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30 Years of Fighting Discrimination against Women - It's Time the U.S. Stepped Up

Lenora M. Lapidus,
Former Director,
Women's Rights Project, ACLU
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December 18, 2009

Today, the United Nations and the world celebrate 30 years of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), the international human rights treaty dedicated to gender equality, adopted by the United Nations General Assembly on December 18, 1979.

Nearly every country in the world has ratified CEDAW; the United States is one of only seven that have not.

As expressed on the CEDAW at 30 webpage, the treaty’s anniversary

provides an occasion to celebrate its near-universal ratification, as well as the recent progress that has been made at the national level to implement CEDAW and make true gains for women’s and girls’ rights on a practical, everyday level.

It is truly shameful that a country that holds itself up as a world leader on both women’s rights and human rights more broadly — and that has far from achieved full equality for women and girls at home — is still not a party such a crucial treaty. The United States’ failure to ratify is even more disheartening given that our government was instrumental in drafting the treaty 30 years ago.

At a December 3 celebration of the anniversary at the United Nations headquarters in New York, top-level U.N. officials, including Secretary General Ban Ki-moon and High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay, spoke about the importance of CEDAW and how it has changed women’s lives around the world. They highlighted CEDAW’s wide acceptance, calling it “one of the most successful human rights treaties ever,” and its “capacity to empower individual women to recognize their human rights and seek to claim them.” “But,” said CEDAW Committee Chair Naéla Gabr,

perhaps the Convention’s greatest strength lies in its recognition of the importance of substantive equality for women, which requires not only formal legal equality, but equality in real terms, in order to eliminate discrimination.

Representatives from around the globe gave examples illustrating how CEDAW has been used to effect real change for women in their countries. They told moving stories of how, as a result of CEDAW, women in Morocco have gained rights in marriage and divorce, women in India have better access to legal recourse for sexual harassment, and the Mexican government is taking stronger steps to curb violence against women. (Watch video of the entire event here.)

Like women all over the world, women in the U.S. suffer gender-based violence: each day, an average of 630 women are raped or sexually assaulted, and an average of three women are murdered by an intimate partner. This violence is one of the most critical obstacles to women’s and girls’ full participation in society in the U.S. And as the CEDAW Committee has long recognized, violence against women and girls is itself a form of gender discrimination.

If ratified, CEDAW would require the U.S. government to take more proactive steps to eliminate gender-based violence, including exercising due diligence to prevent violence committed by private individuals, investigating and punishing acts of violence, and providing compensation to victims. CEDAW would help fill the gap left in U.S. law by the absence of a strong federal law prohibiting violence against women. It would also redress Supreme Court decisions denying victims of violence an avenue to gain justice through the federal courts and holding that survivors of domestic violence have no constitutional right to police enforcement of a protective order. Ratification of CEDAW is especially important for young women, poor women, and women of color, who are disproportionately targeted for gender-based violence, particularly Native-American women, who because of jurisdictional issues cannot obtain a remedy through state courts.

Speakers at the U.N. event emphasized the importance of implementation, reminding us that many countries that have ratified CEDAW still have a long way to go to before achieving full equality for women and girls. But the first step in participating in the worldwide movement to end gender discrimination is certainly ratification, a step that the United States must now take.

In his first speech before the United Nations General Assembly in September, President Obama indicated that the U.S. intends to prioritize human rights in both domestic and foreign policy, pledging that, “America will always stand with those who stand up for their dignity and their rights.” CEDAW ratification is an essential piece of fulfilling this promise.

Secretary General Ban Ki-moon personally called on those few countries that have not ratified CEDAW to do so, and today we ask the United States to heed this urgent call.

Add your voice! Join advocates from around the country who are calling on the President today to take action on CEDAW.

(Photo: Bomoon Lee)

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