Linda Tarr-Whelan

WASHINGTON (WOMENSENEWS)–For the first time since 1994, the U.S. Senate plans hearings on the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, the U.N. global women’s treaty which has been ratified by 168 countries since 1979.

The U.S. hearing, set for May 15 before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, does not guarantee that the United States will finally ratify the treaty, but it’s a big step forward. The treaty has been in force for decades without United States participation; if the Congress ratifies the treaty, the United States will have a seat at the table when global women’s rights issues are debated in the U.N.

The treaty spells out a framework for governments to use in combating discrimination against women and in protecting women’s human rights. Although it contains no enforcement mechanisms, it sets out goals–and provides examples of how they can be met–to end inequities in women’s legal status, education, work, health care, marriage and family relations, finance and politics. Treaty signatories must report annually to the United Nations on continuing gender inequality in their countries, progress they make and their governments’ strategies for eliminating discrimination against women.

North Carolina Republican Sen. Jesse Helms, who will retire this year, blocked the treaty from being debated while he was committee chair from 1995 until Democrats regained control of the Senate in 2001.

In 2000, California Democratic Sen. Barbara Boxer and all the other women members of the Senate except Texas Republican Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison moved to hold hearings on the treaty. But Helms rebuffed them.

“Dream on,” Helms told the treaty advocates, saying he would continue to block the measure, which he said had been “negotiated by radical feminists with the intent of enshrining their radical antifamily agenda into international law.”

“I will have no part of it,” he said.

Helms’ support came from anti-feminist and religious groups that claimed the treaty would interfere with “family values” and with pro-life activists’ attempts to curtail abortion rights.

Today, the committee is chaired by Delaware Democratic Sen. Joseph Biden, who supports the women’s rights treaty. All committee Democrats favor the treaty and at least several Republicans are probable supporters–but Biden won’t call for a vote unless he is assured of at least 13 votes, says Leila Milani, the Senate liaison for a coalition of women’s groups seeking the treaty’s ratification.

A favorable committee vote would send the treaty to the Senate floor, where 67 votes are required to ratify the treaty. That would be the end of the process–no House action or White House signoff would be required for U.S. ratification to take effect. But Milani says supporters are well short of that 67 total–and other supporters say this year’s Senate committee hearing may be a warm-up for full Senate action next year.

Treaty supporters, however, are encouraged that President George W. Bush, through the State Department, has in essence given it his support, even if that support is lukewarm.

“I think that the fact that the Bush administration already has spoken on the issue of women in Afghanistan will help us on this treaty,” Milani said, referring to Laura Bush’s public statements in support of Afghan women.

Helms could still try to sabotage the hearings or put a hold on Senate ratification of it as a last hurrah, but such a move would not be welcomed by the many Republicans in tight election races this fall.

Coalition Creates User-Friendly Name for Treaty

Although most women’s rights advocates have supported the treaty since 1979, few made it a priority, which permitted Helms and other conservatives to effectively block a vote. Another problem that kept the treaty stalled was that, until recently, few people in the general public had even heard of it. Feminist Majority Foundation President Eleanor Smeal says that’s partly because of its jargon-heavy name.

“Who knows what a ‘convention’ is?” she recently told a meeting of the Journalism and Women’s Symposium, a national organization of reporters, writers and broadcast producers. “Who realizes that this is actually a global women’s rights treaty? Why not call it that?”

A move toward using the more generic “global women’s treaty” has taken hold, as a recently created coalition of more than 135 religious, civil, women’s and professional groups has urged voter pressure on the Senate to ratify the treaty this year.

Why the action now? It’s an election year. The women’s vote will be pivotal in deciding which party controls the next Congress. Democrats back the treaty and are pushing for action on it. Moderate Republicans want to avoid giving the Democrats an opportunity to characterize all of them as retrograde on women’s issues.

Other Conservatives See Treaty as Hazardous

Although Helms’ imminent departure from Congress may move the treaty toward passage, supporters also must address other concerns of opponents. One criticism made by Helms and others was that the convention would prompt an avalanche of frivolous lawsuits demanding changes in U.S. laws or practices. Advocates say the treaty would not trigger any lawsuit not already authorized under U.S. law.

In 1994, the United States ratified another U.N. treaty, the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, with language almost identical to the women’s treaty. There has been no avalanche of frivolous suits since its ratification, advocates argue. The racism treaty did put the United States solidly on the record against racism.

Right now, the United States cannot have a role in the global women’s rights committee sessions which are held three times a year, to assess the global status of women. Linda Tarr-Whelan, a former U.S. ambassador on women’s issues to the United Nations, says U.S. ratification of the global women’s rights treaty “would allow us to hold our head up on women’s human rights issues, to be active in assuring those rights around the world.”

Women’s rights advocates say that, despite conservative worries and accusations, the women’s treaty will not change U.S. abortion laws, prohibit same-sex schools, or affect child-rearing laws in any way.

In countries that have already ratified the women’s rights treaty, the document has provided valuable benchmarks for equality and mechanisms for changing laws and systems to achieve that equality, say treaty supporters. The Web site for the United Nations Development Fund for Women carries updates on cause-and-effect actions stemming from its passage by various countries. Zambia, for instance, ratified the treaty in 1985 and six years later extended its bill of rights to cover sex discrimination. After Sri Lanka ratified, its government put in place laws which guaranteed women equal access to land and equal treatment in agrarian reform.

The war in “Afghanistan is a huge factor–and the work by American women to make sure that the voices of Afghan women were not silenced as the Taliban put them under house arrest was a major influence on the strong Bush administration position there,” Tarr-Whelan said. “Now we hope the convention will be ratified with Bush support–their support means this will have a very good chance this year.”

Peggy Simpson is a veteran reporter who covered the 1970s-1980s women’s political movement and has recently returned to Washington after a decade in Central-Eastern Europe, covering the economic-political transition after the fall of communism.

For more information:

UN Development Fund for Women (UNIFEM):

UN Division for the Advancement of Women
Convention for the Elimination of All Forms of
Discrimination Against Women:

Feminist Majority Foundation
Convention to Eliminate All Forms of Discrimination
Against Women (CEDAW):