Thursday, February 26, 2009

The U.S. Ratification of CEDAW: The Natural Next Step Forward for Women’s Rights

For well over a year, the world has heard the same single word from the Democratic Party: change.

I believe we should thank President Obama for sticking to that promise in one significant area. In just a few short weeks since he has taken office, change not only in health care and economy but also for the better protection of women has occurred.

Undoubtedly, the next step in establishing equality for women across the world is the ratification of the United Nation’s Convention of the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW).

A number of students at Northwestern have already written President Obama and our U.S. Senators, urging them to help in the ratification of this Convention. Being one of the only nations avoiding ratification is disturbing, placing us in the same category as Afghanistan, Iran and Sudan concerning women’s rights. As a start, President Obama signed the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act into law. By doing so he is finally allowing American women and others who have been unjustly discriminated against in the workplace challenge their employers for the same pay as their coworkers, even if they do not find out about this disparity immediately.

This was a step in the right direction.

Another example of our new president taking action for women’s rights is his rescinding of the Mexico City Policy, better known as the Global Gag Rule. Organizations in countries all over the world will now receive the monetary aid the Bush administration once withheld for the family planning tools they need: birth control, condoms, and IUDs, to name a few. Repealing the Global Gag Rule was a relatively quick, simple and easy way to prevent the deaths of thousands of women all over the world. This is not enough.

The single best step toward providing women the equality, resources, and human rights protections they deserve under the Universal Declaration of Human Rights is the ratification of CEDAW by the U.S. Senate. Many are fearful of the legal changes they believe might occur with the ratification of this convention. The voiced fears, however, are not founded in the realities of the Convention.

Many of the articles of CEDAW are already domestic laws here. Even in these cases, ratifying CEDAW is an important show of support, contributing to the common, broader goal of guaranteeing the rights of women across the world. Many women in the U.S. are fortunate that they do not have to deal with some of the daily atrocities that occur in other places; most women here do not have to worry about honor killings or rape by employers, and are legally protected from being burned by their husbands. This raises some questions in the minds of American women. We lack these atrocities here, so what ultimately is the reason for ratifying this convention? The fact that these atrocities exist means that the United States government has failed all women in a fundamental way. We need to stand in solidarity with women around the world to ensure this violence ceases to exist. The United States needs to tell the world it will join in a common stance against these atrocities, and this is difficult to do without joining this formal form of partnership and accountability.

For those of you who have been distracted by misinformation about the convention, let me point out a few things:

1. CEDAW takes no position on abortion. Even the U.S. State Department has identified the Convention as “abortion neutral.” Nowhere in the text is abortion mentioned.

2. CEDAW is in every way pro-family. Contrary to statements of its critics, the convention will not lead the government to the destruction of any “standard” family structure, by undermining the parents’ role, or transforming spousal relationships in any dangerous way.

3. CEDAW promotes what is in the best interests of the child and what equally pushes for the social equality of women.

4. CEDAW eliminates prejudicial practices that hinder the ability of women to gain full economic equality. CEDAW can help provide more protections for women in employment policies; it does not call for “special advantages.”

5. CEDAW does not call for the “legalization” of prostitution. It focuses on “decriminalization” in areas that prevent women fearful of prosecution to request medical and psychological help when needed, as well as educational resources and strategies to help prevent the spread of HIV/AIDS and other sexually transmitted infections.

The United States calls itself a world leader in politics, humanitarian aid and development. President Obama and the U.S. Government have taken some very important and effective steps toward equality in the past several weeks, but there is one action that would signify the best step forward of all. If the United States truly wants to become a world leader in protecting the rights of women, it should immediately ratify CEDAW.

Kayleigh Wettstein

Human Development and Psychological Services

Northwestern University, Class of 2010

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Want to Support CEDAW Ratification? Sign the Petition!

We have created an online petition at:
The petition urges the U.S. Senate to work towards full ratification of CEDAW. Please follow the link and sign the petition to support the human rights of women!

The Ratify CEDAW Petition:

To: U.S. Senate

Dear Senators:

We, the undersigned, are writing to urge your strong support for ratification by the United States of the Treaty for the Rights of Women, formally the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW). It is the most comprehensive international agreement on basic human rights for women.

