What do Iran, Sudan, Somalia and the US all have in common? It is not that women who are sentenced to death are raped before being executed that is exclusive to Iran. It is not that genital mutilation is commonplace that is Somalia. It is not that women wearing knee-length skirts can be arrested and lashed that is Sudan. It is, however, that these three countries and the US are the only remaining nations in the world other than two small island nations that have not ratified the Convention on the Elimination of Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW). One might think that the US would be embarrassed to stand alongside countries that are often known for their gross atrocities against women but apparently not. Why is it that the US has failed to take a seemingly simple, yet immensely important, step by not ratifying this convention? The US has tried to justify this disgrace by focusing on other hot-topic issues, claiming that CEDAW would conflict with our current domestic policy regarding abortion, an Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) and prostitution. Although these issues are controversial, using them as a roadblock to ratifying CEDAW is absolutely unfounded.
The CEDAW was adopted by the UN General Assembly on December 18, 1979, and went into effect with the fastest entry into force of any human rights treaty up to that date. Since then, 187 countries have ratified CEDAW, including every other democracy in the world. The CEDAW focuses on eliminating gender discrimination and promoting freedoms in the political, economic, social, cultural and civil realms. Additionally, it contains provisions establishing reporting requirements and a committee to monitor the progress of signatory states. Countries including Australia, South Africa and Uganda, as well as US states such as New York, California and Massachusetts, have incorporated CEDAW provisions into their constitutions to promote equality for women. As for the US, although US President Jimmy Carter signed CEDAW in 1980 and the Senate Foreign Relations Committee has twice voted on it favorably, the US Senate has never voted on CEDAW (due mostly to the Senate prioritizing other items on its agenda). By signing but not ratifying CEDAW, the US shows a halfhearted commitment to women's rights. With 17 female senators, a female secretary of state, three females serving on the US Supreme Court and countless other women in powerful positions, the time is ripe to set our priorities straight and ratify CEDAW.
So how does the US justify this humiliating lack of commitment to its female citizens? Opponents of CEDAW argue that ratification would lead to the promotion of abortion, the establishment of an ERA and the legalization of prostitution. Again, while the use of taboo topics is often successful in quashing the establishment of any new policy, here it is completely baseless. Taking a look at Article 12, Article 14, Article 3 and Article 6 of CEDAW which deal with abortion, equal rights and prostitution respectively it is clear that the treaty neither advocates for such changes nor has it been interpreted by other countries to do so.
In fact, nowhere in CEDAW is the term abortion ever mentioned. As Julia Ernst pointed out in her 1995 article, U.S. Ratification of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, the Clinton administration straightforwardly stated: "[N]othing in Article 12 requires State Parties to guarantee access to abortion." Additionally, the use of the term "family planning" in Article 12 is not code for abortion, as evidenced by staunch pro-life advocate President George W. Bush who used the term to refer to the right of "every couple to plan the number and spacing of their children" before the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations. Additionally, countries that have prohibited abortion, such as Ireland and Chile, have ratified CEDAW without reservations to those articles, proving that the abortion argument is severely lacking. In summation, nowhere in CEDAW is abortion mandated and the US would not have to change its current policies to properly adhere to the treaty.
Regarding the ERA argument and Article 3 of CEDAW, it is even easier to argue that ratifying CEDAW would not necessitate changes in the US's current domestic legislation. The US has used policies, such as Title IX, to promote equality for women in all aspects of society by affording women the same opportunities that men enjoy. Title IX does not eliminate distinctions between men and women. Rather, it celebrates them and ensures that any distinctions made are not used to discriminate against either sex. The "advancement of women," as demanded by Article 3, cannot be interpreted to mean that women must be treated in the exact same way as men. Not only is it unnecessary to create an ERA upon ratification of CEDAW, it is not even suggested.
And, finally, CEDAW is not some subterfuge to globally legalize prostitution. Although there is no US federal law that criminalizes prostitution, all states except Nevada currently have anti-prostitution statutes in place. By affording protections to prostitutes, CEDAW does not mandate that states legalize prostitution as a profession; it insists that states that have legalized prostitution establish protections to ensure that these women are not exploited. It states that if prostitution is considered a valid profession, prostitutes must be afforded the same employment rights as any other legitimate profession. Additionally, the array of states that have ratified CEDAW, including states that have not legalized prostitution like the UK and those that have legalized it such as France show that the purpose of Article 6 is to protect prostitutes where the profession is recognized, not to force countries to legalize prostitution.
Getting these forced arguments against CEDAW out of the way, what should the US do now? It is imperative that the US ratify CEDAW immediately. Standing alone with Sudan, Somalia and Iran frustrates the purpose of our active domestic and international agenda. The time is ripe for the US to reinvigorate itself as a staunch advocate of women's rights and reaffirm to all women that it believes in equality of opportunity for women and men alike. The country would only benefit from becoming a party to CEDAW. Our domestic legislation would be augmented, and our international fight against gender discrimination would be strengthened. And, finally, our women would be protected.
Eileen Ward is the Managing Editor of the Journal of Civil Rights and Economic Development. Ward's experience includes internships with the Honorable A. Kathleen Tomlinson of the US District Court for the Eastern District of New York, the Elder Law Clinic at St. John's University School of Law and the International Senior Lawyers Project.
Suggested citation: Eileen Ward, I'm a Convention, Hear Me Roar, JURIST - Dateline, Sept. 24, 2012, http://jurist.org/dateline/2012/09/eileen-ward-womens-rights.php.
This article was prepared for publication by Elizabeth Hand, an associate editor for JURIST's student commentary service. Please direct any questions or comments to her at firstname.lastname@example.org