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Nealan AfsariBack to OpinionNealan Afsari

What do Somalia, Sudan, Iran and the U.S. have in common?

Sudan, Somalia, Iran, the Pacific Islands of Nauru, Palau, Tonga and the United States. It might surprise you to know what these nations have in common: None has recognized certain basic human rights for women by ratifying the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, or CEDAW. Yet, 186 other countries – literally, almost the whole world – have. How can we wage a war in Afghanistan and tout the principle of women’s rights in the discourse on that war, yet not sign on to a treaty that even Afghanistan itself has signed on to?

The U.S. Senate just took one step closer to changing this. The Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on Human Rights and the Law recently held a rare hearing – the first since 2002 — to receive witness testimony on the importance of ratifying this unprecedented treaty which the United States helped to draft, which was adopted by the United Nations General Assembly in 1979, and which was signed by President Jimmy Carter in 1980.

Darfuri female leaders listen to Physicians for Human Rights researchers surveying the prevalence of rape in their communities in Darfur and Chad. Photo: AP/Physicians for Human Rights, Karen Hirschfeld

CEDAW is not just an acronym for a mysterious complicated piece of international law, but rather, the Women’s Treaty, as some call it, is a symbol of what we in the United States say we believe in and live by: ensuring a woman’s right to vote, providing women access to education and healthcare, reducing domestic violence and sex trafficking, ending forced marriage, protecting a woman’s inheritance, and ensuring women the right to work and own a business. In other words, what most of us would consider basic rights.

With so many compelling reasons for the Senate to ratify CEDAW, and no financial cost, one must wonder why the United States has not done so yet, when most of the world has.

Some CEDAW opponents claim that the treaty undermines traditional family values and worry that ratifying the treaty will subject the United States to pressure by the international community to soften restrictions on abortion and to provide for equal pay between men and women, something that many in the U.S. are still resistant to. Just one day prior to the recent hearing on CEDAW, a filibuster prevented the Senate from bringing the Paycheck Fairness Act to a vote, which, if approved, would have provided women stronger legal recourse against discriminatory pay practices.

Congresswoman Carolyn Maloney testified at the Senate’s 2002 hearing on CEDAW that “too many Senators have serious misunderstandings about what the treaty really does.” Ratifying the treaty will not subject the United States to an enforceable legal obligation, nor will it change existing U.S. laws on issues like abortion and equal pay. It is true, however, that just as the United States can use CEDAW as a tool to advocate for its positions, other countries can also use this tool to advocate for change here. Not ratifying CEDAW, though, will not prevent the United States from being subject to criticism or pressure by members of the international community – it will only prevent us from utilizing this effective advocacy tool.

If the United States is to be a moral leader in our global community, it must ratify the Women’s Treaty. Ratification will send a signal to the world that our talk of human rights is backed by actions, and that we agree with our global community, including all of our allies, that we must work on elevating the conditions and status of women. As Senator Durbin stated as he led this recent hearing, “millions of American women and girls are subjected to domestic violence, rape and human trafficking. And women who work full-time still earn only 77 cents for every dollar that a man makes.” Multiply that times the women of the world, and we know why 186 countries have ratified CEDAW and why we must finally say yes to it now.