CEDAW: I Didn't Know What It Was, Either

I'm a progressive attorney and a feminist. I care about the Stupak/Pitts Amendment, Lilly Ledbetter, the epidemic of rape in the Democratic Republic of Congo, and the struggles of women in Afghanistan.

So why didn't I know about CEDAW? CEDAW (pronounced see-daw) is the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women: an international treaty to protect women's rights. It defines "discrimination" like this:

. . . any distinction, exclusion or restriction made on the basis of sex which has the effect or purpose of impairing or nullifying the recognition, enjoyment or exercise by women, irrespective of their marital status, on a basis of equality of men and women, of human rights and fundamental freedoms in the political, economic, social, cultural, civil or any other field.

The United Nations gave birth to CEDAW in 1979, and it turns thirty on December 18 of this year.

185 countries have ratified the treaty. Here are a few of the countries that have not ratified it: Sudan, Somalia, and . . . the United States. (Presidents Carter and Clinton signed CEDAW. However, neither President managed to get the treaty out of committee and onto the Senate floor for a vote.) I suppose that's not a huge shock. We didn't ratify an Equal Rights Amendment to our own Constitution, either. I find this even more embarrassing than my dearth of knowledge. Thirty years and we still can't say we support full equality for women? Even when most of the world can?

I learned about CEDAW at an educational event by Human Rights Watch. Some people asked what the big deal is about CEDAW in the United States; we're doing OK on the whole women's rights thing, aren't we? Sort of; I guess it's all relative. It wasn't too long ago that Lilly Ledbetter was let down by the Supreme Court, and Congress had to get involved to ensure redress for unequal pay. Abortion rights are eroding. So here is the exciting thing about CEDAW, right here at home: if it gets ratified, it becomes law that can be cited to in legal actions.

A ratified treaty, in the world of legal authority, has less weight than our Constitution or a federal statute (a law passed by Congress), but more weight than court cases (even Supreme Court cases). Women seeking redress for discrimination in employment, health care, and other areas that are hugely important in our day-to-day lives will have a new source to point to when they ask for their rights to be respected.

On a global scale, the treaty will make a leap in status if the United States signs on. Hillary Clinton will have something else to point to that says we're serious about women's rights when she asks other countries to make changes. Moral authority matters, and we've lost quite a bit of it over the last eight years. Ratifying CEDAW is a way to get some of it back.

Why are we so behind on this issue, anyway? The main reason is the same reason we're behind on health care reform: there are very powerful lobbies that see CEDAW as a tool for picking their deep pockets. More entitlements for women (and thus our families) equals less money for employers and insurance companies. I don't think that's a good enough reason to oppose CEDAW, and I hope you don't, either.

CEDAW is thirty today--a grown-up age. As a birthday gift to the treaty and to women everywhere, please tell your friends and family about CEDAW. You can learn more about it on the U.N. website.

And you can learn how a treaty becomes ratified in the Unites States here.

When there is another opportunity for the Unites States to ratify CEDAW--and hopefully, within the next couple of years, there will be--we should all know what it is and why it matters.