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Crib Sheet: UN Convention on Ending Discrimination Against Women | The Nation

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Crib Sheet: UN Convention on Ending Discrimination Against Women

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Tanya Doriss

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Thursday, July 26, 2007

What is CEDAW?

The United Nations Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) is commonly referred to as the "Treaty for the Rights of Women" or the international "Bill of Rights for Women." The document was adopted by the U.N. General Assembly in 1979 and was the first international agreement to comprehensively address women's rights within both the public and private spheres.

As of June 2007, 185 nations have ratified CEDAW, thereby agreeing to adhere to its goal of eliminating discrimination against women. Nearly 30 years after the original convention, the United States is the only industrialized nation that has not adopted CEDAW. Other countries that have not signed include Iran and Sudan.

Why Care about CEDAW?

CEDAW is the first treaty to recognize discrimination against women as a human rights violation. While CEDAW acknowledges the strong influence of culture and tradition in shaping gender roles and family relations, it places an affirmative obligation on nations to ensure that women can fully participate in and contribute to all aspects of life in their home countries.

In ratifying the convention, the United States would commit to undertaking a series of measures to end discrimination against women including:

  • Reducing violence against women
  • Ensuring access to education and health care
  • Establishing judicial procedures to ensure legal recourse against violations of women's human rights.

CEDAW's History in the United States

For the United States to adopt an international treaty, the president must sign it and the agreement must then be ratified by at least two-thirds, or 67 "yes" votes, in the Senate. The House of Representatives does not play a role in treaty ratification.

Despite significant U.S. participation in the drafting of the original convention and President Carter's signature on July 17, 1980, it took 10 years before the Senate held hearings on CEDAW. The convention was finally reported out of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in September 1994. Unfortunately, a group of conservative senators led by Sen. Jesse Helms (R-NC) put a hold on the legislation and it never came up for a full vote during the 103rd Congress.

In 2002, under Sen. Joseph Biden's (D-DE) leadership, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee held a second set of hearings on CEDAW. The committee voted 12-7 to send the treaty to the full Senate for a ratification vote. However, once again the Senate did not vote on the treaty before the close of the session. As a result, CEDAW remains in political limbo and must yet again be approved by the Foreign Relations Committee before it can go to the floor for a full ratification vote by the Senate.

Why Conservative Opposition to CEDAW Is Unfounded

Some conservative groups feel threatened by the prospect of a bill of rights for American women, but their criticisms do not withstand informed scrutiny:

•  Critics say that the United States has to follow every recommendation outlined in CEDAW.

Ratifying CEDAW would require the United States to report on its compliance with the treaty, but it would not require the United States to change its laws. The United States already has many laws that are consistent with CEDAW, but ratification would encourage the United States to consider additional ways to reduce discrimination against women.

• Critics incorrectly claim that CEDAW promotes abortion and will require federal funding for women to have abortions.

CEDAW promotes family planning, not abortion. In fact, language referring to abortion was intentionally left out of the convention in deference to the many CEDAW signatory countries in which abortion is illegal. The State Department has formally acknowledged that CEDAW is "abortion neutral."

• Critics contend that CEDAW prohibits Mother's Day.

The treaty in no way prohibits the celebration of mothers. While in one case the U.N. committee that oversees compliance with CEDAW expressed concern about Belarus' use of Mother's Day and a Mother's Award to perpetuate limiting, stereotypical roles for women, 35 other countries who are party to CEDAW celebrate Mother's Day.

CEDAW in Action

CEDAW has been used successfully by individuals and women's groups around the world to improve the status of women in their countries. For example, Costa Rica, which ratified CEDAW in 1986, enacted mechanisms that force abusive spouses to provide ongoing economic support to their former partners. After ratifying CEDAW in 1985, Uganda began to fund campaigns against domestic violence. And in Egypt, CEDAW's ratification encouraged a national girls' literacy campaign that reduced female illiteracy by 11 percent between 1986 and 1996.

We're lucky that the U.S. government has already done much to remedy discrimination against women, including passing the Violence Against Women Act of 1994, which coordinates criminal justice and community responses to domestic violence and sexual assault cases. Nonetheless, the work remains unfinished. In 2005, 176,540 American women reported that they were victims of rape or sexual assault. In addition, women continue to earn less than comparably skilled men for the same work.

If the United States were to adopt CEDAW, the government would be committed to a set of international standards obligating it to take affirmative steps of its choosing to ensure the full participation of women in society. This would help the United States measure its progress in accomplishing important goals such as reducing sexual harassment and violence, increasing the availability of maternity leave and child care, and ensuring equal treatment in the workplace. In addition to improving the status of women in the United States, ratifying CEDAW would lend weight to the treaty and enhance our credibility as a human rights and moral leader in other parts of the world.

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