Opinion: Time for pragmatism on women’s rights treaty
by Anjali Dixit
From left to right: Denise Scotto, Co-Chair of the NY State Bar Association International Women’s Rights Committee, Jayne Huckerby, Adjunct Assistant Professor of Law, NYU School of Law, Gaynel Curry, Gender and Women’s Rights Advisor, Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Karen Stefiszyn, human rights specialist at UN Development Fund for Women (UNIFEM), Janet Benshoof, President and Founder of the Global Justice Center, Shannon McNulty, Program Chair & Co-Chair of the NY State Bar Association International Women’s Rights Committee. / Nicole Schilit
The Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), adopted in 1979 by the United Nations General Assembly, is also known as the international bill of rights for women. CEDAW compels its signatories to create a normative framework of nondiscrimination and equality for women. In so doing, it addresses women’s civil, political, social, and economic rights in both the public and private spheres. Over the past 30 years, CEDAW has provided both the rhetoric and the international approval to overturn discriminatory laws and customs in many of the 186 countries that have ratified it. Although the United States is a glaring omission from that list of countries, policymakers in the U.S. must approach CEDAW’s ratification with political pragmatism.
In the U.S., CEDAW highlights many of the ideological rifts between conservatives and liberals. Conservative leaders claim that its ratification will overthrow American laws and values. Concerned Women of America, one conservative organization that promotes the integration of biblical values into public policy, contends that CEDAW is “a tool for radical feminists” to undermine family values, provide access to abortion, legalize prostitution, and eliminate all differences between men and women. In contrast, President Obama, Vice President Biden, Speaker Pelosi, and other liberal political leaders have pushed for CEDAW’s ratification in order to demonstrate support for gender equality both domestically and abroad. Currently, the version of CEDAW pending in the U.S. Senate includes numerous reservations, understandings and declarations, all of which essentially serve to tone down its so-called “radical” leanings.
At a March 30 event sponsored by the International Women’s Rights Committee of the New York State Bar Association, Janet Benshoof, founder and president of the Global Justice Center, asserted that it is worse to ratify CEDAW in its current state than to skip ratification altogether. Referring to the United States’ existing version of CEDAW as the “Twisted Sister” and “CEDAW-Lite,” Benshoof argues that ratifying CEDAW with reservations would be a “PR scheme for a global ad campaign,” effectively sidestepping CEDAW’s original intention to spur governments to enshrine its tenets into domestic law. Rather than adopting CEDAW with reservations, Benshoof declares that the U.S. must instead remove the qualifiers on CEDAW before ratification in order to convey a commitment to revolutionary change in U.S. law and to “send a message around the world that CEDAW matters.”
While Janet Benshoof’s argument for a purist version of CEDAW is idealistic and theoretically sound, it is politically unfeasible. In a political climate rife with accusations of big government takeover, the idea of rewriting the U.S. Constitution to include the principle of gender equality; enacting legislation prohibiting discrimination against women; abolishing all discriminatory laws, customs, and practices; and ensuring that no public authority, private organization, or individual discriminates against women is unreasonable and maybe even naïve.
Although it is easy to refuse any ratification that is not a complete ratification, this all-or-nothing approach is devoid of both nuance and political savvy. Benshoof’s demands for total and instant gratification lack the patience that would be required for CEDAW’s acceptance by the U.S. Senate.
Historically, political upheaval of this sort usually only succeeds incrementally and imperfectly, especially in a viciously partisan climate. In March, President Obama signed a health care bill that has been toiled over since his presidential campaign in 2008. In fact, one could argue that this health care bill has been on the political agenda since Clinton’s push for universal health care in 1992, or since Johnson’s implementation of Medicare and Medicaid in 1965, or since Truman’s attempt at health reform in the 1940s, or even since FDR’s Social Security Act of 1935. In just the past year and half, the bill has undergone iteration after iteration, with politicians, nonprofit organizations, lobbyists, and the general public all getting involved in the debate.
The bill President Obama signed into law is not perfect, but it is a start. It provides a potential stepping-stone to achieving universal health care. It passed — albeit in imperfect form — because of the process of political deliberation that allowed politicians and all of their constituents the opportunity to join in, really learn what was happening, and feel comfortable with the systemic changes that are soon to come.
In the same way that achieving universal health care in the U.S. has been undertaken as a process, so must the CEDAW articles delineating gender equality. CEDAW doesn’t have to spur as enormous a debate or overhaul as health care reform did, but its full ratification will only come when idealism is tempered by patience and political acumen.
Published in RightsNews
Volume 28, no. 2, April, 2010.
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