Can We Pass CEDAW?


In his Senate confirmation hearing for the nomination as Secretary of State, John Kerry pledged his support for ratification of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW). The news that the United States could finally join the 187 other countries of the world in doing so couldn’t come at a more critical time.

Over the last month, I’ve been following continuing reports related to attacks on women in India and around the world, including right here at home. I’m struck by the similarities, both in the crimes themselves and in the way we respond—or don’t—to the global epidemic of violence against women.

From Steubenville, Ohio to New Delhi, India, we saw structural inequalities combined with social discrimination and marginalization of women manifest themselves in brutal acts of violence. There was the gang rape and murder of a 23-year-old woman in India. Then a near identical crime just days later. And there were the athletes who allegedly gang-raped a 16-year-old girl in Ohio. 

In the ensuing weeks’ of analysis and reporting on these egregious acts, one of the most important pieces I have seen was from the New York Times, pointing to research that links heavily skewed sex ratios—thanks to strong societal son preference and the availability of technology for sex-selective abortions—and growing violence among young, unmarried men in India. There are currently 37 million more men than women in India, an unnatural disparity when the natural trend is for slightly more females to be born than males. There’s a similar disparity in parts of the US, where swelling numbers of young men in American oil boom towns are generating reports of increased crime and aggression against women. These are important shifts of which we must take notice.

It doesn’t have to be this way. We have strong frameworks for preventing and prosecuting violence against women, as well as the social and structural discrimination it stems from. The Supreme Judicial Court of Mexico recently used the country’s ratification of CEDAW to hold a perpetrator of domestic violence to account. CEDAW is commonly referred to as an international bill of rights for women, and it outlines, among others, the right of women to live free of violence. In accepting CEDAW, states are obligated to put its principles into practice in their own national legal systems. 

Research by ICRW has documented numerous examples like the Mexico example, where states-party to CEDAW are able to use its principles in national constitutions, legislation and jurisprudence to codify women’s rights and hold violators accountable. Advocates are also able to hook to CEDAW in their efforts to assert and protect those rights. In both cases, we find that ratification of CEDAW leads to real, concrete changes in the lives of women and girls.

That’s the good news. The bad news is that, inconceivably, the United States is one of only seven countries that has yet to ratify CEDAW, keeping company with the likes of Iran and Somalia. Advocacy by ICRW and numerous women’s and human rights groups continues to push the U.S. Senate, the body tasked with ratification of international treaties like CEDAW, to put its growing rhetoric on the importance of women’s rights into practice through immediate ratification. 

The moment is upon us. The 113th Congress has seen a record number of women elected to the Senate, and is in a better position than ever to answer our call. We are inspired by Senator Kerry’s pledges and look forward to working with both branches of Government to seize this historic opportunity to ensure the US is not left behind when it comes to its full support for women’s rights.

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Follow Lyric Thompson on twitter: @lyricthompson