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Time for U.S. Senate to Act on U.N. Women's Treaty

Friday, December 18, 2009

The United Nations' global treaty on women's rights--the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women--turns 30 today and the U.S. still hasn't ratified it. Linda Tarr-Whelan says the U.S. must get its house in order.

Editor's Note: The following is a commentary. The opinions expressed are those of the author and not necessarily the views of Women's eNews.

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The United Nations' global treaty on women's rights--the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women--turns 30 today and the U.S. still hasn't ratified it. Linda Tarr-Whelan says the U.S. must get its house in order.
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Linda Tarr-Whelan(WOMENSENEWS)--Today is an important 30th anniversary for women's rights.

On Dec. 18, 1979, the United Nations adopted the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, or CEDAW, making it a watershed day for women around the globe.

This international agreement was Eleanor Roosevelt's dream and is one of the pillars of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The global community went on the record to challenge every government to protect the human rights of women and girls by working together.

In those heady days, I was deputy assistant to President Jimmy Carter for women's concerns. We expected speedy action after he sent the treaty to the Senate.

That wasn't what happened.

CEDAW--the only international instrument that comprehensively addresses women's rights within political, civil, cultural, economic and social life--is still unfinished business here in the United States, but not in the rest of the world.

As a former ambassador in the late 1990s, I was often challenged on the United States' failure to act. We rightly see ourselves as champions of human rights, but for a generation we've neglected to become full partners in the global movement for gender equality.

Accountability is why the treaty makes a difference. It provides activists with a set of agreed-upon benchmarks to use when they press for change and monitor their governments.

Helping Activists Win

In Ukraine, Nepal, Thailand and the Philippines pressure on their governments to live up to the treaty provided the backbone for laws to curb sexual trafficking.

India developed national guidelines on workplace sexual assault. Nicaragua, Jordan, Egypt and Guinea have seen increases in literacy rates.

San Francisco, the only U.S. jurisdiction to adopt CEDAW as part of its local legal code, now has more streetlights to decrease sexual assault and newly gender-balanced boards and commissions.

It's time to get our house in order, because CEDAW isn't just for far-away women. It also matters to women here.

Adopting the women's treaty would provide a spotlight on progress, a self-assessment tool and the incentive to do better. Eighty-three countries have proportionally more women in Congress than we do. The gender wage gap saps the family purse. Paid family leave, standard practice in the rest of the industrialized world, remains out of reach.

With CEDAW in place, U.S. women's rights champions could face our government with a new level of accountability.

Virtually every other country has joined this global cooperative effort. Activists and governments on every continent use this universal women's treaty to advance and empower women.

The United States, however, stands shoulder to shoulder with the only outliers who have not ratified CEDAW--Sudan, Iran, Somalia and a few small island nations.

Internationally, although we "talk the talk" and sometimes "walk the walk," our absence as partners on gender equality shortchanges women.

Our forceful voices and strong support are needed by women whose rights are routinely trampled in far corners of the world. America's clout matters to women struggling for basics like owning property or going to school, or where girls are trafficked or face rank discrimination every day.

30 Percent Tipping Point

CEDAW quiltRatifying CEDAW would take 67 votes in the U.S. Senate.

Our path would be much easier if our Senate, like those of 23 other countries including Rwanda, Argentina, Angola, Costa Rica and much of Europe, had 30 percent women.

The 30 percent figure is the tipping point, where women's ideas, values and priorities are heard and heeded.

My book, "Women Lead the Way: Your Guide to Stepping Up to Leadership and Changing the World," details how 101 countries have embraced this model, why it works and how we can get there.

We can't wait for balanced leadership in the U.S. Senate. CEDAW must be ratified without delay or political games.

President Obama should lead the way to create the day he portrayed when he spoke of a 'new beginning' at Cairo University on June 4. He said, "I am convinced that our daughters can contribute just as much to society as our sons. Our common prosperity will be advanced by allowing all humanity--men as well as women--to meet their full potential."

Let's show we mean what we say. The clock is ticking.

As Secretary of State Hillary Clinton famously said, "Human rights are women's rights and women's rights are human rights."

The women of the world are watching and waiting. We must honor them and act now.

Linda Tarr-Whelan is the author of "Women Lead the Way: Your Guide to Stepping Up to Leadership and Changing the World" and a Demos Distinguished Senior Fellow. She served as ambassador to the U.N. Commission on the Status of Women in the Clinton administration and as deputy assistant for women's concerns to President Jimmy Carter. Her Web site is www.lindatarr-whelan.com.

For more information:

CEDAW
http://www.womenstreaty.org