with reservations and states without reservations (p-value = 0.953). This finding runs counter to the idea that states with reservations are less committed to implementing the treaty, since they are equally likely to report their progress and engage with the committee monitoring the implementation. If engagement drives compliance, like Creamer and Simmons suggest, and engagement is not impacted by reservations, then the effect of reservations on outcomes for women’s rights is likely to be limited.
However, there is a concern about the quality of state reports. Quantity of state reports constitutes a somewhat blunt tool, which alone is not necessarily a sign of commitment to human rights norms. Some countries submit clearly bogus reports. For instance, the 2002 initial CEDAW report from North Korea stipulates that “…the content of and the guarantees for sex equality have ceaselessly been developed and enriched. Equality between men and women has been realized in such a degree that the word “discrimination against women” sounds unfamiliar to people now.” (sic) (Democratic People Republic of Korea 2002). However, such bogus or misleading reports are rare and frequently challenged by international and domestic CSOs in shadow reports, which limits states’ ability to present faulty information to the committee. Between 2012 and 2021, 184 out of the 189 CEDAW member states reports were complemented by reports from civil society.  An average of 11 reports has been submitted for each state party, demonstrating that shadow reporting is a regular occurrence. In addition, shadow reporting has a strong positive correlation with state reporting (correlation coefficient 0.56), suggesting that shadow reports work in tandem with state reports as part of the compliance mechanism. As suggested by the National Democratic Institute, “…a carefully documented shadow report is a powerful tool. It offers civil society an official platform to review information the state presented, assess its accuracy, and provide the CEDAW Committee with additional information it needs to address specific gaps in state policies and specific barriers to women’s full equality in public and private life” (National Democratic Institute 2021).
Finding 3: Reservations are associated with less equality for women in the family
Comparatively, the states with reservations to Article 16 in this dataset are significantly more unequal for women than the states without reservations, as illustrated in Figure 3 below. States without reservations score 0.62 on the equality index, compared to 0.4 for states with reservations. This descriptive data demonstrates a strong relationship between reservations to Article 16 and outcomes for women’s rights.
In the multiple regression model, we observe a strong negative relationship between reservations and women’s equality. Figure 4 shows that having at least one reservation to Article 16 is associated with a substantial and statistically significant negative effect on women’s equality. This finding confirms a difference in human rights outcomes based on reservations, specifically that reservations to Article 16 are a clear indicator of a country’s compliance with the part of the treaty that relates to women’s equality in the family. However, it is not clear why this difference exists; the results could reflect that countries with more inequality in this area have chosen to make reservations, or that reservations serve as a justification for not improving in this domain. It aligns with the idea that states with weak laws for women’s equality in the family are more likely to make reservations.
Finding 4: States interacting more with CmDAW have more equality for women
Frequent engagement with the treaty body process is associated with increased equality for women. Figure 4 shows that each submitted state report is associated with a modest yet statistically significant positive effect on women’s equality. Participation in the report-and-review process seems to benefit women’s equality, regardless of reservations. The relationship holds in both the basic and intermediate models. However, the effect of reporting is reduced once GDP per capita is introduced in the intermediate model and is no longer significant in the advanced model. GDP per capita has a strong positive relationship with both women’s equality and the number of state reports. While more interactions with the treaty body seem to be associated with better outcomes, these effects may be driven by underlying characteristics that make states more likely to engage with the treat body in the first place, like wealth, which has a clear impact on reporting capacity. Islam is linked to a strong and persistent negative effect on women’s equality. Neither population size, regime type, nor the number of shadow reports seem to impact women’s equality.
Figure 5 illustrates the levels of equality for women in the family by interactions with the CmDAW report-and-review process. Countries are banded into three categories based on the number of reports they have submitted to the treaty body. As of April 2020, 61 out of the 189 countries in the dataset have submitted zero to two reports and are categorized as states with “few interactions” with the CmDAW. 86 countries have submitted three or four reports, which is counted as “several interactions,” and 42 countries have submitted five or more reports and are thus considered to have had “many interactions.” The figure demonstrates that countries with many interactions are most equal, and conversely, that countries with few interactions are least equal, which indicates a positive relationship between CmDAW interactions and women’s equality.
Finding 5: Reservations do not mitigate the impact of the report-and-review process
The effect associated with repeat engagements with the treaty body does not impact states with and without reservations differently. The relationship outlined in Figure 4 holds even for countries with reservations to Article 16. Countries with many interactions with CmDAW tend to be more equal on average, while countries with few interactions are less equal, even when countries are grouped by reservations to Article 16. Figure 5 illustrates the relationship between participating in the report-and-review process and women’s equality in the family, broken down into countries with and without reservations to Article 16.
