UNITED NATIONS - Rights activists
in the United States are urging their newly-elected government to
support global initiatives aimed at protecting women's rights.
Barack Obama wants one important thing to do for women, he will direct
the U.S. Senate to ratify CEDAW," said Ritu Sharma, a leading women's
CEDAW is the acronym for the U.N. Convention on the
Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, which has
been endorsed by over 170 countries.
In the past three decades, U.S. policymakers rejected CEDAW by
reasoning that women in the United States already enjoyed legal
protections against violence and discrimination.
But rights activists counter that the U.S. refusal to ratify
the treaty encourages repressive regimes to promote discriminatory
practices against women.
"There is no reason for us to wait for the U.S. ratification
of CEDAW," said Sharma, who leads the Women's Edge Coalition, which
comprises hundreds rights groups worldwide.
Created about 30 years ago, CEDAW clearly defines what
constitutes gender discrimination and sets an agenda for national
action to end abuse of women's rights.
Many countries that are signatory to the treaty have improved
their laws, but in most cases, have failed to protect women from
everyday violence and abuse.
Numerous studies carried out by the U.N. and independent think
tanks in recent years show that in many parts of the world millions of
women continue to face discrimination of every description.
Researchers say every year hundreds of thousands of women are
forced into prostitution, with many suffering beatings not only by
pimps and customers, but also policemen.
And how many women repeatedly endure violence in the supposed
safety of their own homes? No one really knows, not even those who specialize in this subject. In many countries, including those with
high rate of education, domestic violence is still regarded as a
"private" matter, which gives authorities a justification to look the
Women's situation, according to U.N. chief Ban Ki-moon, is not
going to change unless men, particularly those in power, are willing to
change their behavior.
"Changing mindset and habits of generations is not easy,"
stated Ban on the eve of International Women's Day, which is observed
all over the world on Sunday, Mar. 8.
"We must work together to state loud and clear, at the highest level,
that violence against women will not be tolerated, in any form, in any
context," he said.
Women's rights activists who work closely with the U.N. note
that since the 1995 World Summit in Beijing, some progress has been
made to protect women's rights. But many of them say there's still a
long way to go for full recognition of women's rights as human rights.
As the U.N. Commission on the Status of Women convened its
annual meeting last week, delegates said they were hopeful that the new
U.S. leadership would act differently.
The past U.S. administration had imposed harsh conditions for
funding to the U.N. agencies working to help improve women's life
conditions in poor countries.
The George W. Bush administration refused to fund health
programs in countries that recognized women's right to have abortion.
As a result, hundreds of thousands of women died during pregnancy.
Ban was silent on the issue of the U.S. non-ratification of
CEDAW. However, in a recent conversation with IPS, he said he
appreciated the intentions of the new administration.
"I think it is going to be very positive," he said in response
to a question about whether the Obama administration would be willing
to sign U.N. treaties that the previous administration had either
ignored or worked actively to undermine.
Last week, Ban ordered U.N. officials to organize special
events all across the world in observance of International Women Day.
The U.N.-sponsored events are supposed to include rallies, seminars,
exhibits, film screening and concerts to create awareness about women's
Women's rights activists say they are glad that the world
community was consistent in trying to make progress on its agenda, but
stress that in order to gain positive results a powerful country like
the United States must be part of the movement.
Sharma hopes that the new U.S. secretary of state, Hillary
Clinton, would play an important role in advancing the international
agenda on women's rights.
Before taking charge of the State Department, Clinton stressed
the importance of aiding women and girls, who are at greatest risk of
being poor, and form seven in 10 of the world's hungry.
"Investing in our common humanity through social development is not
marginal to our foreign policy but integral to accomplishing our
goals," she said in a recent statement. In her view, "If half of the
world's population remains vulnerable to economic, political, legal,
and social marginalization, our hope of advancing democracy and
prosperity will remain in serious jeopardy."
Though pleased with Clinton's position on women's rights, Sharma, like
many other activists, said she would like to see the new administration
take real and practical steps to cooperate more closely with the
"Clinton's nomination as our third female secretary of state
means that, once again, a woman will be the nation's chief diplomat and
public face to the world, underscoring America's commitment to women's
equality and empowerment worldwide," she said.
"But to take this commitment to the next level, this
administration has to make U.S. international assistance a foreign
policy priority and ensure that it benefits the world's women," she
added. "Putting a real emphasis on investing in women would mean both
women and men can contribute to lifting themselves from poverty."