The current status of the Protocol


Most of the Latin American and Caribbean States have supported the creation of an Optional Protocol to the CEDAW since the 1993 World Conference on Human Rights in Vienna and the 1995 Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing. However, during the process of discussing, drafting and approving the Protocol, some states which enjoy a reputation as defenders of women’s human rights failed to demonstrate clear and decisive leadership.

In early 1999, following five years of discussions and negotiations, a protocol was finally approved during the 43rd period of sessions of the Commission on the Status of Women. The Optional Protocol establishes the right of individual petition under the Convention and a procedure for investigating grave or systematic violations of women’s human rights, although both mechanisms are more limited than those provided for under other protection systems. It must now be ratified by each State.

The women’s movement played only a limited role in the drafting and negotiating of the Protocol. In fact, most of the work was done by a small group of NGOs and women who focused on the technical and legal aspects of the Protocol. No political strategy was adopted by the movement as a whole to ensure approval of the Protocol, nor to monitor the formulation, discussion and negotiation process.

No major effort was undertaken to create awareness of the meaning of the instrument for the women of the world. It is hoped that the process of ratification will provide an opportunity to sensitize and educate the general public and government agencies on the different ways in which the Optional Protocol can be used.

It should be noted, however, that the progress achieved throughout this long process was not due exclusively to the efforts of the States, but also to the involvement of, and the pressure exerted by, various sectors of civil society on many different fronts. The current status of the Protocol calls for the implementation of strategies to sensitize all the parties concerned to the benefits that this instrument will bring.

On the one hand, special efforts will be needed to make women’s organizations aware of how the approval of this instrument and its ratification by the States will facilitate the adoption of national legislation designed to provide effective protection for the rights of women; the promotion of national gender-sensitive policies; changes in the justice administration system; and the implementation of international mechanisms to reinforce the work of women’s organizations at the national level. On the other hand, there is a need to sensitize cooperation agencies, the UN and governments, so that they ratify the Protocol and are aware that this task calls for the allocation of timely and sufficient financial and technical resources.

To this end, the Inter-American Institute of Human Rights has suggested some strategies that could be implemented to involve women’s organizations and ensure that coordinated action is carried out in the Latin American and Caribbean region to raise awareness of, and educate people about, the Optional Protocol, and achieve its ratification and use in the new millennium.

To accomplish this, it is essential that the women’s movement and other sectors of civil society agree upon a political strategy. This strategy should include actions by the movement, and other sectors that support it, aimed at socializing the information, discussing the issue and influencing different sectors (e.g., the mass media). Efforts should also be made to sensitize the general public and governmental agencies responsible for women’s issues, so that they bring influence to bear on their respective governments. For their part, governments should be encouraged to make a firm commitment to approving and ratifying the Protocol. Within the UN system, actions are needed to monitor the process of bringing cases before the CEDAW Committee.

Domestic legislation is also a key consideration in the efforts to achieve the ratification of the Optional Protocol, since countries are reluctant to sign any international convention, agreement, protocol, treaty or plan of action that is at odds with their own laws. It is necessary to broaden the interpretation or language of national legislation, as well as that of international instruments, in order to provide more leeway for action.

Strategic alliances between sectors of the women’s movement and members of the legislative branch (both men and women) have proven to be very useful and effective in efforts to improve national legislation that provides protection for women’s rights, and in sensitizing decision makers to the need to support greater governmental involvement in the process of approving and ratifying the Optional Protocol. In several countries, the process of enacting national legislation and approving international treaties was speeded up when some members of congress threw their weight behind the bills in question.

International work at the UN level should be coordinated with country-level actions aimed at sensitizing and mobilizing women’s organizations and raising public awareness. Governments should also be lobbied, so that they make a genuine commitment to approving and ratifying the Protocol, and, subsequently, to responding to communications and investigations related to women’s human rights violations from a gender-sensitive perspective.

A set of strategies are therefore proposed in this chapter, designed to mobilize and support actions by the Latin American and Caribbean women’s movement. Targeted at the different social actors, these actions would include sensitization and education activities and efforts to ensure ratification of the Protocol.





