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U.S. Lags in Legalising Women’s Rights Treaty

Charundi Panagoda

WASHINGTON, Mar 7 2012 (IPS) - The United States has fallen behind. Many other countries have already implemented it, but the United States still has yet to ratify the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), which promotes women’s rights as human rights.

In 1945, the United Nations (U.N.) created provisions for governments to protect human rights. Not until 1979 did the U.N. General Assembly pass CEDAW to protect fundamental human rights for women. As of May 2010, 186 out of 193 countries had ratified the treaty.

“CEDAW acknowledges the existence of women as half of humanity in this world, insists on inclusion of women in all spheres of life and obliges the state parties to support all of their citizens, both women and men,” Sima Samar, chairperson of the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission, said at a recent event on women’s rights.

United States is one of the seven countries that has not yet ratified CEDAW, leaving it in the company of Iran, Somalia, Naurau, Palau, Sudan and Tonga. CEDAW was signed by President Jimmy Carter in 1980, has passed twice in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee with a bipartisan vote in 1994 and 2002, but has never come to the Senate floor for a ratification vote.

There’s a great deal of misinformation regarding CEDAW in the United States, Don Kraus, CEO of Citizens for Global Solutions, a grassroots organisation supporting responsible and cooperative U.S. foreign policy, offered by way of explanation.

Among these myths regarding CEDAW is the fear that U.S. ratification would undermine U.S. sovereignty, since Americans would have to answer to an international body.

In reality, the treaty doesn’t grant the U.N. or another body enforcement authority. Because of such fears, the United States has also failed to ratify the Convention on the Rights of the Child, a treaty for ensuring children’s rights, with provisions for prohibiting child pornography and child prostitution.

Other misconceptions regarding CEDAW include fears that ratification will interfere with American family values and would promote abortion.

“There are number of lies being told about CEDAW…One of the things opponents like to say is that if we ratify CEDAW, there won’t be a Mother’s Day anymore. That has not happened anywhere in the world. [Opponents] often will say it is a treaty about abortion,” Erin Matson, action vice president for the National Organisation for Women, told IPS.

“In fact, CEDAW is silent on the issue of abortion,” she explained.

Despite these misconceptions, CEDAW could benefit the United States greatly if ratified and implemented.

It would “providing a blueprint for increasing gender equality and reinforces our role as a global leader in standing up for the rights of women and girls. In countries that have ratified CEDAW, women have partnered with their governments to engage in a national dialogue about the status of women and girls, and as a result have shaped policies to create greater safety and opportunities for women and their families,” Kraus told IPS.

The provisions in CEDAW focus on ending violence against and trafficking of women and girls, increasing women’s political participation, improving conditions for women’s economic opportunities and increasing women’s political participation.

In Saudi Arabia, CEDAW is currently being used to draft new legislation to allow female lawyers to try family law cases in court, to let female law graduates serve as full lawyers instead of “law consultants” and to overturn rules that prohibit women from entering the courts alone, without a male guardian.

In Pakistan, CEDAW has allowed criminalisation of tribal practices where young girls are exchanged as “gifts” in resolving disputes. New laws are also being enacted to regulate the sale of acid, as acid attacks on women by husbands or jilted lovers are notoriously common.

In Netherlands, called a “destination country” for sex trafficking, new legislation is broadening the definition of human trafficking to encompass all forms of exploitation. It is also increasing jail terms for traffickers, in response to queries by the CEDAW committee.

But in the United States, the current polarised political climate makes promoting women’s rights difficult, Matson told IPS. She thinks women are being “politicised”, even though much progress remains to be made in America, with regard to equal opportunities for women in education, employment, wages, access to healthcare and protections against gender-based violence.

“There’s a tendency in this country to exoticise violence against women in other cultures and to ignore violence against women here and pretend like it’s not happening at all; sweep it under the rug,” Matson pointed out.

“The fact is that one in three women in this country is attacked by an intimate partner at some point in their life… We have cultural blindness to violence in our own country. There’s a tendency to say discrimination only happens somewhere else.”

The Obama administration supports ratification of CEDAW, Kraus said, and while no vote on CEDAW is currently underway in the Senate, senators such as Barbara Boxer continue to bring the treaty into attention.

If CEDAW were ratified, the United States will be able to participate immediately on the CEDAW committee and acknowledge women’s rights as human rights for the first time in national law, Maton said. Right now, “we are not even able to work with other countries with implementation of CEDAW”.

“San Francisco ratified CEDAW,” she added. “That has lead to greater participation of women in leadership and law enforcement and to things like placing street lights in areas unsafe for women before. There’s all sorts of practical knowledge around the world that’ll be open to us here.”

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