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Senate Committee Holds Hearing on CEDAW

On June 13, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee held a hearing on the United Nation’s (U.N.) Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW). Committee Chair, Joseph Biden (D-DE) opened the hearing, stating that “action on this treaty is long overdue.” He noted that in 1980, President Jimmy Carter signed the CEDAW treaty and no action on the treaty has taken place since the Foreign Relations Committee approved the treaty in 1994.

Presiding as chair of the hearing, Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-CA) called the treaty “meaningful” because it “is designed to overcome barriers to women’s equality in the areas of legal rights, education, employment, health care, politics, and finance.”

Adopted by the U.N.’s General Assembly in 1979, CEDAW is also known as an international bill of rights for women. The treaty defines discrimination against women as “any distinction, exclusion or restriction made on the basis of sex which has the effect or purpose of impairing or nullifying the recognition, enjoyment or exercise by women, irrespective of their marital status, on a basis of equality of men and women, of human rights and fundamental freedoms in the political, economic, social, cultural, civil or any other field.” Currently, 169 U.N. member states have ratified CEDAW. The United States is the only industrialized nation that has not ratified the treaty.

Several Congresswomen testified before the committee. Rep. Lynn Woolsey (D-CA) stressed that “women around the world are depending on the United States to show support for CEDAW because U.S. support will strengthen CEDAW’s purpose and enhance its credibility.” In the last nine Congresses, Rep. Woolsey has introduced a resolution calling on the Senate to ratify CEDAW.

Rep. Connie Morella (R-MD) said, “Our vocal support for the human rights of every individual and our role as a world leader, should mandate our support for CEDAW.” She added that many state legislatures, including those of California, Iowa, Massachusetts, and New York, as well as various civic, social, religious, and environmental organizations, have all endorsed U.S. ratification of the treaty.

In her testimony, Rep. Juanita Millender-McDonald (D-CA) said that ratifying the treaty is important for three reasons. She said, “First, we would be adding our voice—as the most powerful nation in the world—to the Treaty for Women’s Rights. Second, we would be entitled to wield even greater influence in the fight against violence and discrimination based on sex.” And third, ratification of CEDAW “would send a signal to perpetrators and victims alike that the United States is serious about eliminating violence at home as well as abroad.”

Rep. Jo Ann Davis (R-VA) urged that the Senate not ratify CEDAW, saying, “The United States is a sovereign nation with a representative democracy sufficient to address issues of gender discrimination and equality in our city councils, state legislatures, and national capital.”

Harold Hongju Koh of the Yale Law School explained that CEDAW defines and condemns discrimination against women and “announces an agenda for national action to end such discrimination.” He also noted that the failure of the United States to ratify the treaty, “has reduced our global standing, damaged our diplomatic relations, and hindered our ability to lead in the international human rights community.” He continued, saying, “Nations that are otherwise our allies…simply cannot understand why we have failed to take the obvious step of ratifying this convention.”

Agreeing with Mr. Koh, Juliette Clagett McLennan, a former U.S. Representative to the U.N. Commission on the Status of Women, said that the ratification of CEDAW “is a matter of crucial importance for the health and well-being of women and children around the world, and it is also critical for the international interests of the United States.” She stressed that the United States has “little leverage when we argue that other nations ought to observe the basic human rights of women.” She continued, “When we are not full treaty partners, it is awkward for us to demand, for example, that India and Pakistan work harder to enforce the treaty bans and their own laws against bride-burning and the so-called honor killings of women. Without a seat at the table, our voice is not heard and thus, not taken seriously.”

Addressing opponents of CEDAW who say that even in countries that have ratified the treaty, women’s rights are still abused, Ms. Clagett McLennan argued that CEDAW “is one tool available to women to press their governments to make good on their treaty commitment.”

Opposing CEDAW, Kathryn Balmforth, a civil rights lawyer, said the treaty “offers nothing to American women.” She added, “The United States already has a highly developed system of civil rights laws promoting equality for women.” These laws were “crafted, legislatively and judicially, to balance society’s interest in preventing discrimination with other, equally important, societal interests, such as fundamental first amendment rights to speech and freedom of religion.” Ms. Balmforth argued that CEDAW does not acknowledge these fundamental rights. Rather, she said, “CEDAW requires government to intrude in all areas, no matter how private, consensual, or even sacred, if there is any distinction made on the basis of sex, of if any culture perpetuates stereotypes.”

Christina Hoff Sommers of the American Enterprise Institute noted that CEDAW “has many admirable and sound goals that any person of conscience must support.” However, she added, “The treaty could do us harm by promoting male/female resentments and divisions at a time when the country badly needs social unity.”

Former Permanent Representative to the U.N. Jeane Kirkpatrick argued that CEDAW “describes an ideal society and reflects realities of life in no society.” She concluded, “Women have rights only in societies where men have rights. Freedom and democracy are what they both need.”

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