“Gender” within the United Nations System

System: United Nations


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The term gender was gradually introduced into nonbinding international documents on the topic of women in the early 1990s. A historical review of the development of human rights as they relate to women reveals three important points: (1) that gender has commonly been used to identify a person’s sex as either male or female; (2) that a radical re-definition of gender as a “social construct” to promote a sexually polymorphous view of the human person (cf. de Casco 1995, 16–17) has been consistently rejected by member States of the United Nations, although organs of the United Nations often use this term in their educational materials, which have no binding force; and (3) that the first definition of gender was included in the Statute of the International Criminal Court and binds state parties to this agreement.

Historical Considerations

The foundational documents of the United Nations system refer to the equality between men and women, and forbid discrimination on the basis of sex. “In particular, the Charter of the United Nations, in preambular paragraph 2, calls for the “equality between women and men,” a call that is repeated in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) in preambular paragraph 5. The UDHR also prohibits discrimination on the grounds of sex (Art. 2). This recognition is essential to the future of the human race and all its members.  In addition, the UDHR acknowledges the equal rights of a man and a woman to marry and found a family, the natural and fundamental unit of society (Art. 16). This recognition is essential to the future of the human race and all its members. The 1966 International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) also prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex (Art. 2), recognizes “the equal right of men and women to the enjoyment of all civil and political rights” (Art. 3) and repeats the language found in art. 16 of the UDHR (Art. 23). The 1979 Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women continues along these lines (Art. 1).”[1]

Beginning in the early 1990s, the term gender was gradually introduced into non-binding documents negotiated by State Parties, but was never defined but came to be “commonly used to refer to the two sexes, male and female.”[2] Then during the 1995 Fourth World Conference on Women, “a different and radical understanding of gender had been circulated during informal discussions, but was rejected.

Gender as Commonly Used and Understood, as synonym for male and female

Moreover, the President of the Fourth World Conference on Women, on the recommendation of a large body of Member States [60 in total] explicitly stated at that Conference that “the word ‘gender’ had been commonly used and understood in its ordinary, generally accepted usage.” From a perusal of the document, this means that gender refers to “male” and “female”—the generally and historically accepted usage. This statement also emphasized that no “new meaning or connotation of the term, different from accepted prior usage,” had been intended.”[3]

The Holy See’s Delegation Statement of Interpretation of the term “Gender” at Beijing, 15 September 1995. [4]

“In accepting that the word “gender” in this document is to be understood according to ordinary usage in the United Nations context, the Holy See associates itself with the common meaning of that word, in languages where it exists. The term “gender” is understood by the Holy See as grounded in biological sexual identity, male or female. Furthermore, the Platform for Action itself (cf. N. 193, c) clearly uses the term “both genders”. The Holy See thus excludes dubious interpretations based on world – views which assert that sexual identity can be adapted indefinitely to suit new and different purposes. It also dissociates itself from the biological determinist notion that all the roles and relations of the two sexes are fixed in a single, static pattern. Pope John Paul insists on the distinctiveness and complementarity of women and men. At the same time, he has applauded the assumption of new roles by women, stressed the degree to which cultural conditioning has been an obstacle to women’s progress, and exhorted men to assist in the “the great process of women’s liberation” (Letter to Women, n. 6). In his recent Letter to Women the Pope explained the Church’s nuanced view in the following way: “One can also appreciate that the presence of a certain diversity of roles is in no way prejudicial to women, provided that this diversity is not the result of an arbitrary imposition, but is rather an expression of what is specific to being male and female” (n. 11).”

Definition of Gender in Treaty Law

The only definition of “gender” that “binds State Parties is that contained in the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court [RSICC], which states that ‘the term ‘gender’ refers to the two sexes, male and female, within the context of society. The term ‘gender’ does not indicate any meaning different’ from the aforementioned definition (Art. 7.3, RSICC).” [5]

Revised 20/10/2014

[1]Statement of the Holy See in Explanation of Position on the Agreed Conclusions (E.CN.6/2011/L.6),
55th session of the Commission on the Status of Women of the United Nations Economic and Social Council, New York, 14 March 2011 ,  http://www.holyseemission.org/statements/statement.aspx?id=73 (last accessed 25/10/2013).

[2] Id.

[3]  Id., (cf. Report of the Fourth World Conference on Women Beijing, 4-15 September 1995, Statement by the President of the Conference on the commonly understood meaning of the term “gender”, 2-3, A/CONF.177/20/Rev.1).

[4] The Holy See’s Delegation Statement of Interpretation of the term “Gender” By the Holy See Delegation at Beijing, 15 September 1995 available on-line at  http://www.its.caltech.edu/~nmcenter/women-cp/beijing3.html (last accessed 25/10/2013)

[5] Statement of the Holy See, note 1 supra.

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