Can a Women's Rights Treaty Make any Difference?

December 3, 2008

Earlier this week, President-elect Obama made a commitment to push for Senate ratification of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW). This treaty has been signed by several Presidents (including President Jimmy Carter in 1980) but has never reached the Senate floor. That’s a 20 year denial of women’s rights.  The United States bears the shame of being the only industrialized country which has not ratified it.

The question is, would ratifying an international treaty make any difference?  The answer is yes, CEDAW is important!  The treaty has been a vital tool for women’s rights activists in countries which have ratified it to demand their rights be enshrined in law.  It has been used to develop citizenship rights in Botswana and Japan, property rights and political participation in Costa Rica and to develop domestic violence laws in Turkey, Nepal, South Africa, and the Republic of Korea.

Arialle Crabtree demands support for Women's Rights!
Arialle Crabtree demands support for Women

Critics of the treaty say that women’s rights in the United States are enshrined in the constitution and therefore ratification is not necessary for women here.  I disagree, there are all too many women in the US whose rights are abused.  Furthermore, by not ratifing CEDAW, the US loses all credibility in demanding that women’s rights overseas be respected.  President-elect Obama has clearly recognised the value of this women’s rights treaty, both as a commitment to respecting the rights of women in the US and as a pledge to reinforce any diplomatic efforts to end abuses against women around the world.  I can’t help wondering if maybe it was the President-elect’s mother’s interest in international women’s issues that inspired him.  Whatever the reason, I hope he continues to be inspired to defend women’s rights throughout his Presidency.