The Nation

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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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.

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Thank you to Linda Tarr-Whelan and Women's eNews for pointing out this disgraceful anniversary.

You wouldn't think that approving a treaty to end discrimination against women would be so hard for the US House and Senate to pass.

Ukraine, Nepal, and Thailand have approved it and are using it to reduce sex-trafficking--good news!

The US refuses equality to women, along with Sudan, Iran, Somalia--not news at all.

So CEDAW was Eleanor Roosevelt's dream, as well as Linda's when she worked for the Carter administration.

Here's what Langston Hughes said about a dream deferred:

What happens to a dream deferred?
Does it dry up
like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore--
And then run?
Does it stink like rotten meat?
Or crust and sugar over--
like a syrupy sweet?
Maybe it just sags
like a heavy load.
Or does it explode?