11/29/2010 03:24 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

What's Wrong With "Women's Rights," and Why the US Should Ratify CEDAW Anyway

The Senate Judiciary Committee recently debated whether the United States should ratify CEDAW, the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women. CEDAW guarantees a wide range of equal rights to women in areas such as employment, education and political representation.

Before stating why it's imperative that the United States ratify this treaty, let's admit what's wrong with it: CEDAW's focus on women's rights is wrong in many respects. Even with gender equality as a goal, CEDAW's efforts are limited by its focus on women. Its focus on women frames men and women as having a perpetrator/victim relationship. CEDAW's goal of protecting women from discrimination in a variety of social, political, and economic settings presumes that men do not also suffer from sex stereotyping. It is this stereotyping that forces men into breadwinner roles as they take jobs that keep them from their families and put their lives at risk in mines or at war. Men are increasingly less educated than women - women currently constitute sixty percent of college students and soon will be two-thirds of higher education students. Furthermore CEDAW's focus on women implies that there are two sexes, "men" and "women" when in fact there are increasingly large numbers of transgender and intersex people, as the controversy around South African runner Caster Semenya conveys. In short, CEDAW overlooks a huge source of gender inequality - this is what's wrong with "women's rights."

And yet, I support CEDAW's ratification. With regard to CEDAW's focus, women's rights, there are some claims to legitimacy. Many areas of society limit women's participation - the Senate itself is emblematic of this problem. With only 17 women out of 100 senators, the Senate has an under-representation of 33 percent. The corporate sector in the United States has an even lower level of representation in corporate boards and still fewer heads of companies are women. Fields such as law and finance, where women have matched men as graduates from top schools for decades still count few leaders who are women. In short, women continue to deserve some consideration for the vast inequalities they face. Improving women's status in society, as CEDAW instructs, will not single-handedly eliminate gender inequality. To do that, we need to take men and other sexes into account. But the rights CEDAW promotes would indeed constitute progress in gender equality.

Apart from the issue of gender equality, U.S. ratification of CEDAW is essential to U.S. political power. Although CEDAW is but one treaty, it is increasingly shameful for the United States to stand in the community of nations without having ratified it. Only Iran, Somalia and Sudan join the United States in this selective group of violators of international law. Women's rights has explicitly played a role in United States foreign policy, with the protection of Afghan women as an ostensible purpose of the military presence I that country. Recently, the United States endeavored to keep Iran off a new United Nations organization for women's rights. The United States would gain a strategic legitimacy and benefit from ratifying CEDAW.

Finally, ratifying CEDAW has little cost. Those who criticize CEDAW from the right as guaranteeing a parade of horribles misconstrue the range of legitimate interpretations of CEDAW through the world. The United States, while ranking relatively low in many aspects of gender equality (a big standout here is the lack of mandatory paid parental leave), already guarantees nearly all of the central provisions of CEDAW.

CEDAW continues to stand for a critical issue of human rights, and despite its shortcomings, which are many, the United States should not continue to remain outside of this fundamentally important international treaty.