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JoAnn Kamuf Headshot

Women's Rights Are Human Rights

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President Obama continues to recognize the vital contributions that women make to the U.S. economy. Last week's Executive Order creating the White House Council on Women and Girls, and the passage of the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act in January, demonstrate the President's commitment to making women's rights a domestic policy priority. The Council includes almost every Cabinet official and will work across departments and agencies to ensure that women and girls are at the fore of policy considerations. Creating this Council in the midst of our economic recovery recognizes that women serve as vital economic participants for American families and communities.

There is no better time, on the heels of this vital domestic legislation and the celebration of International Women's Day, to express this commitment to women's rights to the international community. The President should take this opportunity to submit the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women ("CEDAW") to the Senate for ratification. Ratification of CEDAW would confirm the President's commitment to improving the status of women both in domestic and international policy arenas.

CEDAW ratification would powerfully demonstrate President Obama's commitment to stand up for women's human rights, by example at home and by encouraging others abroad. The treaty would strengthen U.S. laws that promote women's equality. It would lead to further economic empowerment of women, improve equality in the workplace, and bolster laws that prohibit discriminatory impact. U.S. law currently prohibits unequal pay for unequal work, however, existing laws do not go far enough to ensure equal treatment and equal pay. While the recent Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act provides women some protection, the law principally deals with women's ability to seek redress for discriminatory pay and expands the time frame for women to challenge such discrimination. CEDAW would build on this by enhancing the underlying standards concerning equal pay and paid parental leave (for men and women), in ways that would help support American families. Ratification of this major human right treaty would recognize the significant role that women play in strengthening the United States, economically, socially and politically. Moreover, it would place the United States at the women's rights table internationally, to more effectively promote women's human rights globally through our foreign policy.

Another critical step that the President can take to demonstrate his commitment to both women's rights and human rights in general, would be to issue an executive order to reconstitute and revitalize the Interagency Working Group on Human Rights.

This Working Group, established in 1998 by President Bill Clinton but essentially dismantled by President George W. Bush, would serve as a coordinating body among federal agencies and departments for the promotion and respect of human rights and the implementation of human rights obligations in U.S. domestic policy. This would better enable the federal government to promote its human rights commitments concerning torture, fairness in the justice system, rule of law, and securing equality in health care, education, housing, employment, and the criminal justice system.

In his inaugural address, President Obama spoke of America's history of leading "not just with missiles and tanks" but by "the force of our example." After eight years of policies that eroded human rights and marred the image of America in the world, the nation is ready to turn the page, embrace change, and lead by example once again. Capitalizing on this national sentiment, the President can build on his initial executive orders on Guantanamo, torture, and women's rights, by carving out a legacy that secures human rights both at home and abroad, through reactivating the Interagency Working Group and signaling his support for the ratification of CEDAW.