Repeat engagement with the Committee is associated with better outcomes for women’s equality for state parties with and without reservations alike. The results indicate that reservations to core articles like Article 16 do not hinder effective participation in the report-and-review process. However, it also clearly demonstrates the negative relationship between reservations and equality, at each level of treaty body engagement.
Do reservations matter for women’s equality?
The findings above highlight a tension concerning reservations: states with reservations are less equal than states without reservations, yet more CmDAW interactions are associated with better outcomes for women, irrespective of reservations. The tension elicits the question: do reservations matter? If states with reservations are just as likely to participate in the report-and-review process, and the effects of repeat engagement with the treaty body are equivalent to those of states without reservations, perhaps they are irrelevant. The results challenge the perspective that reservations are detrimental to women’s rights. Rather than willingness to comply with women’s rights, reservations seem to signal a country’s starting point. States well on their way to fulfilling the treaty commitments have little reason to make a reservation, whereas states far from the goal are more likely to want to modify their obligations under the treaty.
Why do rich countries with high levels of inequality for women make reservations, while poor ones do not? A key factor explaining the results is the relationship between reservations and GDP per capita.
Why do rich countries with high levels of inequality for women make reservations, while poor ones do not? A key factor explaining the results is the relationship between reservations and GDP per capita. Richer countries are on average more equal for women, yet more likely to make reservations. However, the use of reservations is primarily prevalent within a small subset of rich countries with high inequality for women, many of them with Islam as official or preferred state religion. The pattern seems to best fit the theories suggested by Zvobgo et al. and Hill arguing that states make reservations to demanding provisions where domestic law is lax, to avoid costly legal changes. Poorer countries may simply lack the capacity to identify which areas of the treaty are more likely to result in compliance costs in the future.
Global governance regimes like the CEDAW rely on self-enforcement with a limited set of tools and compliance mechanisms at their disposal. Critiques of CEDAW’s compliance mechanisms rest on the idea that self-reporting allows states to avoid discussing and acting on human rights issues. Such critique disregards two important parts of the mechanisms: interactions with experts and civil society and the public nature of these interactions. While the compliance intentions of states making reservations remain opaque, an interesting question is whether reservations allow states a reprieve from scrutiny by precluding constructive dialogue on the reserved provisions.
There is evidence suggesting reservations lead to frequent debate by the Committee, women's rights organizations, and the media. Freeman’s qualitative research on CEDAW reservations finds that reservations may actually signal a willingness to engage in dialogue by “remaining in the conversation” (Freeman 2009, pi). Freeman finds that states often continue to report progress on provisions with reservations. In addition, CmDAW has been pressuring states to withdraw reservations since the mid-90s, which has caught the attention of the media and civil society organizations. Reservations can become pressure points that generate increased public scrutiny, rather than granting states leeway in implementation.
Compliance Mechanisms in Practice: The Case of the Iraqi Women Network
To understand how the compliance mechanisms of CEDAW play out in practice, one must look beyond ratification and outcomes, and instead follow the discussions that engagement with the CmDAW generates among stakeholders. Rather than a magic wand that improves human rights outcomes, “…the process of self-reporting sets off an empirical discussion of practices, accomplishments, and continued shortcomings among state representatives, civil society organizations, and international experts” (Creamer and Simmons 2019, 1053).
The example of Iraq demonstrates how reservations can catch the eye of CSOs, and how they leverage the report-and-review process as an opportunity to draw international attention to domestic issues. Specifically, the Iraqi reservation states that “Approval of and accession to this Convention shall not mean that the Republic of Iraq is bound by the provisions of article 2, paragraphs (f) and (g), of article 9, paragraphs 1 and 2, nor of article 16 of the Convention. The reservation to this last-mentioned article shall be without prejudice to the provisions of the Islamic Shariah according women rights equivalent to the rights of their spouses so as to ensure a just balance between them” (Krivenko 2009, 123).
The Iraqi Women Network, a coalition of more than 100 local Iraqi CSOs, submitted their first shadow report to CmDAW in 2014, the first one ever by a domestic organization in Iraq. The report argued for Iraq to withdraw its reservation to Article 16 and challenged the official state report’s reference to a particular part of Iraqi legal code as a justification for their reservation by presenting alternative interpretations of Islamic law (Iraqi Women Network 2014). The CmDAW concluding remarks on the 2014 review of Iraq also recommended that Iraq withdraw their reservation to Article 16.
