Sources of International Law

last updated November 2014


In partnership with UN Women, The Advocates for Human Rights created the following sections for UN Women's Virtual Knowledge Centre to End Violence against Women and Girls. This section, along with sections addressing other forms of violence against women and girls, may be found under Legislation at

Sources of international law

United Nations

  • Equal Treatment of Men and Women. A number of international instruments guarantee equality for women and prohibit discrimination. The Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (hereinafter CEDAW) requires states to grant women equality before the law, including equal legal capacity and ability to exercise that capacity in civil matters (Art. 15). The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights in Article 26 also requires states to provide legal protection for women’s rights on an equal basis with men and to guarantee the effective protection of women against discrimination through competent national courts (Art. 2(c)).

  • The Supplementary Convention on the Abolition of Slavery, the Slave Trade, and Institutions and Practices Similar to Slavery prohibits “[a]ny institution or practice whereby: (i) A woman, without the right to refuse, is promised or given in marriage on payment of a consideration in money or in kind to her parents, guardian, family or any other person or group; or (ii) The husband of a woman, his family, or his clan, has the right to transfer her to another person for value received or otherwise; or (iii) A woman on the death of her husband is liable to be inherited by another person.” The element unique to slavery but not necessarily found in a forced marriage is the right of ownership that is exercised over the victim (Art. 1(c)). Slavery Convention of 1926, Art. 1(1)).

  • Marriage Registration. International law requires the registration of marriages. The Convention on Consent to Marriage, Minimum Age for Marriage and Registration of Marriages requires a competent authority to register all marriages in official records (Art. 3); see also African Women’s Protocol, Art. 6(d). The CEDAW Committee’s General Comment No. 29 (2013) specifies that “States parties should establish a legal requirement of marriage registration and conduct effective awareness-raising activities to that effect. They must provide for implementation through education about the requirements and provide infrastructure to make registration accessible to all persons within their jurisdiction. States parties should provide for establishing proof of marriage by means other than registration where circumstances warrant. The State must protect the rights of women in such marriages, regardless of their registration status.” Para. 26.

  • Inheritance and Property. The Committee on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women General Recommendation 19 affirms that men and women in the same degree of relationship to a deceased are entitled to equal shares in the estate and to equal rank in the order of succession (see also: Economic and Social Council resolution 884 D (XXXIV)). The committee also states that governments must abolish laws and practices that: grant women a smaller inheritance of their husband or father’s property than a widower or son; restrict the rights of women to a deceased’s property, and; fail to promote equal ownership of property acquired during marriage for women (Paras. 34, 35).General Recommendation 27 on the Rights of Older women also specifies that states “must repeal all legislation that discriminates against older widows” and that States must “take measures to end practices that force older women to marry against their will, and ensure that succession is not conditional on forced marriage to a deceased husband’s sibling or any other person” (Para. 52).CEDAW states that government must guarantee women equality with men in civil matters, which includes granting women equal rights to conclude contracts and to administer property (Article 15).

  • Implementation of Equal Rights Measures. Under CEDAW, states must take appropriate measures to modify social and cultural patterns that discriminate against women (Art. 5(a)). The Committee on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women General Recommendation 19 states that “[t]raditional attitudes by which women are regarded as subordinate to men or as having stereotyped roles perpetuate widespread practices involving violence or coercion, such as family violence and abuse, forced marriage, dowry deaths, acid attacks and female circumcision. Such prejudices and practices may justify gender-based violence as a form of protection or control of women. The effect of such violence on the physical and mental integrity of women is to deprive them the equal enjoyment, exercise and knowledge of human rights and fundamental freedoms.” CEDAW has also expressed concern over practices that uphold culture over eliminating discrimination. Also, the Human Rights Committee has drawn attention to minority rights that infringe upon the rights of women. In General Comment 28, it stated that those “rights which persons belonging to minorities enjoy under article 27 of the Covenant in respect of their language, culture and religion do not authorize any State, group or person to violate the right to the equal enjoyment by women of any Covenant rights, including the right to equal protection of the law” (Para. 32). In addition, UN Resolution 2003/22 “Women's equal ownership, access to and control over land and the equal rights to own property and to adequate housing” “[e]ncourages Governments to support the transformation of customs and traditions that discriminate against women and deny women security of tenure and equal ownership of, access to and control over land and equal rights to own property and to adequate housing, to ensure the right of women to equal treatment in land and agrarian reform as well as in land resettlement schemes and in ownership of property and in adequate housing, and to take other measures to increase access to land and housing for women living in poverty, particularly female heads of household.”



