Policy Review Banner

Ratifying Women’s Rights

Saturday, October 1, 2011

The convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (cedaw) has been one of the most broadly supported international treaties since its adoption by the United Nations 30 years ago. Since its inception, 186 un member states have ratified the convention, showing their commitment to achieving gender equality worldwide. It remains a mystery to many, therefore, that, to date, the United States remains one of a small minority of countries that have not ratified this treaty designed to ensure equality between women and men and advance women’s rights across the world.

The U.S. ratification of cedaw has historically faced significant challenges from the American right, led by the late Senator Jesse Helms and conservative organizations who rallied support by claiming that the treaty would result in “demanding abortion” and “decriminalizing prostitution.” However, in the past, prominent Republicans including Orrin Hatch, John McCain, and Colin Powell have supported ratification. Recently, the Obama administration has demonstrated a renewed interest in cedaw, with prominent support coming from President Obama, Vice President Joe Biden, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and Legal Counsel to the State Department Harold Koh, in addition to key senators such as Barbara Boxer and John Kerry. For many advocates of women’s rights, these seem like hopeful indicators that the Senate Foreign Relations Committee will consider ratification of the convention again in the near future, which we believe would be a positive step for the United States and for women across the globe.

Conservative opponents of CEDAW rely on an intense dose of fear-mongering about its potential impact.

These revitalized efforts to ratify cedaw have also been met with renewed opposition from the right. Conservative arguments in opposition to <<span class="smallcaps">cedaw are rooted in American exceptionalism, misinterpretations of the treaty itself, and a glorification of women’s traditional roles as mothers, wives, and caregivers. They rely on an intense dose of fear-mongering about the potential destructive impact of cedaw, which conservatives argue threatens family life in the United States with radical “sexual egalitarianism.” Furthermore, in making these arguments, conservatives stir latent xenophobia, warning us that the cedaw periodic reviews by a body of foreign experts cannot be better at meeting the moral challenges of equity than our own democratic institutions. And they seem most appalled at cedaw’s Article 5(a), which seeks to “achieve the elimination of prejudices and customary and all other practices which are based on the inferiority or superiority of either of the sexes or on stereotyped roles for men and women.” Conservatives believe this to be particularly harmful because it risks eradicating gender roles altogether, which they view as a threat to the fiber of our society even if it is these very roles which threaten the well-being not only of women but everyone. These types of arguments against cedaw have also been prominent among the religious right, such as the D.C.-based Family Research Council and groups like Concerned Women for America, whose mission is “to protect and promote Biblical values among all citizens” and whose vision is “for women and like-minded men, from all walks of life, to come together and restore the family to its traditional purpose.”

Opposition to U.S. ratification of cedaw has not only surfaced from the right. Opponents have also come from the left, albeit to a lesser degree. For example, opponents from the left fear that signing cedaw will be a symbolic gesture that would amount to sweeping the problem under the carpet instead of creating meaningful change for women in the U.S. who experience discrimination on the basis of sex. Other liberals oppose the U.S. ratification of cedaw because they claim that the equality framework on which the treaty was developed is outdated. For example, feminist theorists pose the paradox of a rights-based approach that, by working specifically to address women’s subordination, in some ways further entrenches women’s subordinate positions as opposed to liberating them. Thus, these liberals claim that the problem with cedaw is that it fails to adequately address gender equality because its scope remains limited to women. As David Rosenblum writes in a forthcoming paper

cedaw’s focus on women enshrines an understanding of sex as a binary of men/women with a perpetrator/victim relationship. Instead of focusing on “women” as part of a binary, cedaw should seek the elimination of the categories themselves. cedaw’s very title is its mistaken diagnosis. Its focus on the category “women” reifies rather than undermines gender disparities.

While we recognize these concerns and acknowledge that cedaw is not the perfect answer to achieving gender equity in the U.S. or anywhere else in the world, we believe that the ratification of cedaw allows nations to take an important step on the path towards creating greater equality of both opportunity and outcome for women and men.