Sensitization strategies


  1. Inform women’s organizations, government and state officials, and the general public about the importance of the Optional Protocol, and about the mechanisms they can use to participate in its ratification and bring influence to bear.

It is suggested that the following strategy be used to achieve this objective:



  1. Work with the Forum of Women’s Governmental Organizations of Latin America and the Caribbean, with a view to socializing the information and encouraging discussion of the Optional Protocol and its implications for civil society organizations and governmental agencies responsible for women’s issues.


Educational strategies


  1. Gather information on the status of the ratification process in each country. In doing so, it is important to know:

  • the legal procedure required to ratify the Protocol, as provided for in the Constitution of each country;

  • the current status or situation of the government regarding ratification (signature, ratification, special requirements, etc.);

  • the governmental bodies responsible for the ratification process and the key individuals in charge of studying the matter.

  • the legislative, political, financial and other hurdles that must be overcome prior to ratification;

  • the knowledge that government officials in charge of the ratification process have of the Protocol; and

  • the arguments for and against ratification put forward by the government, and the counter-arguments to ensure ratification.

  1. Promote congressional debates on the CEDAW and the Optional Protocol with representatives of the women’s movement, civil society organizations and other stakeholders, to educate, sensitize and involve members of the legislature in the discussion.

  2. Take a firm stand on the need to ratify the Protocol in dealings with congresswomen and congressional committees responsible for women’s and human rights issues and/or those of minorities. 

  3. Promote public hearings of technical or related special committees, to discuss the position of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs vis-à-vis the Protocol and the action it is taking.

  4. Implement training actions targeted at governmental agencies responsible for women’s issues, so that they:

  • Make the ratification and subsequent monitoring of the Optional Protocol a priority;

  • Secure a commitment from their respective governments, based on the 1995 Beijing Platform for Action and the Programme of Action of the Vienna Conference;

  • Learn how to make use of mechanisms of this kind, with a view to submitting cases to the CEDAW Committee;

  • Encourage the participation of Latin American feminists in the activities of the UN CEDAW Committee;

  • Develop a strategy aimed at convincing international cooperation agencies of the importance of providing funding for the women’s movement so that it can monitor the Optional Protocol;

  • Develop, in coordination with the networks and groups of women’s organizations working in the field of women’s rights, a strategy for informing and making women and society in general aware of the meaning and implications of the Optional Protocol to the CEDAW; and,

  • Promote debates with the women’s movement and with experts in this field, in order to discuss and analyze the content and scope of the Protocol, as a means of supporting the presentation of cases to the CEDAW Committee and providing advisory assistance.

  1. Promote and implement a plan for the sensitization and training of government officials involved in the ratification of the Optional Protocol.


Ratification strategies


What do we mean by the “ratification” of an international instrument or treaty?


The Protocol was approved by the UN Member States that attended the 43rd period of sessions of the Commission on the Status of Women. However, for it become law[1] in each of the countries, it must be approved internally through a legislative procedure.

This process is called “ratification” because any treaty or covenant with another state, or with an international organization such as the United Nations or the Organization of American States, is first approved by the Executive Branch but then has to be ratified or rejected by the Legislative Branch.

The ratification procedure varies depending on how the State is organized,[2] i.e., what powers the Executive Branch has and how the Legislative Branch is structured. Some Latin American and Caribbean countries have a bicameral legislature, while others use a unicameral system.

A bicameral legislature is made up of a senate and a house of representatives. Countries with a structure of this kind include Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Dominican Republic, Mexico, Paraguay and Uruguay. In most of these countries both houses are involved in the ratification process. However, in some cases only a simple majority is required in each house, while in others a two-thirds majority is needed. As a rule, the Senate has the last word in the ratification process.

            In countries with a bicameral system, the President submits the treaty to the Senate. In Argentina, however, it has to be discussed and approved by a two-thirds majority of both houses.