  • ELIMINATE all forms of discrimination against women (Article 2);

  • ENACT and effectively implement appropriate legislative or regulatory measures, including those prohibiting and curbing all forms of discrimination particularly those harmful practices which endanger the health and general well-being of women (Article 2(1)(b));

  • PROHIBIT “all forms of harmful practices which negatively affect the human rights of women” and take all necessary legal and other measures to protect women from harmful practices and all other forms violence, abuse and intolerance (Article 5);

  • GUARANTEE women and men equal rights in marriage, require the free and full consent of both parties in marriage, establish a minimum age of 18 for women to marry, and encourage monogamy as the preferred form of marriage (Article 6);

  • ENSURE that women and men enjoy the same rights in case of separation, divorce or annulment of marriage (Article 7);

  • GUARANTEE women the right to acquire, administer and freely manage her own property during marriage.

Provisions Specific to Widows.

  • Article 20 of the protocol requires States Parties to take appropriate legal measures to ensure that widows enjoy all human rights, which includes ensuring that:

  • Widows are not subjected to inhuman, humiliating or degrading treatment;

  • A widow automatically becomes the guardian and custodian of her children, after the death of her husband, unless this is not in the children’s best interests; and

  • A widow has the right to remarry and to marry the person of her choice.

  • Article 21 states that women and men shall have the “right to inherit, in equitable shares, their parents’ properties.” States are to ensure that widows have the right to “an equitable share in the inheritance of the property of her husband. A widow shall have the right to continue to live in the matrimonial house. In case of remarriage, she shall retain this right if the house belongs to her or she has inherited it.”


  • The Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union specifically enshrines the right to non-discrimination on the basis of sex, and Article 23 obligates states to ensure equality between men and women in all areas. Article 17 guarantees to everyone the right to own, use, dispose of and bequeath his or her lawfully acquired possessions and prohibits deprivation of one’s possessions excepting in conditions as provided by law. The EU guidelines on violence against women and girls and combating all forms of discrimination against them states that violence against women and girls includes forced marriage whether perpetrated or condoned by the state or not, and notes that widowed women as a specific class of women are even more vulnerable to violence and/or discrimination (Annex, p. 14, 15).

  • The Council of Europe Convention on preventing and combating violence against women and domestic violence (the Istanbul Convention), adopted by the Council of Europe and opened for signature in May 2011, obliges states to reform laws, implement practical measures to aid victims, and, importantly, allocate adequate resources for an effective response to violence against women and domestic violence. Although drafted in Europe, any country can become a signatory. In addition states must involve all relevant actors in the implementation of the Istanbul Convention, including national parliaments and institutions and non-governmental and civil society organizations. The Convention will enter into force once ten countries have ratified it. Eight of the ten ratifying countries must be Council of Europe member states. An ongoing list of signatures and ratifications can be found here. The Convention is available here in 28 languages. Watch a video here about the Istanbul Convention as an important complement to the international legal framework on violence against women.


  • The Organization of American States has promulgated the Inter-American Convention on the Prevention, Punishment and Eradication of Violence against Women (“Convention of Belem do Para”), which prohibits violence against women in the public and private spheres. It requires States Parties to take a number of measures, including legal measures and progressively specific measures to modify legal or customary practices which perpetuate violence against women or are based on inferiority, superiority or stereotyped roles of either of the sexes that condone or exacerbate violence against women (Articles 7(e) and 8(b)). Article 17(4) of the American Convention on Human Rights states that States Parties are to “take appropriate steps to ensure the equality of rights and the adequate balancing of responsibilities of the spouses as to marriage, during marriage, and in the event of its dissolution. In case of dissolution, provision shall be made for the necessary protection of any children solely on the basis of their own best interests.”Article 17(3) also provides that “No marriage shall be entered into without the free and full consent of the intending spouses” and Article 21(2) provides that “No one shall be deprived of his property except upon payment of just compensation, for reasons of public utility or social interest, and in the cases and according to the forms established by law.”


  • enact and, where necessary, reinforce or amend domestic legislation to prevent violence against women,

  • to enhance the protection, healing, recovery and reintegration of victims/survivors, including measures to investigate, prosecute, punish and where appropriate rehabilitate perpetrators, and prevent re-victimisation of women and girls subjected to any form of violence, whether in the home, the workplace, the community or society.