185 nations have already ratified this important Treaty. However, the United States is one of only eight countries yet to ratify CEDAW, alongside Sudan, Somalia, Qatar, Iran, Nauru, Palau and Tonga.

This Treaty has enormous support within the United States. Over 200 leading organizations representing millions of people across this country form a strong coalition in support of U.S. ratification. The coalition groups range from the AARP and Amnesty International, to Business and Professional Women USA, and the American Association of University Women, to B’nai B’rith International and the American Bar Association.

Women around the globe are victims and survivors of egregious human rights violations and abuses. Violence against women is pervasive throughout the world. Amnesty International has found that discrimination is a root cause for violence and that impunity perpetuates violations and abuses. Approximately one in three of the world’s women will experience violence at some point in their lives, with rates reaching 70% in some countries. Millions of women are abused each year, often in countries where they face discriminatory laws preventing them from seeking meaningful legal recourse against such violence. The World Health Organization estimates that, globally, one woman in five will be the victim of rape or attempted rape during their lives. Within Africa, the estimate is one in three.

Ratification of the Treaty by the U.S. Senate would serve as a tool to fight violence and discrimination against women and girls wherever they face abuse. The Treaty for the Rights of Women can be used to reduce violence against women and other human rights abuses by reversing discrimination and providing equal protection before the law. The Treaty can also help ensure that girls and women receive equal access to education and basic health care, as well as basic legal recourse against human rights violations and abuses. The Treaty has already helped to achieve important reforms, reducing violence and discrimination against women in nations that have ratified CEDAW. The United States should be consistent in its leadership and proudly stand at the forefront of human rights for women around the world.

We ask that you make equality for women a priority by working earnestly toward a final, full Senate ratification of the Treaty. With these steps, the U.S. government will show the international community that it stands unequivocally for the human rights of women and girls throughout the world.


The Undersigned

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Interested in Getting Involved? Send this to your Senators

We most need people to send letters to senators in the following states:

Click here to access a list of senators in the Foreign Relations Committee.

New York
New Hampshire
S Carolina

Dear Senator ,

We write to you as a constituents concerned about the rights of women and children, both in the United States and abroad. We are proud to have you as our Senator, working hard to make human rights a reality.

As a group of we want to be proud of our country. It can be difficult however, to do so, when our government is not willing to protect our rights, and the rights of women around the world, by ratifying a document that almost every other country in the world has fully recognized through ratification. By ratifying the UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) the US will take a strong step toward an official stand against all forms of discrimination, stereotyping, and prejudice against women, combating violations of women’s rights and freedoms and promoting gender equality. As you have said, “we must stand up against injustice.” We would very much appreciate some guidance and assistance from you and your office to help us stand up for justice for women, making a more equitable society for all Americans, and all other women.

We believe that through ratifying CEDAW, the United States would better exemplify the ideals of freedom, liberty, and human rights that we profess to embody. CEDAW is a crucial document that acknowledges women’s innate right to have control over their lives, the activities in which they engage, and with whom they share their lives.

We also believe that being the only democracy to abstain from ratifying this document in the 38 years since President Carter signed it, the United States takes a significant risk in perpetuating the idea that our nation does not truly believe the ideals it works to encourage throughout the rest of the world. Afghanistan, a country where our soldiers are currently stationed, may see continuing progress in the education of women. Yet such progress takes on a new of level of authenticity when the rights of U.S. wives, sisters, mothers, and daughters, are fully protected through international collaboration. The United States has waited long enough to ratify this vital document; a lack of action which has aligned us with the nations such as Iran and Sudan that are known for their unwillingness to work with the international community. We see this situation as contrary to the values of this great country that stood firmly on November 4th for change.

We again applaud your commitment to human rights and the proposals you have sponsored to combat human trafficking, the use of children as soldiers, and the strengthening of the U.S. commitment to human rights on policies related to genocide and ethnic cleansing. Your assistance and guidance in helping us find the best support for working to ratify CEDAW would be greatly appreciated. If we could speak to you in person or on the phone to discuss possible strategies we would be most grateful.

Thank you for your time and consideration,

According to Amnesty International

The Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW, or the Treaty for the Rights of Women), was adopted by the United Nations in 1979, and is the most comprehensive international agreement on the basic human rights of women. The Treaty provides an international standard for protecting and promoting women's human rights and is often referred to as a "Bill of Rights" for women. It is the only international instrument that comprehensively addresses women's rights within political, civil, cultural, economic, and social life.