Unicameral congresses are called by different names, such as the National Congress, Legislative Assembly or General Assembly (Nicaragua). The countries that have a system of this kind are Costa Rica, Cuba, Ecuador, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, Panama, Peru and Venezuela. Although in this case the procedure is generally very similar, there are some differences as regards the type of majority required for approval, and the bodies of the Executive or Judicial Branch that must be consulted in some countries prior to ratification. In Cuba it is the Council of State, and the ratification instrument is signed and forwarded for publication in the Official Gazette by the President of the National Assembly of the People’s Power.


Some strategies to achieve ratification


  1. Make the ratification of the Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women one of the priorities of the women’s coordinating bodies and national networks, and of the women’s and mixed NGOs that are working to secure implementation of the 1995 Beijing Platform for Action and the Beijing+5 evaluation. Efforts should also be made to raise the awareness of congresswomen and local officials, so that they make this goal a priority of their annual plans.

  2. Lobby the Executive Branch, with a view to the Latin American governments supporting and participating effectively in the approval and ratification of this instrument. The first governments to ratify the instrument can be asked to encourage others to do so.

  3. Lobby the Legislative Branch, particularly women members of congress, with a view to them raising the issue of the ratification of the Optional Protocol to the CEDAW in congress and securing a commitment from their colleagues to support the respective bill.

  4. Urge the Legislative Branch to set up a technical/legal committee on gender issues which would incorporate in the discussion of national legislation the latest developments stemming from conferences, treaties and the Optional Protocol, once ratified.

  5. Urge government agencies responsible for implementing the Platform for Action of the Fourth World Conference on Women to seek a commitment from the government that it will ratify the Optional Protocol to the CEDAW.

  6. Lobby government officials, the Legislative Branch and other governmental sectors that could bring influence to bear for the ratification of the Protocol. Government agencies responsible for women’s issues could act as intermediaries with other government departments, supporting the actions of the women’s movement.

  7. Implement a strategy aimed at convincing the Executive Branch of the importance of ratifying the Protocol, in order to make the CEDAW more effective and guarantee equal rights and citizenship for women. It is important that this strategy include convincing arguments about how the government stands to benefit from the strengthening and implementation of the CEDAW.

  8. Undertake joint work with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, in order to discuss and coordinate a clear, firm commitment by the government to ratifying the Optional Protocol.

  9. In dealings with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, adopt a firm position regarding the importance of the Optional Protocol, using legal and political arguments, in collaboration with government agencies responsible for women’s issues and with input from the women’s movement.

  10. Establish strategic alliances with informed congressmen committed to gender equality, so that they take a firm stand on the need to ratify this instrument.

  11. Monitor the Executive Branch’s actions related to the approval and ratification of the Protocol.


It is important to remember that…


There has been considerable discussion of the strategies that should be implemented to ensure that the women’s movement plays a more active role in raising awareness of the Optional Protocol to the CEDAW and of the need to ratify it; and of similar efforts to commit Latin American and Caribbean governments to ratifying the Protocol. It is clear from these discussions that no strategy will be completely effective unless efforts are made to coordinate the initiatives and actions of each of the sectors involved.

While it is the responsibility of the governments to conduct the process of approving and ratifying this important and necessary instrument, history and reality show that they cannot do it alone. They require the assistance of the women’s movement and other civil society sectors, as well as that of governmental women’s agencies and international cooperation organizations.

Such a joint effort will not only expedite the approval and ratification process, but also contribute new elements for improving the Protocol and encourage women’s and other organizations that will be using it to defend women’s rights to regard it as an accessible and useful tool. Strategic alliances among different sectors are a valuable resource, since they will gradually create the conditions needed for implementing coordinated actions that will facilitate the timely and appropriate application of the Convention.

The elimination of all forms of discrimination against women calls for a political effort involving every sector of society. It is, at the same time, a process aimed at changing conceptions, social and cultural structures, and relations among individuals. As an ongoing process, it calls for concerted action to expedite the approval and ratification of the Protocol, and the subsequent monitoring of the use of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women.

* The original version of this article was prepared by Marlene Libardoni, a Brazilian economist, and Laura Guzmán, a Costa Rican social worker. It was updated by Ana Elena Obando, a Costa Rican attorney.

[1] In all Latin American countries treaties take precedence over general laws, which places them on a par with the Constitution.

[2] See Annex 4 (Tables 1 and 2).