The United States has not ratified the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) — which serves as the cornerstone of universalization of women’s rights since its inception in 1979. As of June 23, 2011, 187 out of the 194 U.N. member nations have ratified or acceded to the convention. The United States’ opposition to CEDAW has installed it into the company of other non-party states to CEDAW like Iran, Somalia, and Sudan. The United States has the dubious distinction of being the only country in the Western Hemisphere and the only industrialized democracy that has not ratified the treaty.
American policy makers have contentiously debated the convention since it was drafted in 1979, but the same has led to no fruition. President Jimmy Carter signed the convention and transmitted it to the Senate in 1980. The Senate Committee on Foreign Relations has held hearings on CEDAW in 1988, 1990, 1994, and 2002. To date, the treaty has not been considered for ratification by the full Senate. This discrepancy hampers the United States’ credibility to lead on matters of human rights around the world, and opens doors to allegations of inconsistency and expediency on Washington’s part, especially while it sets standards for developing countries.
However, U.S. policymakers agree – in principle, with CEDAW’s overall objective of eliminating discrimination against women around the world. Although, with respect to brining their commitment to women’s right to its logical conclusion via ratification of CEDAW, Conservatives have continually deemed, U.S. ratification of CEDAW would undermine national sovereignty and “require the federal government or, worse, the United Nations to interfere in the private conduct of citizens.” However, the convention is not self-executing. That is, legislation to implement any provision enshrined under the said treaty would come before the House and the Senate in the same way any other legislation does.
Further, as President Jimmy Carter underscored in his ‘Letter of Transmittal’ addressed to the Senate, “… great majority of the substantive provisions of the convention are consistent with the letter and spirit of the United States Constitution and existing laws.” In addition, if any provision does cause friction between the said treaty and domestic law, the same can be dampened by exercising the right accorded by the Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties (1969), to voice reservations. However, despite past administrations’ – like that of President Bill Clinton, attempts to include reservations, understandings, and declarations (RUDs) to the Convention, the ratification has been stalled continually by conservatives.
In addition, Conservatives purport that, the United States is already an international leader in promoting and protecting women’s rights and that CEDAW ratification would not affect its ability to advocate such issues internationally. They argue that current U.S. laws and policies regarding gender discrimination serve as an example of the United States’ commitment to women’s equality. However, statistics suggest otherwise.
On the World Economic Forum Gender Gap Index 2015, the United States ranks 72nd in women’s political empowerment, 6th in women’s economic participation and opportunity, and 40th in women’s educational attainment – behind former Soviet republics like Kazakhstan (28th), Ukraine (30th), and Belarus (33rd). In consideration of the United States’ 228 year democratic experiment, its global standing in women’s political empowerment is particularly astounding.
According to United Nations Women, as of 2015, the world average for the share of women in the lower houses of national parliaments is 22.8 percent. In the United States, women currently account for 19.4 percent in the 114th U.S. House of Representatives. By contrast, Rwanda has the highest number of women parliamentarians. Women there, account for 63.8 percent seats in the lower house.
This indeed fractures Washington’s credibility to lead on matters of human rights. Especially, as it considers the advocacy of liberal democratic values as a major tenant of its foreign policy. Back in 2002, Joseph Biden and Barbara Boxer noted in an op-ed, “How can we demand, for example, that India and Pakistan work harder to stop bride-burnings and so-called “honor killings” of women by their families? How can we credibly insist that sub-Saharan African nations work to stop female genital mutilation when we have not ratified this (CEDAW) treaty?” At the 2010 hearing before the Senate Subcommittee on Human Rights and the Law, Wazhma Frogh, a women’s rights activist from Afghanistan, stated that U.S. failure to ratify CEDAW “is of huge international significance,” and noted that conservative elements in Afghanistan “use American’s failure to ratify CEDAW to attack [Afghan] women’s rights defenders.” That year, in a comprehensive poll undertaken across the United States in May 2010, 89 percent of respondents said that the United States should ratify the treaty.
Around the world, the Convention has become a formal mechanism through which, aggrieved women around the world draw attention to their issues on both a national and international level. In addition to hampering the United States’ credibility, not ratifying CEDAW has also robbed American women of their right to employ CEDAW to demand greater accountability from their elected representatives. On December 11, 2015, a UN working group on legal discrimination against women concluded a ten-day tour of the United States. According to Samantha Allen of The Daily Beast, the group essentially noted that the U.S. “hypocritically fails to measure up to the very standards that it sets for other countries when it comes to women’s human rights.” In a statement, the group concluded, “The United States, which is a leading state in formulating international human rights standards, is allowing its women to lag behind international human rights standards.”
The statement also expressed concern at the increase in maternal mortality rates in the United States. According to WHO reports, between 1990 and 2013, the maternal mortality ratio in the United States, increased from an estimated 12 to 28 maternal deaths per 100,000 births. On healthcare, UN working group noted that a third of the people living in poverty are still uninsured, affecting primarily women, in particular Afro-American and Hispanic women, preventing them from accessing basic preventive care and treatments. They also expressed alarm regarding the percentage of women in poverty. They noted that, poverty amongst women in the United States has increased over the past decade, from 12.1% to 14.5%, with a higher rate of poverty than men, affecting predominantly ethnic minorities, single parent families and older women. And, American women are marginally paid less – even as of 2016, women earned 78 cents per dollar earned by men for the same work.
Throughout the Cold War, and thereafter, the United States has claimed to be the beacon of liberal democratic values. Today, the United States stands pivotal to the sustenance and stability of the liberal world order, that it helped craft at the end of the Second World War. The United States’ failure to ratify CEDAW, renders its stewardship to be robbed of moral authority. Thus, the United States must ratify CEDAW and restore cogency between the standards it sets abroad, and the ones it hones at home.