It may come as a surprise that the United States stands alone among industrialized countries in its repeated refusal to ratify the 1979 U.N. Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW). Then again, it really shouldn’t.
Many folks believe the United States is the very best country in the world for female citizens. And that is almost true, sort of! Okay, so maybe we’re not in the top five. And we’re definitely not in the top 10. And we’re certainly not in the top 20. But hey, the World Economic Forum’s 2012 Gender Gap Report ranks us 22nd out of 135 countries in the world in gender equity.
However, our failure to participate in the CEDAW is like a big, glaring F in our reasonably decent gender equity report card (c’mon, 22nd isn’t that bad. It’s like having a B average in high school.) And there’s a pretty great chance that if we corrected this inexcusable error (as President Obama advocates), our ranking in the 2013 WEF Gender Gap Report would shoot up by at least a few places. We might not be able to overtake Lesotho (14) but surely we could surpass Cuba (19).
More important than the numbers, of course, would be the actual American women—particularly poor women—whose lives might genuinely improve as a result of the ratification of the CEDAW. So in the interest of learning just what the CEDAW might do for you (or for the women in your life), let’s go to the highlights reel. Here, in no particular order, are just a few important things about this nonbinding, non-threatening, totally voluntary international agreement.
The entire point of the treaty is to get signatories to commit to providing the best life possible for women and girls. This doesn’t mean providing a better life than that of men and boys. It means providing equal opportunity and equal protection under the law. Each signatory agrees to provide occasional reports on the state of gender equity in its particular nation. The reports go to a 23-member international committee, which then makes suggestions for improvement. They are suggestions only, not punitive measures like sanctions. Because the treaty is nonbinding, it poses absolutely no threat to national sovereignty. Politicians actually capable of reading and processing facts might therefore wish to avoid derailing its ratification on such grounds. (See the kerfuffle over the U.S. Senate’s opposition to a U.N. treaty protecting people with disabilities, a treaty that was modeled on the Americans with Disabilities Act.) Way back in July 2002, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee voted to recommend ratification of CEDAW, but the treaty never ended up in front of the full Senate for a vote. Only six countries—Iran, Sudan, Somalia, Palau, Tonga, and the United States—have failed to ratify the treaty. Based on recommendations from the CEDAW committee, Kuwait in 2005 granted women the right to vote! CEDAW inspired domestic-violence legislation in Turkey, Nepal, South Africa and the Republic of Korea. CEDAW has also influenced property-inheritance legislation for women in multiple countries. CEDAW does not discuss abortion and makes no recommendations for or against the implementation of abortion-related legislation. CEDAW does promote access to “family planning,” which could conceivably include information about everything from abstinence to barrier methods to chemical or surgical birth control.
Want to learn more? Check out the CEDAW Task Force of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights. And feel free to contact the Capitol Switchboard at 202.224.3121 to ask how to ring your Senator for a chat on the subject. Be sure to use ladylike language—you know, words like “empowerment” and “equality.”
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Sara Benincasa is a blogger, comedian, and author of Agorafabulous!: Dispatches From My Bedroom. She has created online content for MTV News, Comedy Central, Vice, Wonkette, Jezebel, CNN and the Huffington Post. She holds a master's degree in education from Teachers College at Columbia University. She lives in Los Angeles, where she is at work on two novels for young adults.