The Womxn’s Treaty: CEDAW

On December 18, 1979, the United Nations adopted the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women. The call for a Women’s Treaty emerged from the First World Conference on Women in Mexico City in 1975. Until the UN General Assembly adopted the CEDAW, there was no treaty that comprehensively addressed gender equality within political, cultural, economic, social, and family life.

CEDAW is the most comprehensive and detailed international agreement which seeks the advancement of gender minorities. It establishes rights for women in areas not previously subject to international standards. The treaty provides a universal definition of discrimination so that those who would discriminate on the basis of sex can no longer claim that no clear definition exists. It also calls for action in nearly every field of human endeavor: politics, law, employment, education, health care, commercial transactions and domestic relations. Moreover, CEDAW establishes a Committee to review periodically the progress being made by its adherents.

As of 2020, 189 countries have ratified the Convention, pledging to give women equal rights in all aspects of their lives including politics, health, education, and social and legal rights.

Click here for the text of the treaty, the states that are party to the treaty, country reports, and more.

CEDAW and the United States

The United States is one of only seven countries of the world – the others being Iran, Sudan, South Sudan, Somalia, Palau and Tonga – that have yet to ratify the treaty. Today, 189 countries have ratified The Women’s Treaty. As a leading advocate for human rights, the United States has a compelling interest to improve conditions for gender minorities. Yet, as one of the few nations that has failed to ratify CEDAW, the United States compromises its credibility as a leader for human rights.

Ratification is called for in the concluding documents of the Fourth World Conference on Women, the UN Conference on Human Rights, and the Vienna/Helsinki agreements of the Organization on Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). The United States was a signatory to these documents. The United States also made ratification of the Women’s Convention one of its public commitments at the UN Conference on Women in Beijing in September 1995.

History of CEDAW in the US

  • The U.S. was active in drafting CEDAW and President Jimmy Carter signed it on July 17, 1980. It was transmitted to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in November, 1980.
  • During the Reagan Administration CEDAW was largely buried.
  • In the summer of 1990, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee held hearings on the treaty. At that time, the State Department testified that it had not prepared a legal analysis of the treaty to determine how it comports with U.S. law.
  • In the Spring of 1993, sixty-eight senators signed a letter to President Clinton, asking him to take the necessary steps to ratify CEDAW. In June of 1993, former Secretary of State Warren Christopher announced at the World Conference on Human Rights in Vienna that the Administration would move on the Women’s convention and other human rights treaties.
  • The Clinton State Department finally released CEDAW with four reservations, three understandings, and two declarations on issues such as comparable worth, paid maternity leave, freedom of speech, private conduct, and combat assignments.
  • In September 1994, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee reported out favorably on the treaty, by a vote of 13 to 5 (with one abstention). Unfortunately, this occurred in the last days of the Congressional session, when several Republican senators put a hold on the treaty, blocking it from the Senate floor during the 103rd Congress.
  • When the new Senate convened in January 1995, CEDAW was submitted to the Senate Foreign Relations committee for action, where it remained at the end of the 104th Congress in October 1996.
  • On March 8, 1999, International Women’s Day, Senator Jesse Helms (R-NC), Chair of the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, made a statement on the Senate Floor expressing his opposition to bringing CEDAW to a hearing and eventual ratification.
  • Senator Barbara Boxer (D-CA), on April 12, 2000, introduced S. Res. 286 in support of CEDAW. S. Res. 286 expresses the sense of the Senate that the US Senate Committee on Foreign Relations should hold hearings and the Senate should act on CEDAW by July 19, 2000.
  • With Jesse Helms retired and there was a brief period of a Democrat Senate majority, CEDAW was approved on July 30, 2002 by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in a 12-7 bipartisan vote. However, the Senate adjourned in 2002 without time for a vote on ratification. The treaty then went back to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee under the leadership of then-chairman Richard Lugar (R-IN).
  • On October 8, 2002 The Feminist Majority President Eleanor Smeal, Her Majesty Queen Noor of Jordan, Senator Joseph Biden (D-DE), the ranking minority leader of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, several key members of Congress, and over 170 women’s rights and major non-governmental organizations voiced their support for the US ratification of CEDAW.
  • The Bush Administration did not take a formal position on CEDAW, though the State Department reported to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that the treaty is “generally desirable and should be ratified.”
  • The Obama/Biden Administration, as well as the current chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, support ratification of CEDAW.
  • The Trump administration has largely ignored the status of CEDAW, and many of the Trump’s policies have rolled back protection for women and girls.

Sources: https://www.un.org/womenwatch/daw/cedaw/history.htm

How a UN Treaty Becomes U.S. Law

  1. The U.N. General Assembly adopts the treaty.
  2. The U.S. President signs the treaty, thereby indicating the intention of the U.S. to ratify the treaty. The State Department prepares a legal report with recommended reservations, understandings, and declarations (RUDs). The President sends the treaty to the Senate for its advice and consent.
  3. The Senate Foreign Relations Committee holds hearings, reviews the recommended RUDs, and sends the treaty to the full Senate. Passage must be by a 2/3 majority. The Senate or the President may require further “implementing legislation” to be passed by both the House and the Senate.
  4. The Senate returns the treaty to the President.
  5. The President ratifies the treaty by signing the “instrument of ratification” and then deposits it with the U.N. Secretary General.

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