Carolyn MaloneyNEW YORK (WOMENSENEWS)–U.S. ratification of an international treaty to protect women’s rights has been held up in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee for three decades, a situation women’s activists would like to change during the Obama administration.

Those who have battled for or resisted the treaty know it as CEDAW, shorthand for the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women.

"Contact the office of Senator John Kerry," U.S. Congresswoman Carolyn Maloney, a Democrat from New York, urged a recent gathering here of ant-violence activists. "As the chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, he needs to hear from you. Write to Senator Kerry, tell him that we want the U.S. in CEDAW now."

Maloney, addressing a recent event organized by UNIFEM, the United Nations Development Fund for Women and the National Council for Research on Women, noted that under the Carter administration the United States signed onto the treaty in July 1980, a few months after it was first opened for signatures at U.N. headquarters.

"With powerful women in the current administration, namely Hillary Clinton and Susan Rice, the U.S. is at an optimal time for ratification of CEDAW," Maloney told the crowd.

The only centralized pro-ratification effort in the United States is the CEDAW Task Force of The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, a Washington-based group that came together in the past year. It is a politically diverse coalition of over 140 organizations, including the American Bar Association, The United Methodist Church-General Board of Church and Society, Presbyterian Church USA and Planned Parenthood Federation of America.

The Obama administration and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton have expressed what June Zeitlin, director of the CEDAW Education Project, called "strong support" for the ratification of the treaty. However, Zeitlin’s group is heightening its call for Obama to "send a strong and urgent signal to the Senate that ratification of CEDAW is vital."

"It was important to formerly organize ourselves into the Task Force to take advantage of the opportunity of support from the new administration," Zeitlin told Women’s eNews. "We’re working to gain enough support for a vote this year."

Laying the Groundwork for Support

"We look to advocacy groups to take the lead on laying the groundwork for when the political conditions are right," a staff member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, who asked not to be quoted by name, told Women’s eNews. "It was clear the advocacy element hadn’t really gotten underway yet. There hadn’t been good grassroots campaigning for a while. But the CEDAW Task Force of The Leadership Conference has taken over more strongly in recent times."

The staffer said that for a "big controversial, multilateral treaty to move through the Senate, there needs to be an enormous amount of White House support. While there have been statements from the administration–especially early on from Secretary Clinton and Susan Rice–the White House certainly has not pushed this in the same way, for example, as they’re currently pushing the START treaty (Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty with Russia), where they’ve been very aggressive in saying they really want Senate movement during this Congress. They haven’t approached CEDAW in the same way, and that also sends a signal to the Senate."

U.S. ratification requires 67 votes in the Senate, posing a formidable political challenge, said Ellen Chesler, director of the Eleanor Roosevelt Initiative on Women and Public Policy at New York’s Hunter College.

"The right wing is holding the U.S. back from ratifying CEDAW," Chesler said. "It has become one of the whipping boys of conservatives because it talks about reproductive rights and it holds countries accountable for the quality of their reproductive health services."

Chesler described CEDAW as setting a benchmark for litigation affecting women–for writing civil, case and constitutional law–in every country in the world that is working to change the status of women.

"Women all over the world use CEDAW to hold their governments accountable for changes in law and public policy. We ought to be a part of that process in the U.S.," she said.

Reviews After Ratification

CEDAW and its committee hold no powers of enforcement over countries. But countries that ratify it are legally bound to abide by its provisions. Countries are also required to submit a report on the status of women to the committee for review one year after ratification and then at least every four years.

The latest review session–No. 46–began July 12 at U.N. headquarters in New York City and ends on July 30. Reports from the following countries are being examined: Turkey, Russia, Albania, Papua New Guinea, Australia, Argentina, Fiji and India.

CEDAW was drafted by the U.N. Commission on the Status of Women following the World Conference of the International Women’s Year held in Mexico City in 1975. The U.N. General Assembly adopted the Convention in 1979.

Among U.N. member states 186 countries have ratified CEDAW. The United States remains one of only seven that have not. The other six are Iran, Sudan, Somalia, Nauru, Palau and Tonga.

CEDAW is the only international human rights treaty that specifically affirms women’s reproductive rights.

It also requires countries to uphold women’s rights in political representation, divorce, domestic violence and other areas that can stoke the ire of social conservatives.

The principle of national sovereignty also inhibits U.S. ratification, said Chesler. The United States is historically leery of handing over power to any outside source or even to looking outward for ideas, she said.

"There are many conservatives who not only don’t like the issue of women’s rights, but also there’s many people on both sides who don’t like the idea of the U.S. giving up sovereignty and being obligated to answer to another, higher authority," Chesler said.

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Regina Varolli is a freelance writer and editor and the owner of Words by Regina Varolli and Co. She blogs about food at Culinary Sagacity.

For more information:

United Nations’ CEDAW:

CEDAW Task Force of The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights:

The National Council for Research on Women: