Published on Friday, July 26, 2002 in the Miami Herald
U.S. Must Sign Global Treaty on Women's Rights
by Helen Thomas
President Bush won worldwide acclaim when he spotlighted the ruthless treatment of women by the Taliban regime. His bold stance on the issue contributed heavily to the international backing that he received when he decided to attack terrorists in Afghanistan and elsewhere.
But now he risks losing much of that support by withdrawing his earlier approval of an international women's rights treaty.
The treaty, adopted by the U.N. General Assembly in 1979, was signed by President Jimmy Carter in 1980 but has languished in the Senate since then -- although 170 nations have ratified it. Senate ratification requires a two-thirds majority of those balloting.
Last week the Senate Foreign Relations Committee was ready to send the treaty to the Senate floor for a vote. But Sen. Jesse Helms, R-N.C., the top-ranking Republican on the panel, served notice that he would delay its vote, which, it turned out, was delayed anyway on a technicality.
Yesterday, as a courtesy to Helms, who is ailing, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee postponed a vote on the treaty, officially known as the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women.
Six months ago the Bush administration told senators that the treaty was ''generally desirable and should be approved.'' But later it began equivocating. Secretary of State Colin Powell said that the administration supports the treaty's ''general goal of eradicating discrimination across the globe'' but now feels the treaty's ''vagueness'' and ''complexity'' require a Justice Department review.
Translated: The administration has reneged. Fat chance that Attorney General John Ashcroft, who is in charge of the review, will give it a fair shot. He was one of the most vocal opponents of the treaty when he was a senator from Missouri.
What has happened is that the administration has heard from its vocal conservative constituency.
Helms, who reflects that view, has many objections including claims that the convention permits abortions and decriminalizes prostitution.
Actually, the treaty commits ratifying nations to overcoming discrimination against women in such areas as legal rights, education, employment, health care, politics and finance.
Standing with the United States in failing to ratify the convention are nations known for their oppressive treatment of women such as Iran, Sudan, Somalia, Syria, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar and Afghanistan under the Taliban.
In the Capitol Hill battle, more than 165 religious, civic, professional and human-rights organizations back the treaty. Opponents include Christina Hoff Sommers, a scholar at the conservative American Enterprise Institute, who charged recently in The Wall Street Journal that the treaty would not really help oppressed women.
Sommers, an anti-feminist who wrote The War Against the Boys, argues that many nations are unlikely to uphold the treaty and therefore the United States should stay out of it. She contends that, for the most part, our society has eliminated sexism. That's baloney.
I have a feeling Sommers would have felt the same way about women's suffrage had she lived in the early 20th Century. And the suffragists who wanted the right to vote would still be chaining themselves to the White House fence and going to jail to get it. As it was, the U.S. campaign for women's suffrage succeeded in 1920 when the 19th Amendment was ratified.
Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Joseph Biden concedes that the treaty ''will not fulfill its objectives this year, next year or even the next decade'' but insists that ''it does set forth important standards'' for equal rights for women.
He calls it a tool for advocates to persuade governments ``to live up to their obligations and improve the plight of women.''
Supporters say that Uganda, South Africa, Brazil, Australia and others have incorporated the treaty's provisions into their constitutions and domestic legal codes. They also note that Ukraine, Nepal, Thailand and the Philippines have passed new laws against sexual trafficking, the practice of selling women and girls into sexual slavery.
Supporters also note that Colombia, after ratifying the treaty, has made domestic violence a crime and required legal protection for victims. Also, other ratifying nations -- Nicaragua, Jordan, Egypt and Guinea -- ``saw significant increases in literacy after improving access to education for girls and women.''
Of course, monumental problems remain:
At least four million women and girls around the world are still sold into sexual slavery each year.
Two-thirds of the world's 875 million illiterate adults are women.
About 510,000 women die each year from pregnancy complications.
At least a quarter of all women suffer from domestic violence.
Millions of women still lack full legal and political rights.
Even in the United States, gender equality in the workplace is not complete -- not as long as women do not get equal pay for equal work.
The treaty is not perfect, but it has already showed that it can move societies forward -- especially those where women have few if any individual rights.
The Washington Post quoted a White House official last week as saying that the women's rights issue ''matters to the first lady and to the president.'' That is good to know. I just wish that the first lady and the president would be willing to fight for it.
Helen Thomas, a longtime White House correspondent, is a columnist for Hearst Newspapers.
Copyright 2002 Miami Herald