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Three decades later, women’s equality treaty still controversial
An historic event in the continued battle for international women’s equality took place in the U.S. Senate last week, although it’s likely only those on the outer-most fringes of conservative and liberal ideology even noticed.
U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) called for testimony on a more than 30-year-old United Nation’s treaty — one that was signed by President Jimmy Carter in 1980 but has never been brought to the floor of the U.S. Senate for an up-or-down vote. The treaty, known as the Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination Against Women, or CEDAW, has been called an international bill of rights for women and has been ratified by all but seven countries. In addition to the U.S., other hold-out countries include Sudan, Iran, Somalia and three small Pacific Island nations.
“CEDAW is about giving women all over the world the chance to enjoy the same freedoms and opportunities that American women have struggled long and hard to achieve,” explained Durbin, who led the CEDAW hearing as part of the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on Human Rights and Law. “These are fundamentally American freedoms — the rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness — and CEDAW is a fundamentally American treaty. Women have been waiting for 30 years. It’s long past time for the U.S. to ratify this treaty and we should do so without further delay.”
Following bipartisan majority votes in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in 1994 and 2002, CEDAW was sent to the full Senate for ratification. In both instances, it never made it to the floor for that vote, largely because a small contingency of groups mired the treaty in social conservative issues. Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush said they would have signed the document if it was ratified, and President Barack Obama has indicated that ratification of the treaty should be a priority.
Even in the current lame-duck Senate, however, doubts remain that the necessary 67 votes required for ratification could be reached.
“This Convention, ratified more than 30 years ago by nearly all U.N. member nations, makes a critical statement about the prohibition of discrimination against women,” U.S. Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) told The Iowa Independent. “It is the most comprehensive treaty to eliminate discrimination against women in education, health care and employment, among other issues.
“Unfortunately, like so many other conventions and treaties, like the pending and critically important START Treaty, it has fallen victim to those in Congress who oppose any engagement by the U.S. in the international community.”
Durbin’s hearing, which was the first held in the halls of Congress in nearly a decade, included testimony by several prominent international women’s rights activists, representatives from the U.S. Departments of State and Justice, the National Women’s Law Center and the Afghan Women’s Network. Although only one conservative organization, The Heritage Foundation, spoke against ratification at the hearing, a multitude of internet postings and organization positions have found their way forward in an effort to once again prevent the measure from being taken up by the full Senate.
Culture of opposition
Opposition to CEDAW hasn’t significantly changed during the past 30 years. Conservatives charge that the treaty will negate family law and undermine traditional family values, redefine the family, force American free-market systems to provide equal pay to women and men performing the same jobs, ensure abortion services as a part of health care, pave the way for the Equal Rights Amendment, provide legal strategies that will ultimately lead to same-sex marriage, negate parental rights and undermine the nation’s sovereignty.
Michael P. Ferris, chairman of the Home School Legal Defense Association, for instance, has called on families to push against this latest effort to ratify CEDAW, labeling it an “International Threat to Homeschool Freedom.”
“Feminist internationalists intend to use international law to coerce the restructuring of the institution of the family and the role of every man and every woman on the plant,” Ferris said.
In advance of the hearing, U.S. Rep. Chris Smith (R-N.J.) penned a letter to Republican members of Congress, making clear that he and anti-abortion groups believe CEDAW would “subject [the U.S.] to the pro-abortion ideology.” Despite the fact that CEDAW does not include a single statement about abortion or mention abortion by name, Smith contends that Article 12 — which calls for no discrimination of women in the field of health care — is a mandate of abortion and an end to existing conscience clauses.
Wendy Wright, president of Concerned Women for America, describes CEDAW as “unconstitutional” and “anti-woman.”
“CEDAW requires countries to deny the obvious — that men and women are different. If the U.S. Ratifies this ridiculous U.N. treaty, every aspect of life — government, schools, business, even family life — would come under the scrutiny of a U.N. committee of ‘gender experts,’” Wright said.