What we have chosen to address in this article are arguments against the ratification of cedaw from the right, which are grounded more in fear than in reality. As feminists of different generations from different cultures, we support cedaw’s goal to eliminate prejudice and discrimination against both women and men. Ratifying cedaw helps all human beings, regardless of their sex (or other distinguishing physical characteristics), achieve their inalienable rights to life, liberty, bodily integrity, and dignity. The primary arguments that cedaw opponents from the right have leveraged to block the U.S. ratification of the treaty are based on misleading arguments about the treaty’s object and purpose, and we discuss each in turn.

Celebrating a diversity of gender roles

First, the conservative fear that cedaw would eliminate gender roles in this country incorrectly conflates the concepts of sex and gender. Gender, as feminists have worked hard to explain over the years, refers to the socially constructed belief systems and internalized understanding of roles that reside inside people’s brains. Those attitudes and resultant behaviors are developed within the prevailing norms of culture, tradition, religion, and power relations. Women and men make choices not in circumstances of their own choosing, but rather within broader historic, socioeconomic, and political contexts. In fact, one of the less-discussed but deeply important reasons to adopt cedaw is that it offers a profoundly liberating framework for men, many of whom already are remarkable caregivers and parents, in addition to being successful businessmen, lawyers, and physicians. For men, cedaw affirms the right to share the joys and pleasures, as well as the responsibilities of raising children, within a variety of family settings, not merely those based on the heterosexual norm.

Thus, while conservative critics claim that by ratifying cedaw the United States would be demeaning the concept of a woman’s femininity, in fact, the treaty says nothing whatsoever about femininity or its conventions. Notions of femininity and masculinity, like cultures, are inherently fluid and constantly reshaping themselves in societies across the globe, but cedaw does not seek to define those terms. cedaw does nothing to obliterate gender roles; it simply refuses to condone discrimination and violence against women in the name of religion, tradition, and culture. In fact, cedaw does the opposite, acknowledging the importance of women’s obligations within the family, while simultaneously establishing new norms for the participation of both women and men in all dimensions of public and private life.

cedaw as inspiration

Second, conservatives have suggested that cedaw would have a dramatic impact on American laws and practices. They fault feminist activists for promoting this treaty as an opportunity for American women to secure rights the U.S. Constitution has not delivered.

But if, in fact, our Constitution has failed to deliver basic rights to American women, is this not a valid cause for concern? cedaw is an important legal stepping stone to buttress existing efforts to access basic rights for women such as the right to receive equal pay in the workplace, to be free from domestic violence, or to obtain access to family planning. As an international treaty, cedaw in and of itself would not enact these changes or supersede domestic law. Instead, as in Roper v. Simmons, in which the Supreme Court relied on the U.N. Convention on the Rights of the Child and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights in support of its own conclusion to overturn the juvenile death penalty, ratifying cedaw would provide additional support for gender equality claims both in courts and legislatures throughout the country.

As expressed in the first report by un Women, the new un entity for gender equality and the empowerment of women, “where it is successful, strategic litigation can have groundbreaking results. By identifying gaps or changing laws that violate constitutional or human rights principles, such cases can motivate government to provide for citizens, guarantee the equal rights of minorities or stop discrimination.” But strategic litigation is toothless when it is not supported by a legal framework to challenge injustices. Ratifying cedaw in the U.S. would present an important legal mechanism to ensure that the rights of the U.S. Constitution are delivered equally to men and women alike.

Enabling a more evenhanded U.S.

Third, while conservatives broadly agree that the U.S. should stand with the oppressed women of the world, they argue that rather than relying on a treaty such as cedaw, Americans should use the instruments of foreign aid and private philanthropy to express such solidarity. But it is precisely this type of reliance on aid money, reinforced by military intervention, as the only means by which this country is willing to “support” women around the world, that reinforces an image of the U.S. as a neocolonial power. Iraq and Afghanistan are both U.S.-led wars where justification for the invasions and for the continued presence of U.S. troops was and still is made, in part, on the basis of securing women’s rights.

