Commemoration of the 40th anniversary of the CEDAW

18 December 2019

Remarks by UNFPA Executive Director Dr. Natalia Kanem at the Commemoration of the 40th anniversary of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women at UN Headquarters [as delivered].


Distinguished Delegates,

Dear sisters, co-panelists and friends,

Buenas tardes, bienvenidas bienvenidos. It is a pleasure to see so many here who have long been associated with the Committee on the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW). Others are with us in spirit. I thank the Vice Chairs for their presence among us and Rhoda Reddock, Esther Eghobamien and others on the Committee.

2019 marks the 40th anniversary of CEDAW. It also marks the 50th anniversary of the founding of UNFPA, and the 25th anniversary of the International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD). Three historic milestones for women’s rights.

As we celebrate, we look ahead to the 25th anniversary of the Beijing World Conference on Women next year. We have an opportunity to embrace synergies between these landmark documents, to reflect on achievements and accelerate efforts to finish the unfinished business overdue for women and girls.

These synergies have always been clear. Speaking at the Cairo Conference in 1994, then CEDAW Chair Ivanka Corti emphasized that the ICPD Plan of Action was fully in accordance with the articles of the Convention. She noted that it “reaffirms the fact that women should have, on the basis of equality, the same rights as men to decide freely and responsibly on the number and spacing of their children”.

Two years later, UNFPA brought together the Chairs of the human rights treaty bodies, including CEDAW, to strengthen understanding and bring attention to reproductive rights in their monitoring of State Parties. This proactive engagement has been instrumental in expanding the normative framework and accountability for sexual and reproductive health and rights.

Just last year, the Committee developed General Recommendation 35 on Gender Based Violence, very importantly recognizing violations of sexual and reproductive health and rights, and harmful practices, as forms of gender-based violence. In expanding the normative definition of gender-based violence, this Recommendation bolsters our efforts to end child marriage, female genital mutilation and all forms of gender-based violence.

As a legally binding instrument, CEDAW is critical to advance accountability for State Action on the ICPD Programme of Action.

Today as we celebrate what has been achieved since 1979, we must also recognize that the vision of CEDAW is still far from reality.

All around the world, in every country, women and girls still struggle to exercise their full human rights.

  • One in every five girls is married, or in union, before reaching age 18.
  • At least 200 million women and girls alive today have undergone female genital mutilation.
  • And UNFPA data reveal that less than half of married women, 47%, can safely negotiate decisions about sexual relations, contraception and their own reproductive health care.

These figures should prompt universal outrage. Yet, we notice a rising regressive tide that threatens to tear away the rights that women and girls have over their bodies, their choices, and their lives. We see, in the 2019 Gender Equality index, that progress seems to be slowing all over the world.

In our collective efforts, let our work be solidly anchored in the human rights standards set out in CEDAW, standards that give us the moral authority, legitimacy, and legal protection for these efforts.

One of the most remarkable outcomes of the Nairobi Summit on ICPD25 this year was the powerful movement it revealed – a broad, diverse coalition of people driving change around the world.  We heard from thousands of women activists, many of them young women and girls, who work daily to topple the remaining barriers standing between them and their rights and choices. As part of the sustainable development generation, young women know that having agency over their bodies is not only the foundation for a better future; it is a fundamental human right.

We have the commitment, energy and courage that will overcome discrimination against women in all its forms and everywhere, with CEDAW as our guide.

The Nairobi Statement and the more than 1250 Commitments made so far by governments, businesses, civil society and others are powerful signals of our intention to secure sexual and reproductive health, rights and choices for all, once and for all! 

Reproductive rights are human rights. Women’s rights are human rights. And women will never back down.

Thank you.


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