This term refers to actions aimed at accelerating de facto equality between women and men that may, in the short term, favor women. Other terms that are often used to refer to such “special measures” in their corrective, compensatory and promotional sense are the terms “affirmative action”, “positive action”, “positive measures”, “reverse discrimination”, and “positive discrimination”. However, the preferred term within the UN system is temporary special measures.
The CEDAW convention (Article 4, paragraph 1) clarifies that “Adoption by States parties of temporary special measures aimed at accelerating de facto equality between men and women shall not be considered discrimination as defined in the present Convention, but shall in no way entail as a consequence the maintenance of unequal or separate standards; these measures shall be discontinued when the objectives of equality of opportunity and treatment have been achieved.”
The concept consists of three parts:
Temporary: Such measures should therefore not be deemed necessary forever, even though the meaning of “temporary” may, in fact, result in the application of such measures for a long period of time. Temporary special measures must be discontinued when their desired results have been achieved and sustained for a period of time.
Special: The term “special”, though being in conformity with human rights discourse, also needs to be carefully explained. Its use sometimes casts women and other groups who are subject to discrimination as weak, vulnerable and in need of extra or “special” measures in order to participate or compete in society. However, the real meaning of “special” in the formulation of article 4, paragraph 1 of CEDAW, is that the measures are designed to serve a specific goal.
Measures: The term “measures” encompasses a wide variety of legislative, executive, administrative and other regulatory instruments, policies and practices, such as outreach or support programmes; allocation and/or reallocation of resources; preferential treatment; targeted recruitment, hiring and promotion; numerical goals connected with time frames; and quota systems. The choice of a particular “measure” will depend on the context in which article 4, paragraph 1, is applied and on the specific goal it aims to achieve.
Source: General recommendation No. 25, on article 4, paragraph 1, of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, on temporary special measures.