How we seek to advance women’s rights globally is as important as our stated commitment to those rights. Global Fund for Women and Spark advisors like Sakena Yacoobi, founder of the Afghan Institute for Learning, and Sima Samar, who served as vice chair and minister of women’s affairs in Afghanistan and is the current chair of the Human Rights Commission, have long argued that U.S. support for cedaw would significantly strengthen its power as a tool for women worldwide to help themselves. After the 2001 overthrow of the Taliban, Samar wrote a letter to Senator Barbara Boxer describing how U.S. ratification would help women in Afghanistan secure human rights as they rebuild their country. In her words,

if the U.S. ratifies cedaw, the treaty will then truly be the international measure of rights that any country should guarantee to its women. We will be able to refer to its terms and guidelines in public debates over what laws should say. Your advisors to many of our leaders here will be able to cite its provisions in their recommendations. And perhaps we women will achieve full human rights.

Ratifying cedaw would be an important step in standing with women leaders like Yacoobi and Samar, showing that as the most powerful nation in the world, the U.S. is willing to lead by example and critically examine potential shortcomings in its own laws as opposed to simply preaching to others.

Ratifying cedaw would also be a pragmatic step toward supporting these U.S. foreign policy objectives. In the aftermath of the U.S. invasion of Iraq, when women leaders feared that women’s rights would take a back seat in the development of a new constitution, the Women’s Alliance for a Democratic Iraq was able to promote Iraq’s legal obligation under cedaw (which it had ratified in 1986) to include women in the constitutional drafting process, eventually successfully arguing for a 25 percent quota for women in Parliament, where women now hold 70 out of 275 seats in the National Assembly. Iraqi women were able to count on the Global Justice Center, a U.S.-based ngo, as an ally in this effort to use cedaw to promote gender equality in a post-conflict setting, but they did not have U.S. government support for their efforts. If the U.S. were to ratify cedaw, it would allow the American government to more directly advance gender equality, thereby strengthening and lending more credibility to its foreign policy objectives around the world.

There are countless examples that demonstrate the potential for CEDAW to advance women’s rights globally.

If the U.S. is committed to encouraging other countries to become more open, tolerant and democratic, signing cedaw creates the credibility necessary for such efforts to bear fruit. There are countless examples that demonstrate the potential for cedaw, the only global treaty on women’s rights, to enhance the ongoing effort to advance women’s rights globally. Whether it is through the Global Fund for Women, Spark, or in our work at Stanford, we have seen firsthand just how powerful cedaw can be for women who are struggling for a better future in their communities. We know that activists use cedaw regularly to fight for very basic rights, such as property, inheritance, and even the right to vote. As Amartya Sen and others have so eloquently argued, providing women with basic rights is a fundamental step in the movement to eradicate poverty, and cedaw is being used as an important pressure point in providing women that agency.

Women in countries like Mongolia have used cedaw as a tool to survive what was probably the world’s most abrupt switch from communism to capitalism. Mongolia has not only become a place where people are beginning to build civil society, but one where the most dynamic of these groups are run not by men — the traditional rulers of society — but by women. And they have become driving forces of social change. Over the years the Global Fund for Women grantee partners included organizations such as the Liberal Women’s Brain Pool, Gender Equality Center, and Women for Social Progress. They are key players in a web of independent citizens’ groups that act as democracy’s roots in Mongolia, and they have used Mongolia’s ratification of cedaw to build something of which they have no real experience: genuine gender equality at all levels of their traditional nomadic culture. They have used cedaw to ensure active participation in the political process by women and consistently pressured their government to strengthen its commitment to women’s equality by researching arenas of continued discrimination or injustice and highlighting these challenges in what are termed “Shadow reports,” which are presented to balance the reports of governments to the un cedaw committees. Most impressively, numerous other independent women-led ngos in Mongolia have come together to form a coalition known as the cedaw Watch Network, which coordinates and monitors over implementation of cedaw Convention.

