U.S. must stop stalling global women's rights

Editorials featured in the Forum section are solely the opinions of their individual authors.

It’s 1979. The Iranian Hostage Crisis has just ended. There’s been a coup in Nicaragua, and a war between China and Vietnam. The world is complex, constantly shifting between peace and tension in every region.

This was the state of the world when the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women came in front of the U.N. Usually referred to as CEDAW, it came to fruition after thirty years of debate on women’s issues in the United Nations.

The U.N. took several routes to examine the different perspectives and scenarios among their member countries. Commissions were created and different Conventions were passed, eventually culminating in CEDAW.

CEDAW was intended to serve as the central international agreement on the rights of women and the protections that they need. It also lays out actions that should be done in order to ensure those protections. In a time when women’s rights were threatened across the globe, CEDAW was meant to help push positive change worldwide. It was signed and ratified by most countries, which should have been enough. It was enough for it to come into effect under the U.N.

However, what the U.N. says needs to happen doesn’t always quite filter into the world in the same way. CEDAW was missing something important, something that would have given it a weight it did not have.

The United States never ratified CEDAW. Without that tacit approval of a superpower country, it lacked a certain legitimacy. Ratification would require the entire Senate vote on the bill, with two thirds approving. However, CEDAW has never even appeared before the Senate.

For context, most countries have approved of CEDAW — of member-states, the only others who haven’t yet ratified are Iran, Sudan, Palau, Tonga, and Somalia. In the area of women’s rights, that’s not the best company to be in. In fact, there are so many countries with major human right’s violations who at least paid the lip-service of ratifying. The U.S. hasn’t even given it the chance of a vote.

That’s the main issue here — the fact that it hasn’t been in front of the Senate. The issue is that it’s very hard to vote against a women’s rights bill. Sure, there’s a question of United Nations interference in national law, but there’s 30 years of history to show that signing CEDAW won’t weaken the United States in any way.

Other than U.N. overreach, there isn’t much cause to block without getting into hugely controversial issues. That’s why it has never been up to vote — ducking a vote is significantly easier than casting a Nay vote in front of the country.

If you’re wondering what’s so controversial about CEDAW, the answer isn’t surprising. It’s what’s always controversial in terms of women’s issues in the United States. One of the actions CEDAW urges members to follow is providing access to education on family planning as well as health services that may be pertinent. Reproductive matters can be hugely controversial in the United States, but words like abortion are never used in CEDAW. It only mentions that information and health services should be available — there are no requirements as to what type.

Many of the other objections to CEDAW in the U.S. come in a similar vein. CEDAW is not a terribly specific document. Many of its terms can be interpreted in different ways, and allow each nation to determine the best course of action to achieve them. There isn’t any punishment for not completing them either. Any worries about the terms of CEDAW should be dissuaded by the wide range of countries that have ratified the convention. Even extremely conservative nations have ratified the convention, which would not have occurred if they were worried about the terms outlined clashing with their principles. And countries similar to the U.S., allies like Canada and Germany, have given it their approval as well.

CEDAW has accomplished some things since its passage. Laws against human trafficking and domestic violence have been passed around the world. More rights have been given to women in various countries. CEDAW has made a difference in the lives of many women.

And yet, that’s not enough. There’s more to do, and there are areas of the world where women don’t have the equality that CEDAW presses for.

In the grand scheme of things, the United States has to consider so many factors in how it conducts its foreign affairs. The U.S. can’t simply decide that the choices of a nation are unacceptable and single-handedly change them. But what the U.S. can do is ratify a document it should have ratified ages ago.

It’s been over three decades since CEDAW was presented to the United Nations. The U.S. is lagging behind other countries in demonstrating its concern for women’s issues. Giving CEDAW its chance in front of the Senate would show people around the world and here in the U.S. that the U.S. government does not dismiss these issues.

It would add legitimacy to the document that the biggest superpower in the world supported it. It’s time to give CEDAW the chance in the Senate that it should have had a long time ago.