In 1980, President Jimmy Carter sent the Senate Foreign Relations Committee a treaty for ratification outlining basic human rights for women around the world.
Over 30 years later, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee is where it remains.
The treaty – known as the United Nations Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, CEDAW for short – was one of several issues discussed Tuesday during a packed subcommittee hearing on global violence against women.
The United States is the only industrialized country that has not signed on.
Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) said the continued inaction on the treaty is unacceptable.
“I feel like if you stopped someone in the street who wasn’t that into all of our nuances here and said ‘can you believe that America is standing with countries like Sudan, Somalia, and Iran,’ 187 countries have already ratified this, they’d be horrified,” she said.
But beyond the women in the committee room wearing purple stickers with the words “Ratify CEDAW,” it’s unlikely many Americans would know what Boxer was talking about.
That’s where we come in.
Here is the She the People guide to the international women’s rights treaty you have never heard of:
What is CEDAW?
The United Nations Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women is an international treaty that outlines basic human rights for women.
Amnesty International describes CEDAW as “an international standard for protecting and promoting women’s human rights and is often referred to as a ‘Bill of Rights’ for women. It is the only international instrument that comprehensively addresses women’s rights within political, civil, cultural, economic, and social life.
Proponents, like Catherine M. Russell, the Ambassador At Large For Global Women’s Issues, said U.S. involvement will strengthen the treaty and that the current inaction is confusing to women in countries without equal rights.
“In a way it’s somewhat easier for people in the United States to take it for granted because our laws are so progressive here, but I will say when I travel around the world it’s a life line for women and they are desperate for us to pass it,” Russell testified Tuesday. “I think it really undermines our efforts and deprives us of a very powerful tool.”
Has it ever been ratified?
Yes. Twice. But only on the committee level.
President Bill Clinton sent the treaty to the Foreign Relations Committee in 1994. It passed the committee, but the full Senate never took it up. When Republicans took over the Senate in 1995, the new committee chairman, Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.), successfully blocked it.
It was passed out of committee for a second time in 2002, but again was not taken up by the full Senate.
Has the inaction caused any friction?
Yes. In 1999, 12 House Democratic women, led by former Rep. Lynn Woolsey (Calif.), marched into a Helms hearing and attempted to deliver a letter containing signatures in support of CEDAW. Helms responded by calling the Capitol Police and having the group escorted out.
Here’s a glimpse of the confrontation went down, according to a report by Post reporter Helen Dewar (the whole story is worth the click):
Helms pounded the gavel and said they were disrupting the hearing. “You’re out of order. You cannot demonstrate in this hearing,” he said. When Woolsey asked to meet with him on the treaty, Helms said, “You know, you’re out of order, and I would not be discourteous to you where you work. Now, you please be a lady. . . . You are not going to be heard.”
What’s the problem with CEDAW?
Some critics of the treaty have cited U.S. sovereignty as their chief concern about signing on and have argued that international law could supersede that of the U.S. government, according to a 2011 Congressional Research Service report on the treaty.
Another concern of treaty opponents is whether it will be an effective way of dealing with global women’s rights. Some argue that the treaty can be used by countries with poor women’s rights records as a front to look like there are promoting equality, while changing little at home.
Finally, conservative groups in particular contend that the language in the treaty referencing the education of women on family planning and parenting, could be used to impose a false set of values “regardless of whether they align with national law, family traditions, or personal convictions,” according to CRS.
So what’s next?
During the hearing, Boxer summed up the inaction as “internal politics.”
“It’s ludicrous, it’s side issues that have nothing to do with the basic message, which is equality,” she said. “It’s politics. It’s internal politics. It’s not a rejection of the notion that we are all created equals, it’s extremely frustrating nonetheless and ridiculous and it should be a non-issue, but we are going to keep on pushing.”
The treaty is supported by the Obama administration and Foreign Relations Chairman Robert Menendez (D-N.J.). But Menendez indicated Tuesday, more support is needed.
“We must also continue to build support for the ratification of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women,” he said.