CEDAW: U.S. Helps Draft Women's Rights Treaty, But Refuses to Ratify It


The U.S. helped to draft the Convention to Eliminate All forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), yet it has not ratified it. Surely if the U.S. had contributed to creation of the content it would ascribe to the ideas being extolled. I am not suggesting that CEDAW is without its issues, but it can be used as a powerful tool by those in and outside of government to redress grievances. 

The late Jesse Helms was the chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee from 1995 to 2001. During his tenure, he refused to hold hearings on the matter. Video of just how deep Helms’ disapproval of CEDAW went:

“The radical feminists have tried to turn the proposed treaty into a — a — what do you call it, a feminist manifesto, and the militant women have fallen on their faces in the process...”

Helms saw the treaty as harmful to America’s sovereignty and the very "moral fibers" of the country. 

Conservative groups like Focus on the Family take this same line, adding that it is harmful to children, marriages, and families, promote abortion, and pressure the U.S. to legalize prostitution. The Heritage Foundation believes that the only case for ratifying the treaty is if it advances national interests. 

One of the major critiques of CEDAW is that it is not necessary for the U.S. to be party to it because we already have laws that protect women and children. To them, I would reply that those laws have clearly not ended discrimination against women and children. 

The U.S. already adheres to many of the provisions in CEDAW. Both the American Bar Association and American Civil Liberties Union have said that CEDAW would not take governing out of the hands of U.S. elected officials, because again, the treaty is self-executing. No changes to U.S. law can be made without it first going through proper legislative channels.

In addition to advancing the rights of women, children in its own country it would show that we are truly committed to doing the same abroad. How can the U.S. tell other countries they must fulfill their obligations under CEDAW if we haven't ratified it? Especially as it has broad-based support, and the support of the current administration. At best, it makes the U.S. appear hypocritical; at worst, it undermines our diplomatic efforts abroad. 

Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) may attend committee sessions of CEDAW and bring their reports for distribution. CEDAW helps individuals address grievances, as in the case of Columbia where it has been cited as a way to strike down laws that criminalize abortions. 

CEDAW helps to identify problems within governmental organizations. The use of assessment tools brings to light discrimination and abuses that may otherwise go unheard or unnoticed. De facto discrimination can be difficult to address, but as we see in the city of San Francisco (where they have locally implemented the treaty) it is an effective tool in the fight for equality and justice.

Opposition to CEDAW is steeped in conservative fear-mongering, but the fears are unfounded. We are over thirty-years late on the ratification of CEDAW, we shouldn’t have to wait another thirty years because of conservative culture warriors.