Ratifying Women's Rights

By Ramdas, Kavita N.; Janus, Kathleen Kelly | Policy Review, October-November 2011 | Go to article overview

Ratifying Women's Rights


Ramdas, Kavita N., Janus, Kathleen Kelly, Policy Review


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, I86 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 Kon, 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.

These revitalized efforts to ratify CEDAW have also been met with renewed opposition from the right. Conservative arguments in opposition to 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 about its "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. …

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