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To Prove American Commitment to Women's Equality, Congress Should Ratify CEDAW

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Last week, the Global Summit to End Sexual Violence in Conflict was held in London. The UK's Foreign Secretary William Hague and Angelina Jolie, Special Envoy for the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, co-chaired the summit. Mr. Hague purportedly became committed to this agenda after viewing In The Land of Blood and Honey, Ms. Jolie's directorial debut about sexual violence in the Bosnian conflict. I watched this film shortly after release and was equally haunted and moved.

With so much in the news lately about women stoned to death in Pakistan, gang-rapes in India, and mass kidnappings in Nigeria, it seems that being born a girl can be a curse in much of the world. Within our own borders, millions of girls and women are subjected to physical or sexual violence on college campuses and from intimate partners. Luckily, with the 24/7 news cycle, millions around the world have now read the stories, seen photos, and tweeted anthems of activism about these not new, yet newly highlighted plights around the world.

The World Health Organization estimates that 35 percent of women around the world experience physical or sexual violence. Apart from deep physical, psychological, and social wounds, there is an economic price. Lost productivity as a result of violence range from 1.2 to 2 percent of gross domestic product.

In February, Secretary of State John Kerry and William Hague co-wrote an op-ed entitled Preventing Sexual Violence is a National Security Imperative. At last week's summit, Secretary Kerry delivered a call for zero-tolerance towards sexual violence and the need to guarantee that perpetrators are brought to justice. Though, despite these clear statements on the link between sexual violence and national security, the U.S. Senate has yet to ratify the United Nation's Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women. CEDAW is the most comprehensive international agreement addressing women's rights within political, civil, cultural, economic and social life.

The U.S. is the only Western and industrialized democracy not to have ratified CEDAW, joining the likes of Iran, South Sudan, and Somalia as holdouts regarding the global norms for women's equality. The Senate Foreign Relations Committee voted in July 2002 to recommend ratification of this Bill of Rights for Women, but this treaty has never come before the full Senate for a vote.

It is a bit ironic that the U.S. is not a signatory, as it was an American who proposed the landmark document at the United Nations. In 1974, President Nixon appointed Republican activist Patricia Hutar to lead a bipartisan delegation to draft the text of CEDAW in Geneva. A skilled negotiator, Hutar was instrumental in convincing several communist countries to approve the text.

CEDAW is not just another piece of paper. Thanks to this convention, the idea that women should enjoy moral, civic, and political equality has spread throughout the world. Non-governmental organizations, advocacy groups, and civil society are able to hold signatory governments accountable to measures and actions required by CEDAW. During my graduate research, I worked with a civil society group in a former Soviet republic researching gender in public policy. Because this country was a signatory and had ratified the treaty, groups were able to work with the government to write a Gender Equality Law and demand that polices on equality and safety make it on parliamentary agendas.

The principles outlined in CEDAW are completely consistent with U.S. law and foreign and domestic policies. Nonetheless, American conservative and religious groups have presented opposition, contending that the treaty would, among other things, ensure access to abortion services and contraception, allow same-sex marriage, legalize prostitution, force the U.S. to pay men and women the same for work or equal value, and promote gender re-education. CEDAW is not self-executing and therefore would not authorize any lawsuit not already allowed under U.S. law. Additionally, it is well within the right of Congress to ratify the treaty with expressed reservations, understandings and declarations.

This is a no brainer public policy; there is no reason that the United States of America should not ratify this treaty as the world leader on national security and a defender of human rights. Congress must look beyond reelection campaigns and partisan politicking and spend some time on an important piece of legislation. Next spring, the 59th session of the Commission on the Status of Women and the twentieth anniversary of the Beijing Declaration will be held at United Nations Headquarters in New York City. Let's give our American representatives something positive to report: demand that Senate #RatifyCEDAW this year.