New allies for ratification
With each passing year, advocates for the ratification of CEDAW gain new allies in their struggle, and evolving foreign relations policy in countries such as Iraq and Afghanistan have heighten calls for the U.S. to be a leader in women’s international rights.
“I support CEDAW not because I think it would require changes in women’s rights within the United States. Rather, ratification of CEDAW would enhance the authority of the United States to advocate on behalf of women’s rights in countries … that do not respect women’s rights to the same extent that the United States does. The Senate’s failure to ratify CEDAW gives other countries a retort when United States officials raise issues about the treatment of women, and thus our non-ratification may hamper the effectiveness of the United States in achieving increased protection for women worldwide,” wrote former U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor in a letter to the Senate subcommittee.
O’Connor also suggests that the U.S. ratify CEDAW while including any “reservations, understandings and/or declarations” that may concern members of the U.S. Senate. As she points out, such an approach to the treaty has been taken by several other U.S. allies including Australia, France, Germany and the United Kingdom.
The influence on America’s international efforts was also key for U.S. Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.), who participated in the subcommittee hearing.
“Ratifying CEDAW would strengthen American and international efforts on behalf of women’s rights around the globe,” Franken told The Iowa Independent. “United States law is already consistent with the treaty, which doesn’t even have a binding enforcement mechanism. It costs us nothing and promises to improve women’s lives throughout the world, and I’m hopeful that as more people recognize this, we’ll be able to move toward ratification.”
Mark Pelavin, associate director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, said that the Reform Jewish Movement has supported human rights for seven decades and views ratification of CEDAW as a key continuance of the effort.
“As Jews, we are intimately acquainted with what happens with otherwise good people are silent in the face of political oppression and violence. The time has long passed for this nation to join the global community and stand clearly on the side of women and against oppression and injustice,” Pelavin said.
Wazhma Frogh, an Afghan woman involved in the human rights struggle taking place within her country, told subcommittee members that ratification of CEDAW would improve the continued nation-building work of the U.S. in the Middle East.
“[H]ere CEDAW might seem to be an abstract thing, but for the women of Afghanistan, it has been a banner, a torch we’ve held high, as we’ve made our journey toward restoring and acquiring our basic rights,” said Frogh, who provided specific examples of how the Afghan Women’s Network has used CEDAW to significantly improve the previously brutal conditions of women.
“Even in Afghanistan, thousands of miles away, conservative elements try to use America’s failure to ratify CEDAW to attack women’s rights defenders. … They say that if United States believes in women’s rights as a universal right, why haven’t they signed on to CEDAW? Today, we don’t have an answer. Perhaps tomorrow, with your help, we can answer back.”
During the 2004 and 2008 general elections, Americans heard a great deal about how the country needed to repair or enhance its international reputation. Such national discussion has been replaced by controversies surrounding health care reform and the faltering economy, but the international community hasn’t lost its focus.
For the first time in its history, the U.S. this month defended its human rights record before the U.N. Human Rights Council under a Universal Periodic Review process, a 2006 reform that requires U.N. member nations to undergo a review every four years. Three months earlier, in August, the U.S. State Department released a 20-page self-audit of its record on human rights, which covered topics ranging from post-Katrina recovery efforts to racial profiling to health care access disparities. While the report noted shortcomings, it also applauded long-lasting reforms born of the civil rights movement and more recent legislation such as the adoption of the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act.
Despite recent accomplishments, however, the U.S. faced fierce criticism for its failure to ratify several human rights treaties, and particularly faced questions on its failure to ratify CEDAW.
“The U.S. does not need to ratify CEDAW to protect the rights of American women and girls,” concluded Durbin. “While more progress is needed, women have fought long and hard for equal rights in the U.S. and have won many victories along the way. … American women have rights and freedoms that far exceed those required under CEDAW — and ratifying the treaty would not change current U.S. law in any way.
“The United States ought to ratify the treaty to ensure our dedication to the protection of human rights around the world isn’t questioned.”