Created in partnership with the Helpdesk on Business & Human Rights

Definition & Legal Instruments


According to UN Women, gender refers to:

  • “The social attributes and opportunities associated with being male and female and the relationships between women and men and girls and boys, as well as the relations between women and those between men.
  • These attributes, opportunities and relationships are socially constructed and are learned through socialization processes. They are context/time-specific and changeable.
  • Gender determines what is expected, allowed and valued in a woman or a man in a given context.”

UN Women also define gender equality as “equal rights, responsibilities and opportunities of women and men and girls and boys. Equality does not mean that women and men will become the same but that women’s and men’s rights, responsibilities and opportunities will not depend on whether they are born male or female. Gender equality implies that the interests, needs and priorities of both women and men are taken into consideration, recognizing the diversity of different groups of women and men. Gender equality is not a women’s issue but should concern and fully engage men as well as women.”

Women’s rights are human rights. This means that advancing gender equality, ensuring equal rights, equal opportunities and non-discrimination are a moral and human rights imperative. Yet despite progress, women and girls around the world do not fully experience equal rights and their potential as economic, social and sustainable development change agents remains untapped.

Legal Instruments

The UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), often described as an international bill of rights for women, reaffirms the principle of equality between women and men. CEDAW defines what constitutes discrimination against women in various areas and sets up an agenda for national action to end such discrimination.

The right to be free from discrimination, including on the basis of sex, is also firmly secured in other international human rights instruments, including UDHR, ICCPR and ICESCR. In addition, a number of UN instruments tackle specific aspects related to gender equality, including:

Two ILO conventions address the issue of discrimination:

Other relevant ILO instruments on gender equality include the following:

While most States have ratified ILO conventions No.111 and No.100, their implementation in national laws and enforcement of such laws vary greatly. In practice, the provision of legal protection against discrimination in respect of employment and occupation is not consistent across countries.

ILO Violence and Harassment Convention No. 190 is the first international treaty to recognize the right of everyone to a workplace free from violence and harassment, including gender-based violence and harassment. The Convention, adopted in June 2019, requires State parties to put in place the necessary laws and policy measures to prevent and address violence and harassment in the world of work. The Convention represents a historic opportunity to shape a future of work based on dignity and respect for all.

Non-discrimination is included as one of the Ten Principles of the UN Global Compact: “Principle 6: Businesses should uphold the elimination of discrimination in respect of employment and occupation”. The four labour principles of the UN Global Compact are derived from the ILO Declaration on Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work.

These fundamental principles and rights at work have been affirmed and developed in the form of specific rights and obligations in International Labour Conventions and Recommendations and cover issues related to child labour, discrimination at work, forced labour and freedom of association and the right to collective bargaining.

Member States of the ILO have an obligation to promote non-discrimination, even if they have not ratified the Conventions in question, as the rights and principles at work are universal and they apply to all people in all States.

If you have questions, feedback or you're looking for further help in protecting human rights, please contact us at