Similarly, last year, in a precedent-setting case that was widely hailed by women’s groups around the globe, another Global Fund for Women grantee partner, the Women’s Legal Bureau of the Philippines, in collaboration with several other women’s groups in the Philippines and across the Asia-Pacific region, used the Optional Protocol of cedaw to appeal a rape case in which the survivor had been denied justice. Karen Vertido argued that her rights as a survivor of sexual violence were violated because the court arrived at its decision based on gender-based myths and stereotypes. She asserted, “I claim every inalienable right and every right this country promised to me as its citizen, from protection of my body, my livelihood, to protection of my honor. I claim restitution for having been violated first by one depraved man, and then later by a society that says it is okay to rape women.”

The Philippine government must now implement the recommendations made by cedaw, including ensuring immediate measures in rape cases and impartial and fair legal procedures. The un cedaw committee also urged the government to review its definition of rape and to train its judges, lawyers, law enforcement officers, and medical personnel in a gender-sensitive manner to understand crimes of rape and other sexual offenses.

In Morocco, women’s groups successfully lobbied the government of King Mohamed VI to make significant revisions to the Moudawana, or Family Code, which was introduced following independence in 1957 and made wives legally subordinate to their husbands. In 2004, using Article 16 of cedaw as a guide, the code gave women greater equality and protection for their human rights within marriage and divorce. Husbands and wives now have joint responsibility for their families, the legal age of marriage has been raised from fifteen to eighteen, and important changes to marriage, divorce, and polygamy laws have been implemented. In December 2008, King Mohammed VI publicly banned discrimination against women and officially lifted all Morocco’s reservations on cedaw. Numerous other examples of how cedaw has been used to advance an agenda of equality are cited in a 2010 report by the International Center for Research on Women. In sum, if the U.S. were to ratify cedaw, it could work side-by-side with other countries to promote these types of important shifts toward open and democratic societies, leveraging its aid money and private philanthropy to help make more meaningful and lasting social change.

Ensuring that equality begins at home

Conservative opponents of cedaw talk out of both sides of their mouth, invoking American exceptionalist arguments to claim that the U.S. should not have to respond to the periodic reviews that cedaw requires, arguing in essence that it is fine for “lesser” nations to be held accountable by a group of 23 elected representatives, but not the United States. Citing Article 5(a) regarding the modification of the social and cultural patterns of conduct, conservatives are willing to promote cultural change when it involves some of the more sensationalist practices of other cultures (child marriage, dowry burnings, genital cutting, etc.), while failing to recognize entrenched practices in our own country that inhibit gender equality. For example, opponents of cedaw are quick to point out the oppression of women in the Global South, while failing to acknowledge the ways in which women experience inequality in the U.S., claiming instead that our society has already achieved gender equality. And yet, U.S. statistics show:

  • One out of every six American women has been the victim of an attempted or completed rape in her lifetime.

  • One in three women has been beaten, coerced into sex, or otherwise abused during her lifetime.

  • On average, more than three women a day are murdered by their husbands or boyfriends in the United States.

  • Every nine seconds, a woman is beaten in the United States.

  • Women represent only 3.1 percent of ceos, 14.9 percent of board of directors members, and 12.5 percent of executive officers, while women make up 40.9 percent of the industrial labor force.

  • Women earned just 77 percent as much as men in 2009, based on the median annual earning for full-time, year-round workers.

Clearly, the United States still has a long way to go toward achieving a state where women live can live free of discrimination or violence.

Culturally, conservatives might claim that gender equality should not be a goal at all, that men and women are different and should be free to accept different roles within society. Indeed, conservatives argue that American women inherently prefer to play traditional roles as caregivers, claiming that while women want the same rights and opportunities as men, few make the same choices as men. However, this fails to take into account the deeply entrenched social norms that still define women’s roles or the practical limitations in the work environment within which such “choices” are made. For starters, we live in an unequal world where white women still only make 77 cents on every dollar earned for the same job by a man, and where African American and Latina women make even less — 65 cents and 55 cents respectively. A recent study, “The College Payoff: Education, Occupation and Lifetime Earnings,” released this month by Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce and based on data from the U.S. Census Bureau, provides evidence of significant earnings gaps for women and minorities. The report refers to gender and race as “wild cards that matter more than education or occupation in determining earnings.”

