Unfinished Business

Conference Highlights Worldwide Efforts to End Discrimination against Women

By Sandy Thomas and Josh Ferrier, Spring 2012 interns at The Leadership Conference Education Fund

In honor of International Women’s Day, the World Bank, the Nordic Trust Fund, The Leadership Conference Education Fund, and the United Nations Foundation jointly hosted, “A Special Event on CEDAW and Women’s Rights” on March 5, 2012, which took place at The World Bank. The event brought individuals, international policymakers, country representatives, and NGO leaders together to share experiences on how CEDAW, the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, has paved the way for significant advances in women’s rights.

Adopted by the U.N. in 1979 as a legally-binding international treaty, CEDAW has been ratified by 187 countries.  But as keynote speaker Dr. Sima Samar, chairperson of the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission, noted, the United States, along with Palau, Sudan, Iran, Somalia, and Tonga, is among six countries that have not yet ratified CEDAW. She stressed that the United States’ ratification of CEDAW is important to the process of moving forward, stating:

“If it [United States] is in full compliance with the universally agreed upon principles and norms it would enhance global efforts for upholding of human rights and women’s rights values throughout the world.”

Civil and human advocates in the U.S. have been working to build support for U.S. ratification of CDEAW, and as Melanee Verveer, U.S. Department of State’s Ambassador-at-Large for Global Women’s Issues, affirmed:

“The Obama administration is strongly supportive of CEDAW ratification. … It is long overdue for the United States to ratify CEDAW and stand with women of the world in their efforts to obtain basic rights that women of the United States enjoy.”

The political hurdles, however, remain steep. Verveer acknowledged that “we have not yet succeeded in our country,” and explained that the supermajority required in the U.S. Senate “continues to elude us.”

In a panel addressing the future of CEDAW, Wade Henderson, president and CEO of The Leadership Conference on Human and Civil Rights and The Leadership Conference Education Fund, stressed that “the failure to ratify CEDAW undercuts the credibility of our nation’s stated intentions and weakens the effectiveness of our advocacy … and  gives comfort to those who oppose women’s rights.”

As the conference made clear, CEDAW is more than just a symbolic gesture, or a mere demonstration of the international commitment to equal rights for women. Women have used CEDAW to gain legal and policy changes to end discrimination and to hold their governments accountable for progress in advancing women’s rights.

CEDAW has shaped policies to create greater safety and opportunities for women and their families. In Afghanistan, the government responded to deprivation of the right to education for women and girls by using CEDAW to lobby for article 22 in the Afghanistan Constitution which mandates that, “ women and men are equal before the law,” granting women the right to education, as well as economic and political participation.  Four major laws in Ethiopia have been amended — family law, pension law, criminal law, and citizenship law — using CEDAW as a standard for these provisions.

CEDAW is the first step toward a world without gender-based discrimination, but is an important milestone in the fight for equality.