The Unfinished Agenda on Women's Equality Day

09/26/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Eighty-nine years ago today the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was ratified, finally giving women full voting rights. Thanks to Congresswoman Bella Abzug, since the early 1970s we have commemorated the anniversary as Women's Equality Day.

It is indeed a day to step back and reflect on how far -- or not far -- women have come in achieving political equality over these nearly 90 years. I am especially reminded of a conversation I had a few months ago with Dr. Massouda Jalal, a CEDPA training alumna who was also the first woman to run for president in Afghanistan in 2004. She summed up the most basic political reality for women in Afghanistan: "Without power, there can be no equality."

As we look around the globe, we see expanded political participation and leadership by women in many countries. Certainly there have been important gains in the United States, but I am especially encouraged by the examples of Ellen Sirleaf Johnson in Liberia and the countless brave women in Rwanda who helped bring that country back from the depths of genocide and now hold 56 percent of the seats in Rwanda's lower parliament -- the highest percentage of parliamentary seats held by women in any part of the world.

Last week's election in Afghanistan provides some important signs of hope. This time around there were two women candidates for president, as well as record numbers of women running for provincial-level offices. This level of participation is encouraging, but most of the female candidates encountered serious difficulties and were not able to campaign openly. Those who did too often faced threats against themselves or their families.

"Women leaders in Afghanistan need support from the international community," explained Dr. Jalal during her March 2009 visit to CEDPA.

As I write this, the results are not yet available, so we are unable to see how many women actually won seats in the provincial elections. But, even if the results turn out to be disappointing, we can all take heart that there were so many women willing to fight for power and for equality.

In order to promote greater political participation by women, many countries have mandated that certain percentages of legislative seats be held by women. One of the most interesting experiments has been in India, where the Women's Reservation Bill mandates that women hold one-third of all seats in the village-level legislative bodies, the Panchayat Raj. While the merits of political quotas can be debated, surveys show that 95 percent of women representatives claimed they would never have acquired positions in Panchayats if there were no reserved seats.

I was impressed when I visited a group of newly elected village Panchayat members in the outskirts of Patna, India earlier this year. CEDPA is working with a local organization to train these women as leaders and advocates. Their enthusiasm was infectious -- and several seemed ready to engage fully in the political process and to run for re-election even when the seat was no longer "reserved" for a woman. This, in fact, has been an important part of the experience in India. As a result, some 43 percent of village Panchayat seats are now held by women, well above the 33 percent reservation.

Most importantly, the women are making a difference in grassroots politics in India. They prioritize development needs differently than men; they are much more likely to push for better schools and better health centers. They are also increasingly being asked to take on broader political responsibilities at higher levels of the Panchayat system. They are gaining power, strengthening their communities, and helping women throughout India achieve true equality.

Finally, as we think back on August 26, 1920, we should also look forward. We've come a long way towards achieving equality for women, but we are not yet there.

A major part of the unfinished agenda should be U.S. ratification of the CEDAW women's treaty, formally known as the UN Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women. The treaty provides a universal standard for women's human rights. It addresses discrimination in areas such as education, employment, marriage and family relations, health care, politics, finance and law.

The United States remains the only democracy in the world that has not ratified the CEDAW treaty. One hundred eighty-six countries, over 95 percent of United Nations members, have ratified CEDAW. U.S. ratification of the CEDAW women's treaty would clearly demonstrate our commitment to achieving full rights for women in every area of life.

I hope that the U.S. Senate will ratify CEDAW before we celebrate the 90th anniversary of our 19th Amendment next summer. Then, we can truly celebrate my favorite CEDPA slogan: "Every Woman a Leader."

Together, we can make it happen.