When Botswana’s first female high court judge, Unity Dow, gave a lecture at the University of Maine School of Law this spring, a woman in the audience asked her about a matter often not discussed in Maine: an international treaty concerning the rights of women.
Specifically, she asked Dow how the United States could be motivated to approve the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, or CEDAW, which was adopted by the General Assembly of the United Nations in 1979.
CEDAW defines discrimination against women and outlines a plan for nations to help end that discrimination. So far, 187 of 193 member countries have ratified the treaty. The U.S. joins Sudan, Somalia, Iran and two Pacific Island nations, Palau and Tonga, in so far refusing to sign on.
Dow, an author and human-rights activist, answered intelligently when she spoke in Portland: If the U.S. Senate cannot garner the two-thirds majority vote needed to ratify the entire treaty, she said, pass the most important parts of it. Set an example for other countries.
The treaty’s downfall is there’s no enforcement mechanism, but its provisions are hard to disagree with, especially around Mother’s Day.
It requires countries to provide women with equal access to adequate health care facilities, loans, technology and government programs. Countries must act to reduce violence against women and girls and to stop sex trafficking. They must work to reduce the number of female dropouts. They must provide protection to pregnant women in lines of work that might prove harmful.
The treaty acknowledges that women have the right to freely choose their profession, spouse and number of children; be granted maternity leave without the threat of loss of employment; and have access to the same education and training as men.
U.S. critics say laws already exist to prohibit discrimination. But our record is not perfect. Signing on to CEDAW would renew our focus on issues that matter: domestic violence, pay equity, maternal health and human trafficking.
Countries that ratify the treaty must submit reports at least every four years about the work they have done to comply with the treaty obligations. The overseeing committee cannot enforce the treaty; they can only recommend how countries can continue to improve.
The lack of enforcement has caused some signatory countries to carve out cultural and religious exceptions to CEDAW. Israel signed it, noting that it will continue to prohibit women from serving as religious court judges. Others approved the treaty with the exception that its provisions would not override Islamic Shariah law.
CEDAW may not be changing some major gender discrimination problems in various countries, but that’s why more work is needed, not less. The fact that other countries have declined to enact all the treaty’s provisions is no reason for the U.S. to back away. Let’s make the treaty stronger with our presence.
There are numerous success stories, too. Bangladesh now has a national law prohibiting sexual harassment, and CEDAW was part of the high court’s discussions. Women have more inheritance rights in Kenya, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. Introduction of a new Family Code in Morocco has led to more reforms, including criminalizing spousal violence.
The treaty has received bipartisan support in the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee several times but has never made it to the Senate floor. Signing on to CEDAW would give the U.S. another avenue to tackle the problems women continue to face, and it would allow us to receive feedback on our work. We should be open to that critique.
President Barack Obama and Republican Sens. Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins support the treaty, as do many other senators from both sides of the aisle. We think more should.