By Treaty, Holding the U.S. Accountable for Gender Discrimination


By Dana Raphael.

What do Iran, Somalia, Sudan, Nauru, Palau, Tonga, and the United States all have in common? Drawing a blank? They are the seven countries out of 193 UN member nations that have staunchly refused to ratify the Convention to End All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW). The U.S. is one of seven countries that rejects the “international bill of rights for women,” and the other six aren’t exactly known as the best advocates for human rights.

Adopted in 1979 by the UN General Assembly, CEDAW is an international treaty that identifies and defines gender discrimination, in addition to providing guidance to signatories as to how to rectify gender discrimination. CEDAW’s 30 articles can be condensed into a few principal points: 1) states should abolish all laws that discriminate against women, 2) states should form laws and institutions that ensure women are protected from gender discrimination, and 3) countries that have ratified CEDAW must submit a report every four years, to be reviewed by an international committee, that details their efforts to comply with CEDAW regulations.

CEDAW compels nations to address gender violence and discrimination that otherwise may go overlooked. For instance, Pakistan has an international duty to prevent future attacks such as the Taliban’s shooting of Malala Yousafzai for speaking out in favor of women’s education. Though the Pakistani government condemned the attack, CEDAW’s quadrennial report requirement ensures that the international community has oversight of Pakistan’s efforts to promote gender equality and equal access to education.

Pro-CEDAW organizations tout CEDAW’s successes in promoting gender equality – citing Bangladesh activists using CEDAW as a means of gaining gender equality in primary school enrollment. Mexico used CEDAW terms when drafting a law protecting women from violence. Kenya used CEDAW when addressing inheritance rights discrepancies between men and women. Following a CEDAW Committee recommendation, Kuwait’s Parliament voted in 2005 to extend voting rights to women.

So why hasn’t the United States ratified CEDAW, considering 96% of other countries have chosen to do so? The reason doesn’t stem from a lack of presidential support; Presidents Carter, Clinton, W. Bush, and Obama all publicly proclaimed support for CEDAW. The Senate has held CEDAW ratification committee hearings five times and, though supported in committee, the ratification question never made it to the Senate floor for a vote. The U.S.’s failure to ratify CEDAW essentially comes down to the lack of a vote on the Senate floor.

The reasons for stalling CEDAW stem from the innate nature of politics that have stalled dozens of human rights measures, including the Violence Against Women Act, which Congress failed to reauthorize for a period in 2013: political interest groups. Evangelical right-wing groups have professed that CEDAW would harm women, children, and families. Opposing CEDAW has been a cornerstone of groups such as Focus on the Family’s advocacy because they see CEDAW as fundamentally destroying Bible-mandated roles for men and women. Focus on the Family affiliates made the top five religious-related lobbying group spenders, spending $14.3 million in 2008 elections, which, unsurprisingly, helps keep CEDAW from coming to a vote.  

The U.S. should take steps to ratify CEDAW to demonstrate the American commitment to women’s rights at home and abroad. Ratifying CEDAW will 1) give the treaty more weight, 2) allow the U.S. to participate on the CEDAW convention committee, and 3) provide the incentive for the U.S. to examine gender discrimination domestically.  

  1. Ratifying CEDAW will give the treaty more weight.

True, CEDAW has not prevented some countries from violating women’s rights provisions, seen in the continued practices of female genital mutilation, girls’ lack of access to education, and penalties for perceived sexual deviance. While CEDAW is intended as a binding treaty, it does not have enforcement capabilities. By not ratifying CEDAW, the U.S. remains quiet on advancing women’s rights worldwide, which could even be seen by non-compliant countries as tacit acceptance of their violations. Ratifying CEDAW would strengthen the U.S. position as an advocate for human rights and give CEDAW more much-needed clout.

  1. Ratifying CEDAW will allow the U.S. to participate on the CEDAW convention committee.

CEDAW provides for an international committee of 23 experts that review the reports countries submit every four years detailing their efforts to comply with CEDAW. The committee then issues non-binding recommendations on how to best rectify issues of gender discrimination. By ratifying the treaty, the U.S. would be able to nominate their own expert to serve on the committee, review reports, and issue advice on supporting women’s rights. The U.S.’s unique ability to issue self-examining reports would provide a template for other countries as to how to best evaluate gender discrimination in their own countries. As a leader in the United Nations, especially on the Security Council, the U.S. should take steps to be a leader in the field of human rights.

  1. Ratifying CEDAW will provide the incentive for the U.S. to examine gender discrimination domestically.

The U.S. is one of the most progressive countries in the world, and we have taken steps to rectify the exact types of gender discrimination that CEDAW outlines. There is, however, much more work to do. Sex trafficking in the U.S. is a 9.5 billion dollar industry. Women only make 81% of the median earnings of male full-time workers. One in five U.S. women will be sexually assaulted. The U.S. ranks last on paid parental leave, childcare, and flexible work hours. The self-evaluation that CEDAW requires would serve as the impetus for the U.S. to address these issues, as well as provide international support and recommendations on how to improve.

For the past 35 years the U.S. has failed to ratify CEDAW, which begs the question, why now? What is different now that would motivate the U.S. to finally ratify the treaty? Perhaps motivation will come from the twenty-year anniversary of the historic conference during which over 45,000 participants flooded into Beijing in the name of gender equality. Their efforts culminated in the Beijing Platform for Action, which laid out “a decisive agenda for advancing women’s rights and empowerment,” as well as making specific recommendations for “lifting women out of poverty, promoting the education and training of women, improving women’s health, fighting violence against women, [and] safeguarding women’s rights in armed conflict.” The resolution was universally ratified and has served as a framework – in conjunction with CEDAW – to eliminate gender discrimination.

In the spring of 2015, the UN will hold the 59th Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) – tasked with the yearly examination of progress on gender equality. This CSW meeting will mark the 20 years since the Beijing Platform for Action passed, and thus a large part of the meeting will be centered on progress in the last twenty years. Choosing now to pass CEDAW would be symbolic of the last twenty years of struggle for gender equality and affirm the U.S.’s commitment to women’s rights.

The Beijing Platform for Action historically states, “Women’s rights are human rights” – it’s time we honor them by ratifying CEDAW.

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