US Senate Hearing Puts Women's Human Rights in the Spotlight

November 3, 2011

Tunisian women demonstrate for the protection of their rights in Tunis ©SALAH HABIBI/AFP/Getty Images

As the uprisings in the Middle East and North Africa continue to unfold, serious concerns are emerging regarding the inclusion of women in the plans for new governance. In Egypt, for example, women stood shoulder to shoulder with men to topple a regime notorious for its human rights abuses and yet, now that those leaders have been forced to step down, women are too often finding their calls for an equal seat at the table rejected.

Yesterday, the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee held a hearing to highlight these concerns. “Women and the Arab Spring: Spotlight on Egypt, Tunisia and Libya” focused on women’s human rights and emphasized the need for the US to ratify the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW). Senator Boxer (D-CA), Senator Casey (D-PA), Senator DeMint (R-SC), Senator Shaheen (D-NH), and Senator Udall (D-NM) were all in attendance to discuss how the US Senate could work to support women in the Middle East and North Africa.

The turnout of human rights activists was tremendous! The hearing room was standing room only, and the majority of the attendees proudly sported Ratify CEDAW stickers. Amnesty International USA submitted testimony highlighting our concerns for women’s human rights in the region and calling on the US Senate to ratify CEDAW.

Prominent women’s right’s leaders from both the United States and the Middle East and North Africa testified. Melanne Verveer, Ambassador-at-Large for Global Women’s Issues at the US Department of State, testified on behalf of the US government. In response to a question by Senator Boxer, a leader in the fight for US ratification of CEDAW, Ambassador Verveer explained that in her travels, the number one question she is asked time and time again is, “Why hasn’t the United States ratified CEDAW?” She told the committee that “US ratification would lend much needed validation and support to advocates around the world, including in the Middle East region.”

Women’s human rights leaders such as Mahnaz Afkhami, President of Women’s Learning Partnership, and Manal Omar, Director of Iraq, Iran, and North Africa Program at the United States Institute of Peace, testified on behalf of women activists in the Middle East and North Africa. They know from experience that while post-conflict and politically transitioning societies provide a unique opportunity for women to engage in the political process and create lasting change, too often women are left out of the process.

We must support these women! Women human rights defenders are sidelined, killed, abducted, and made to “disappear” as a consequence of their work. They face gender-specific repercussions, such as sexual harassment and rape. Amnesty International has been working to support women in the region and advocating for US ratification of CEDAW.

We view this hearing as an important step in keeping women’s rights and CEDAW in the US political spotlight. However, there is much more to do. The uprisings in the Middle East and North Africa present an unparalleled opportunity to ensure gender equality for millions of women across the region; the global community must ensure that both women human rights defenders and women’s rights are not traded away in the transitions.

Intern Heena Kepadia contributed to this post.