As of October, 2002, 170 countries had ratified CEDAW. The United States is among a small minority of countries that have not yet ratified CEDAW, including Afghanistan, Iran, and Sudan. The United States has the dubious distinction of being the only country in the Western Hemisphere and the only industrialized democracy that has not ratified this treaty.

The Senate Foreign Relations Committee voted in July 2002 to recommend ratification of CEDAW, but the Treaty has never come before the full Senate for a vote. Ratification of the Treaty requires the support of 2/3 of the US Senate, or 67 votes.

Open Letter to President Obama

We thank President Obama for signing into law the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act ("Obama signs first bill into law, making it easier for workers to sue for pay discrimination" Chicago Tribune Jan. 29) so early in his administration. The Fair Pay Act is an important step against economic discrimination against women, although it by no means solves the hardships and struggles women in the United States and other parts in the parts of the world face daily.

For this reason, we hope the Obama Administration and particularly Vice President Biden fulfills a long-standing commitment to ratify the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW). While Chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, the Vice President demonstrated his advocacy for and understanding of this vital treaty, nearly leading to its ratification in 2002. There is no better time now build on the momentum from the Fair Pay Act and bring CEDAW to a vote before the full Senate.

We understand this is not necessarily an easy challenge. There are a few misconceptions that may prevent certain Senators from ratifying CEDAW. Let's, for instance, address three major concerns.

First, there are some who say that ratification of CEDAW would give too much power to the international community, and thus U.S. federal laws would take a second place when it came to our laws governing social and family relationships. Nothing could be further from the truth. Of all the nations associated with the UN, the only countries that have not ratified CEDAW include Afghanistan, Iran, Sudan…and the United States. Of all the other nations that have long ratified CEDAW, it would not be possible to find a single nation whose own laws were turned upside down by this symbolic embrace with the international community. Refinements based on mutual critiques yes, an overtaking of sovereign law, definitely not.

Next, some Senators based on the complaints of a few constituents may make the case that the term "family planning" signifies that CEDAW supports abortion, and would just solidify decisions made by the U.S. Supreme Court. However, the U.S. State Department correctly calls CEDAW "abortion neutral". In fact the Convention makes no mention of “abortion” whatsoever, and it has been clear that “family planning” refers to the right of women to make more careful decisions about having children, a point on which almost all Americans are likely to agree is a good thing. Countries where abortion is illegal, including Ireland and Rwanda, have ratified the Convention, and have received no criticism from the U.N. on this issue. As a leader of the free world economically, socially, and politically, the US gains little by standing with a few war-torn countries that have notoriously refused to recognize the equality of men and women.

Third, despite all of the positive and comprehensive ways that CEDAW addresses discrimination against women, critics are nervous that CEDAW will call for the legalization of prostitution. Decriminalizing certain aspects of prostitution is a world apart from legalizing the practice. No nation that has ratified CEDAW has been asked to promote sex work, only to protect women from compounding existing mental and physical harms associated with such sex work with ever more punitive forms of enforcement. Decriminalization of prostitution has been called for in specific countries, like China, where the mistreatment and trafficking of women and children is overwhelming. By regulating the system more effectively in specific countries, fearful women can become more likely to come forward to seek medical and psychological treatment, to prevent the spread of HIV/AIDS, and to combat sexual slavery.

Finally, it is wholly inaccurate to characterize the intentions of CEDAW as an attempt to redefine what it means to be an American family. The Convention merely offers women the right to economic security, healthcare, political freedom, a right to education and access to necessary forms of information, just to name a few freedoms.

Lilly Ledbetter faced discrimination for decades. She eventually fought sex discrimination so that other women could get the treatment that they deserved even if they did not notice the disparities right away. CEDAW is not likely to dramatically change the structure of everyday life in the U.S. It is likely to guarantee that equality will be upheld in this nation. Our nation has long prided itself on fighting for the rights and freedoms of others in foreign places throughout the world. By opening ourselves to criticisms that could lead to additional protections for our own people - our mothers, sisters, daughters and friends –we strengthen our ability to encourage these protections everywhere.