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Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Is CEDAW Making a Difference in Women’s Rights and Equality?

Question: What does the United States have in common with Iran, Somalia, Sudan, South Sudan, Palau, and Tonga? 

Answer: None has committed to the United Nations Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW)—the most comprehensive global treaty affirming the human rights of women.

This month, an international committee will convene in Geneva, Switzerland, to review country-level progress in implementing the landmark convention. Slated for February 13–March 2, the 51st Session of the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women will review reports on women’s rights submitted by nations that have ratified CEDAW, a periodic exercise to assess whether CEDAW is helping to advance women’s rights and where improvements could be made.

To date, the United States remains the only developed country in the world that has not ratified the treaty, in spite of having assisted in drafting the document in the 1970s. Proponents of CEDAW point to the treaty’s successes in advancing women’s rights globally—including in Bangladesh, where CEDAW was used to attain gender equality in schools, and in Mexico, where treaty language was used in a law prohibiting gender-based violence that was later passed.

Skeptics in the U.S. Congress have questioned the vagueness of the treaty language, looking to attach qualifications known as “reservations, understandings, and declarations” (RUDs), including the understanding that ratification would not create a right to abortion or compel the government to extend maternity leave.

Looking Back on CEDAW in the United States

After taking office in 2009, President Barack Obama included CEDAW in his list of five priority multilateral treaties, calling it an “important priority.” No advances have been made toward ratification to date. Becoming an official party to CEDAW would require the president’s signature, along with at least two-thirds support (67 votes) within the U.S. Senate.

On two previous occasions, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee voted favorably for the treaty with bipartisan support—in 1994 (13-5) under President Bill Clinton and in 2002 (12-7) under President George W. Bush. But since its adoption by the United Nations in 1979, CEDAW has never been brought before the full Senate for a vote. In 1980, President Jimmy Carter had also signed the treaty, but without the Senate support needed for official ratification.

The most recent legislative action on the issue was a bill introduced in the U.S. House by Rep. Lynn Woolsey (D-CA) about one year ago, promoting Senate support for the treaty. No further action was taken after it was referred to the House Foreign Affairs subcommittee on Africa, Global Health, and Human Rights. Previously, in November 2010, Sen. Dick Durbin (D-IL) chaired the first Senate hearing on the issue since 2002, but came short of bringing the issue before the full Senate.

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