A vote for CEDAW is a vote for Women

By Kelsey Schwarz*

Like many other Americans, I was unfamiliar with the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) until recently. CEDAW (also known as the Women’s Treaty) is an international agreement on basic human rights for women. So how had this escaped my attention? Is it because the US has supported human rights for decades so there is little talk of this particular treaty? No. Is it because it is a new treaty that we have just not heard of yet? No. CEDAW was introduced to the UN back during the Carter Administration and our Senate has been sitting on it ever since! Is it because we have achieved equal rights for women as a nation and help all other nations reach that same goal? Certainly not.

According to Linda Tarr-Whelan, Demos Distinguished Senior Fellow and Former Ambassador to the UN Commission on the Status of Women, so many Americans are unaware of CEDAW because it is not part of the national conversation and therefore out of the public eye. The U.S.—along with such notorious countries as Sudan, Iran and Somalia—is not among the 106 UN members that have ratified CEDAW. Linda joined scholars and activists yesterday at a panel hosted by Demos to discuss why U.S. ratification of CEDAW matters to women in the U.S. and abroad.

Along with Ellen Chesler from Hunter College, Linda explained the basic elements of CEDAW, including women’s access to education, access to health care and the right to live free of violence. Ellen brought up the fact that CEDAW did not in fact develop out of western/U.S. centric thought but rather was the product of women’s thinking around the world, with women from developing countries playing an especially vital leadership role.

And while CEDAW has faced political resistance and right-wing backlash in the U.S., June Zeitlin, the director of CEDAW education project at the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, pointed out that our current political climate offers a good opportunity for CEDAW to finally be ratified, with the Obama administration’s support and over 150 organizations’ coalition building to make this goal a reality. Letty Chiwara, UNIFEM-NY Cross Regional Programs Manager and native of Zimbabwe, gave a personal narrative on the trials and tribulations that women face in many other parts of the country where violence and discrimination is a part of their daily life. She also made the argument that CEDAW is a powerful tool in accountability politics: once ratified, it can be a tool in court cases to uphold human rights as governments are required to report on the progress of implementing these standards in their country.

The next step to ensure ratification of CEDAW is to get the word out that the US is one of the few countries that does not support the treaty that guarantees women their basic right to equality! The panelists agreed that coalitions are the only way to get this done, pointing out that the ACLU, YWCA, and Citizens for Global Solutions have already joined forces. To learn and find out how to get involved, visit www.womenstreaty.org.

*Kelsey Schwarz is a Research and Programs intern with the National Council for Research on Women. Kelsey received her B.A. in Sociology from Hunter College and will continue her work on the sociology of families this fall while pursuing a Ph.D. in Sociology.

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