CEDAW FORUM: The Unfinished Business of Ratification

By Linda Tarr-Whelan*

NCRW asked leading research and policy expert Linda Tarr-Whelan to weigh in on the status of CEDAW. In addition to her responses, below is an excerpt from a previously published commentary from Linda featured on Women’s eNEws and The Huffington Post.

On Dec. 18, 1979, the United Nations adopted the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, or CEDAW, making it a watershed day for women around the globe.

In those heady days, I was deputy assistant to President Jimmy Carter for women's concerns. We expected speedy action after he sent the treaty to the Senate.

That isn't what happened.

CEDAW--the only international instrument that comprehensively addresses women's rights within political, civil, cultural, economic and social life--is still unfinished business here in the United States, but not in the rest of the world.

To read the entire commentary, click here or here.

LINDA BASCH: Why is it imperative that the US ratify CEDAW? What advances in understanding the status of women would result from ratification?

LINDA TARR-WHELAN: It is time for the US Senate to stand up and be counted for women here and around the world by ratifying CEDAW. It would provide international benchmarks for a national dialogue and action to close persistent gaps in women’s equality. This country has made great progress and we must be international leaders for equality and justice for women and girls around the globe – and here at home. The numbers tell the story of persistent problems that remain – a major leadership gap of women at power tables in government and business, shocking figures in maternal health where we are 41st in the world (our infant mortality rates are also high), economic insecurity with women still averaging only 77 cents for every dollar a man makes with Hispanic and African-American women making considerably less, and violence against women by domestic partners impacting two million women a year with rape, sexual harassment and trafficking bringing violence to the doors of even more.

Under CEDAW no one mandates solutions. It is, however, an effective tool for an assessment of progress to put the spotlight on unsolved issues. Because virtually all of the rest of the countries in the world have ratified this treaty we know that models exist for tackling issues here as well. When CEDAW is ratified we affirm the principles of international human rights and equality for women and girls and have a practical blueprint to promote opportunity and protect rights in our own country. As Dorothy Height, the former head of the National Council of Negro Women and advisor to American Presidents said in her last public remarks, “Ratifying CEDAW remains among the unfinished business of the Civil Rights movement.” She was right.

CEDAW and other human rights treaties have always enjoyed bi-partisan support in the United States. Ratification requires 67 votes in the Senate – a sizeable challenge but one we can overcome in 2010. President Obama and Secretary of State Clinton have made this a priority. Thirty years is a long enough track record for the US to see the many benefits of ratifying CEDAW. Women here and around the globe are waiting. Action is needed now.

LINDA BASCH: What specific steps can ordinary citizens take to facilitate CEDAW’s ratification?

LINDA TARR-WHELAN: There is a lot each citizen can do to help see that CEDAW is ratified. Here are some ideas for you:

  • Sign up at www.cedaw2010.org to get all of the latest information.
  • Write a letter to the editor of your local paper to say why you personally feel that it is imperative for the US to join the rest of the world on speaking up for the equality of women and girls. It is a shame to turn our backs on international cooperation and stand with the only other outliers – Sudan, Iran, Somalia, Nauru, Palau and Tonga – instead of being a global leader.
  • Write your Senators to ask them to vote for women this year and ratify CEDAW. Be sure to add a personal story if you can about why this matters.
  • Write President Obama and ask for quick action in 2010. Thirty years is long enough to wait for the United States to stand up and be counted.
  • Check the list of organizations which are supporting CEDAW and if your group is not listed start the process of joining this comprehensive campaign. If your organization is there but you haven’t heard anything lately, contact your leadership and ask for action.
  • If you are a student, schedule a program or event on campus and online to spread the word.

If each of us reaches out we can accomplish our goal of ratifying CEDAW in 2010. Women’s equality is critical to the well-being of families, communities and the economy. Working together as women and men who stand up for human rights will make the difference.

*Linda Tarr-Whelan is a former Ambassador to the UN Commission on the Status of Women, former Deputy Assistant for Women’s Concerns to President Carter and a Demos Distinguished Senior Fellow


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