The Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) first met at Lake Success, New York, in February 1947, soon after the founding of the United Nations. All 15 government representatives were women. From its inception, the Commission was supported by a unit of the United Nations that later became the Division for the Advancement of Women (DAW) in the UN Secretariat. The CSW forged a close relationship with non-governmental organizations, with those in consultative status with the UN Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) invited to participate as observers.
From 1947 to 1962, the Commission focused on setting standards and formulating international conventions to change discriminatory legislation and foster global awareness of women’s issues. In contributing to the drafting of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the CSW successfully argued against references to “men” as a synonym for humanity, and succeeded in introducing new, more inclusive language.
Since the codification of the legal rights of women needed to be supported by data and analysis, the Commission embarked on a global assessment of the status of women. Extensive research produced a detailed, country-by-country picture of their political and legal standing, which over time became a basis for drafting human rights instruments.
The Commission drafted the early international conventions on women’s rights, such as the 1953 Convention on the Political Rights of Women, which was the first international law instrument to recognize and protect the political rights of women; and the first international agreements on women’s rights in marriage, namely the 1957 Convention on the Nationality of Married Women, and the 1962 Convention on Consent to Marriage, Minimum Age for Marriage and Registration of Marriages. The Commission also contributed to the work of UN offices, such as the International Labour Organization’s 1951 Convention concerning Equal Remuneration for Men and Women Workers for Work of Equal Value, which enshrined the principle of equal pay for equal work.
In 1963, efforts to consolidate standards on women’s rights led the UN General Assembly to request the Commission to draft a Declaration on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women, which the Assembly ultimately adopted in 1967. The legally binding Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), also drafted by the Commission, followed in 1979. In 1999, the Optional Protocol to the Convention introduced the right of petition for women victims of discrimination.
As evidence began to accumulate in the 1960s that women were disproportionately affected by poverty, the work of the Commission centred on women’s needs in community and rural development, agricultural work, family planning, and scientific and technological advances. The Commission encouraged the UN system to expand its technical assistance to further the advancement of women, especially in developing countries.
In 1972, to mark its 25th anniversary, the Commission recommended that 1975 be designated International Women’s Year—an idea endorsed by the General Assembly to draw attention to women’s equality with men and to their contributions to development and peace. The year was marked by holding the First World Conference on Women in Mexico City, followed by the 1976–1985 UN Decade for Women: Equality, Development and Peace. Additional world conferences took place in Copenhagen in 1980 and Nairobi in 1985. New UN offices dedicated to women were established, in particular the UN Development Fund for Women (UNIFEM) and the International Research and Training Institute for the Advancement of Women (INSTRAW).
In 1987, as part of follow-up to the Third World Conference on Women in Nairobi, the Commission took the lead in coordinating and promoting the UN system’s work on economic and social issues for women’s empowerment. Its efforts shifted to promoting women’s issues as cross-cutting and part of the mainstream, rather than as separate concerns. In the same period, the Commission helped bring violence against women to the forefront of international debates for the first time. These efforts resulted in the Declaration on the Elimination of Violence against Women adopted by the General Assembly on 20 December 1993. In 1994, a UN Special Rapporteur on violence against women, its causes and consequences was appointed by the Commission on Human Rights, with a mandate to investigate and report on all aspects of violence against women.
The Commission served as the preparatory body for the 1995 Fourth World Conference on Women , which adopted the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action. After the conference, the Commission was mandated by the General Assembly to play a central role in monitoring implementation of the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action and advising ECOSOC accordingly. As called for in the Platform for Action, an additional UN office for the promotion of gender equality was established: the Office of the Special Adviser on Gender Issues and Advancement of Women (OSAGI).
In 2011, the four parts of the UN system mentioned above—DAW, INSTRAW, OSAGI and UNIFEM—merged to become UN Women, now the Secretariat of the Commission on the Status of Women.