When Will the US Ratify the Women’s Rights Convention?

Today is the 30th anniversary of the only international human rights treaty exclusively devoted to gender equality. The Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) was adopted by the UN General Assembly on December 18,1979. CEDAW offers a universal definition of discrimination against women and an agenda for governments to end that discrimination in both the public and private spheres.

There are a lot of good things about CEDAW, so I’ll just mention two of my favorites. One is that the treaty calls on governments to hold periodic reviews of policies that impact women’s rights. These reviews give community-based women’s organizations a real opportunity to be heard and to demand accountability from government. Another is that CEDAW is crystal clear that people can’t use culture or religion as an excuse to violate women’s rights.

Around the world, women have used CEDAW to advance their rights to reproductive and sexual health, inheritance and property, political participation, freedom from violence and more. UNIFEM has a nice round-up of CEDAW success stories from these countries:

:: Bangladesh
:: Cameroon
:: Colombia
:: Egypt and
:: Hungary :: India :: Jamaica
:: Kenya :: Kyrgyzstan
:: Kyrgyzstan
& Tajikistan
Mexico ::
:: The
:: Sierra
:: Solomon
:: Thailand

But guess who hasn’t ratified?

The United States is one of only a small handful of countries—and the only democracy in the world—that has not ratified CEDAW. You won’t be shocked to learn who the obstructionists are: 1. the Christian Right, which fears CEDAW-induced 'horrors' such as abortion on demand and legalization of same-sex marriage; and 2. the equally ideological corporate sector, which worries that CEDAW would mandate paid maternity leave and other policies that could interfere with profits. Marjorie Cohn explains how religious fundamentalists and market fundamentalists have joined forces to block ratification of CEDAW in the US.

Opponents of the treaty have tried to ensure that if it is ever ratified, the approved version will be so watered down as to actually endanger rights that women already have. Here’s what they did: In 1994 and then again in 2002, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee created a set of conditions called RUDs — Reservations, Understandings, and Declarations — to weaken CEDAW. The 11 RUDs undo the treaty’s call for paid maternity leave and access to reproductive health care, including, of course, contraception and abortion.

The abortion RUD reads: "Nothing in this convention shall be construed to reflect or create any right to abortion and in no case should abortion be promoted as a method of family planning." Since nearly all abortions in the US are legally defined as a method of family planning, this provision would turn CEDAW into a weapon in the hands of anti-choice activists.

Janet Benshoof, director of the Global Justice Center, explains how the RUDs effectively transform CEDAW from a women’s equality treaty into a dangerous legal precedent for women all over the world:

“Although the RUDs seemingly apply solely to American women, they eviscerate the core of CEDAW, the definition of equality and provide legal authority to those who want to undermine women's rights….[T]his gutted CEDAW poses even more danger than continued U.S. isolation. The Senate should advise and consent to the ratification of a clean CEDAW unencumbered by reservations. They should not ratify a CEDAW that limits the full scope of women's equality rights.”

We couldn’t agree more. As we gear up for the many challenges of 2010, pushing the US Senate to ratify a clean CEDAW or no CEDAW will be high on our list.

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