Women earn less money than men over a lifetime at every level of education. At the median, a man with some college but no degree earns nearly as much as a woman with a bachelor’s degree, and a woman must hold a Ph.D. or professional degree to surpass what a man makes with a bachelor’s. As these statistics show, women who are not making the same choices as men may be doing so because those choices are not actually available to them. If, consistent with the terms of cedaw, men and women in the U.S. received equal wages for equal work, it is highly conceivable that both women and men might choose options that gave them greater time and flexibility with their families. In the same vein, cedaw critics ignore the fact that most women in the U.S. live in a world where paternity leave is practically nonexistent. This forces most women who start families to step out of the workplace in order to be full-time parents and penalizes men who might have wanted to make that choice — resulting in the inequalities that we see across corporate America and a further limitation of choices for both women and men.

Women still make a mere 77 cents on every dollar earned by a man who does the same job.

The disparities between “choices” available to men and women are noticeable from very early on in their careers, as we see quite evidently from our work with students at Stanford. In law school, for example, Catalyst has released statistics showing that while women law students make up 44 percent of J.D. candidates, and women make up nearly one of every two law firm associates, women make up only one out of six equity partners and 99 percent of law firms reported that their highest paid lawyer was a man. While one in eight women lawyers work part-time, only one in 50 men lawyers do, and nearly half as many men lawyers as women lawyers (44 percent versus 84 percent) have a spouse that is employed full-time. Law students faced with these daunting statistics illustrating the prospect of lower chances of making partner, potential discrimination based on being disproportionately part-time, and lower wages than their male counterparts are undoubtedly influenced in the choices that they make starting in law school.

Similarly, male law students are under pressure to earn a high salary, potentially discouraging public interest careers, which pay significantly less and are traditionally chosen by women at a much higher rate. A Harvard study on gender experiences in law school showed that women are more likely to choose a career that is “helping others” (41 percent versus 26 percent) and “advancing ideological goals” (24 percent versus 15 percent), and less likely to choose “high salary” (32 percent versus 44 percent) as a priority. The study also showed that men’s choices seem to change during law school, where second- and third-year male law students were significantly less likely to choose “helping others” as a career than first-year law students.

The highly gendered nature of career choices for men and women law students is a microcosm of many other industries in the U.S. where paternity leave is mostly unavailable (and/or culturally seen as unacceptable) and equal pay is impossible for women to obtain. While legal frameworks like cedaw are not a silver bullet to achieve change in entrenched norms, they can help to create a broader global framework for gender equality, within which we may be more effective at transforming these trends.

cedaw does not deny that in most parts of the world today men and women play different roles in society. It reminds us, however, that the “choice” to play such roles may actually be determined in long-held cultural, religious, and other belief systems, which are gradually being challenged by individuals, civil society resistance, and the law. Far from feeling excluded by the process, women from every continent participated in drafting this treaty in the belief that it would buttress their own acts of resistance and transformation, while affording them more opportunity to use the law to offer them greater voice in the key decisions that affect their lives.

Nothing in cedaw requires any woman to give up her chosen role as mother, spouse, or caregiver, but it does ensure that girls are not forced to aspire to those roles simply by virtue of being born female. It also upholds the rights of boys and men to aspire to be caregivers, loving parents, and spouses, as well as protecting the rights of those individuals who choose not to marry, not to bear children, or assume caretaker roles. Those seem like values grounded in the principles of freedom, liberty, and choice that conservatives should readily embrace. By encouraging the U.S. government to ratify cedaw, conservatives can help advance the freedom of women and human rights for all — we hope they make the choice to join with us and the rest of the world to do so.