National NOW Foundation Times >> Spring 2009  >> Article

CEDAW: Women's Treaty May Finally Go Forward

By Jan Erickson, Director of Programs, NOW Foundation

NOW has been working on CEDAW for decades

Photo by Lisa Bennett

NOW has been working on CEDAW for decades, passing its first resolution of support in 1986. Above, activists protest in March 2000 outside the office of (the late) Sen. Jesse Helms, who was holding up ratification of the treaty.

Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), chair of the new Senate Foreign Relations Subcommittee on International Operations and Organizations, Human Rights, Democracy and Global Women's Issues, told the Associated Press in March that her subcommittee will start hearings this year with a "clean" version of the international treaty called the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW).

The treaty is currently burdened with a number of Reservations, Understandings and Declarations (RUDs), several of which would exempt the U.S. from taking actions to "interfere with private conduct" when there is sex-based discrimination, and relieve the U.S. government from any obligation to adopt paid maternity leave or counter wage discrimination by enacting legislation that establishes comparable worth standards. Other RUDs would let the U.S. off the hook on matters relating to abortion rights, combat assignments in the military, and the provision of health care services to poor women. One RUD stipulates that the treaty is non-self-executing -- that is, it does not become law when ratified.

In 1994, the NOW Legal Defense and Education Fund (now called Legal Momentum) reviewed an earlier set of RUDs and found nearly all unnecessary. In early April, NOW staff met with Sen. Boxer's staff to discuss the RUDs and the process for Senate review of the treaty.

In the same March Associated Press report, NOW President Kim Gandy is quoted as saying that "it would be an important signal to the world that we adopt this critical convention without limitations that exempt the U.S. from coverage and responsibility. . . It sends a kind of 'ugly American' signal that we expect to hold other countries to a standard that we're not willing to accept for ourselves."

If ratified without disabling RUDs, CEDAW could be a useful tool to advance women's equality in the U.S., as it aims to establish rights for women in areas not previously subject to international standards. The treaty calls for actions to prohibit discrimination in politics, law, employment, education, health care, commercial transactions and domestic relations.

Activists should let their senators know that women need a ratified CEDAW. Women are not yet guaranteed equality in the U.S. Constitution, and CEDAW could help bridge the gap until such an amendment is adopted. At this writing, 185 other nations have already ratified CEDAW. The United States, which has a great deal of work to do to improve its human rights record, must do the same to show the international community that it cares about women's equality.