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.
Human Development and Psychological Services
Northwestern University, Class of 2010