Five years later, during the next review in 2019, the Iraqi Women Network published another shadow report, in which they followed-up on the CmDAW recommendation from 2014 (Iraqi Women Network 2019). They pointed out that Iraq has yet to take action on this recommendation and urged them to do so immediately. Representatives from the Network worked with Geneva-based international CSO Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom to draft the report and attend the 2019 review in Geneva in person, so that CSO representatives could address the Committee verbally (WILPF International 2020). This adds another dimension to the report-and-review process: a highly public setting with media present, where state representatives (often the country’s diplomats) have to answer to the information and recommendations presented by CSOs. This is particularly relevant for countries that lack such transparent fora for engagement domestically.
Rather than protect states from scrutiny, reservations draw the attention of experts and CSOs, leading to more, rather than less, pressure on the reserved areas of the treaty.
In this manner, the Committee and CSOs effectively sandwich state parties and lobby for change on multiple fronts. In this interplay, they draw on one another’s recommendations and arguments, even on matters relating to reserved articles. Rather than protect states from scrutiny, reservations draw the attention of experts and CSOs, leading to more, rather than less, pressure on the reserved areas of the treaty. The finding explains why reservations do not mitigate the positive effects of the report-and-review process and in the end, may not protect states from compliance costs.
Policy Implications and Conclusions
States’ iterative interactions with CmDAW are associated with marginal positive effects on women’s equality in the family, irrespective of reservations to Article 16. This finding suggests that even in a highly contentious domain of women’s equality, the CEDAW’s compliance mechanisms facilitate constructive dialogue around women’s rights and, ultimately, compliance. Shadow reporting seems to be a significant mechanism in this relationship that requires further scrutiny. State characteristics like wealth appear to play an important role in driving reporting, which is why further examination of why states choose to engage with treaty bodies is necessary.
Reservations signal awareness that compliance with a specific article requires costly legal changes.
Much focus of both ratification of treaties and reservations in human rights has centered around states’ intent to comply with human rights norms. By adding insights about how compliance mechanisms connect to human rights outcomes, this paper questions whether such a focus on states’ intentions to comply is warranted. The results challenge the idea that reservations signal unwillingness to engage in discussion with the treaty body on reserved rights. Rather, reservations signal awareness that compliance with a specific article requires costly legal changes. Yet through continued participation in the multifaceted report-and-review process, states engage in negotiation around contentious areas of women’s rights with experts, civil society, and the public, which leaves the door open for meaningful change. The case study highlights how reservations become pressure points that cause increased scrutiny. Similar to Freeman’s qualitative study on reservations, this paper finds quantitative evidence to support that “…undesirable as they are, the entry of reservations does not negate the value of ratification and can provide opportunities for meaningful dialogue on key issues and, ultimately, increased implementation of the Convention’s equality norms.” (Freeman 2009, ii)
CEDAW promotes state compliance with women’s rights, regardless of state intent to comply with the commitments of the treaty and reservations made at ratification. This implies that the international community should focus on the effects of ratification and reservations, rather than state intent, as the latter may be less relevant to women’s rights.
*This article was edited by Kelsi Caywood (Stanford University), Rebecca Gorin (Princeton University), and Susan Ragheb (Princeton University).
Ellinore Ahlgren is completing a Master’s in Public Affairs at Princeton University, focusing on International Development. She is the co-chair of the Gender and Policy Network at the School of Public and International Affairs. She has a longstanding interest in human rights, having worked with and written about the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva. She can be reached at email@example.com.
Ellinore would like to thank her JPIA editing team for their feedback and suggestions on this research paper. In addition, she would like to thank Professor Andrea Vilán for her guidance and encouragement. Finally, she would like to thank Harrison Diamond Pollock for support with the quantitative side of the paper.
1. Specifically, 172 of 189 state parties to the Women’s Convention had complete data on all indicators. For the analysis, countries with incomplete data were dropped. They were primarily small nations and include Andorra, Burundi, Cook Islands, Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, Kiribati, Liechtenstein, Marshall Islands, Micronesia, Monaco, Nauru, San Marino, St. Kitts and Nevis, St. Lucia, St. Vincent and the Grenadines, Suriname, Seychelles, Tuvalu and Vanuatu. The countries share the characteristic of having a significantly smaller population than the rest of the sample, but there are no indications that they differ in ways that affect women’s equality.
