Feminists Take CEDAW Into Our Own Hands

by Sarah Erin Rabin, Special Projects Staff

December 1999 marked the 20th anniversary of the U.N. Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW).  Twenty years have passed, and the United States is the only industrial power that has not ratified this treaty.  Other countries that have not ratified include Afghanistan, Iran and Saudi Arabia.

Senator Jesse Helms, R-N.C., who heads the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, stands strictly opposed to CEDAW and is joined by seven other members of the Senate.  Speaking against the ratification of CEDAW, Senator John Ashcroft, R-Mo., complained that the Convention "would require an end to all discrimination by every individual person and entity in the United States."

Helms recently had capital police escort women members of Congress out of a hearing, where they had come to ask him for a meeting to discuss CEDAW, admonishing them to "act like ladies."  In response to that incident, Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., introduced a resolution (S.R. 237) calling for hearings on CEDAW and Senate action by March 8, 2000, International Women's Day.

The U.S. has already added debilitating Reservations, Declarations and Understandings (RDUs) to CEDAW.  These RDUs are caveats to ratification that would limit the Convention's effectiveness and accountability.  Discussion currently centers on whether feminists should push for ratification of a CEDAW weakened by RDUs or push for eliminations of the RDUs first rather than wait through more years of inaction by Congress.

In order to ratify, 67 votes (or a two-thirds majority) are needed in the Senate.  Currently, 49 Senators have expressed support for CEDAW; the potential votes of 43 Senators remain unknown.

"CEDAW is not a cure for discrimination against women, but it will be a promising start if the administration removes the weakening restrictions," says NOW Executive Vice President Kim Gandy.

The Convention promotes the principle of equality in constitutions and laws, allowance of temporary affirmative action measures, recognition of work as an inalienable right, and gender equity in education, among other measures that acknowledge women's rights and demands.  CEDAW calls for many things, but it does not mention lesbian rights or reproductive rights.  It also would not supercede national, state or local laws, another common myth.

In the U.S., 12 states, 11 counties and 20 cities have endorsed CEDAW or adopted it on behalf of their jurisdictions.

Activists can urge their state and local governments to join these trailblazers.  Information on how to implement CEDAW in your community can be found by contacting Kit Cosby at the Working Group on Ratification of CEDAW, 202-833-8990.

"If enough cities and states pass their own Conventions, maybe we can shame the U.S. Senate and the administration into making this important commitment to women's rights," says Gandy.

Please contact the White House and urge President Clinton to remove all weakening RDUs from CEDAW. Send e-mail to president@whitehouse.gov or call 202-456-1111. Urge your senators to support Sen. Boxer's resolution and bring this treaty to the Senate floor. You can find your senators' e-mail at www.senate.gov or call 202-224-3121.

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