Thursday, February 12, 2009

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.

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