2. The only exceptions were five small island nations: Belize, San Marino, Sao Tome and Principe, Saint Kitts and Nevis and Saint Lucia. This points to capacity issues.
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Appendix 1: Article 16 of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women
1. States 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.
2. 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.
Appendix 2: Indicators on inequality in the family
Source: Information about variables and data sources for the SIGI 2019, OECD Development Centre, Social Institutions and Gender Index
Laws on child marriage
Whether women and men have the same legal minimum age of marriage
0: The law guarantees the same minimum age of marriage above 18 years to women and men, without legal exceptions regarding either consent or some groups of women. Customary, religious and traditional laws or practices do not encourage girl child marriage.
0.25: The minimum age of marriage might be different for men and women, but it is above 18 years, without legal exceptions regarding either consent or some groups of women. However, some customary, religious and traditional laws or practices encourage girl child marriage.
0.5: The minimum age of marriage might be different for men and women, but it is above 18 years. However, legal exceptions exist regarding consent and/or some groups of women.
0.75: The law allows child marriage for both women and men or there is no legal age of marriage for women nor men.
1: The law allows child marriage for women but not for men.
Source: SIGI country profiles
Laws on inheritance
Whether women and men have the same legal rights to inheritance of land and non-land assets.
0: Widows and daughters enjoy the same rights as widowers and sons to inherit land and non-land assets. This applies to all groups of women. Customary, religious and traditional laws or practices do not discriminate against women’s inheritance rights.
0.25: Widows and daughters enjoy the same rights as widowers and sons to inherit land and non-land assets. This applies to all groups of women. However, there are some customary, religious or traditional laws that discriminate against women’s inheritance rights.
0.5: Widows and daughters enjoy the same rights as widowers and sons to inherit land and non-land assets. However, this does not apply to all groups of women.
0.75: Widows or daughters do not enjoy the same rights as widowers and sons to inherit land and/or non-land assets
1: Widows and daughters do not enjoy the same rights as widowers and sons to inherit land and/or non-land assets
Source: SIGI Country Profiles
Laws on divorce
Whether women and men have the same legal rights to initiate divorce and have the same requirements for divorce or annulment.
0: Women have both the same rights to initiate divorce and the same requirements to finalize divorce or annulment as men, without negative repercussions on their parental authority. This applies to all groups of women. Customary, religious and traditional laws or practices do not discriminate against women’s rights regarding divorce or parental authority after divorce.
0.25: Women have both the same rights to initiate divorce and the same requirements to finalize divorce or annulment as men, without negative repercussions on their parental authority. This applies to all groups of women. However, there are some customary, religious or traditional laws or practices that discriminate against women’s rights regarding divorce and/or parental authority after divorce.
0.5: Women have both the same rights to initiate divorce and the same requirements to finalize divorce or annulment as men, without negative repercussions on their parental authority. However, this does not apply to all groups of women.
0.75: Women do not have the same rights over divorce as men: either their rights to initiate divorce and/or the requirements to finalize divorce or annulment are unequal, or their parental authority after divorce is restricted.
1: Women do not have the same rights over divorce as men: their rights to initiate divorce and/or the requirements to finalize divorce or annulment are unequal, and their parental authority after divorce is restricted.
Source: SIGI Country Profiles
Laws on reproductive autonomy
Whether the legal framework protects women’s reproductive health and rights
0: The legal framework protects women’s reproductive health and rights in case of unwanted pregnancy, without any justifications.
0.25: The legal framework protects women’s reproductive health and rights in case of unwanted pregnancy, but requires justifications.
0.5: The legal framework only protects women’s reproductive health and rights in case of unwanted pregnancy with some justifications.
0.75: The legal framework only protects women’s reproductive health and rights in case of unwanted pregnancy with strict justifications.
1: The legal framework does not protect women’s reproductive health and rights in case of unwanted pregnancy.
Source: SIGI Country Profiles
Figure 2. Measurements used for women’s equality in the family*
Whether women and men have the same legal minimum age of marriage
Whether the legal framework protects women’s reproductive health and rights
Whether women and men have the same legal rights to initiate divorce and have the same requirements for divorce or annulment
Whether women and men have the same legal rights to inheritance of land and non-land assets
Women’s Equality in the Family
Composite metric of all listed outcome variables
0-1, each outcome variable weighted as 0.25
*Note that the scale was inverted, so that one equals complete equality and zero complete inequality.