Nov 25, 2010
The United States speaks boldly about women's rights in
Afghanistan, about liberating Arab women in the Middle East, and
about Mama Grizzlies and Supermoms on the home front. But when it
comes down to codifying our commitment to women's equality in the
law... we'll get back to you.
As the Senate bailed on the Paycheck Fairness Act, which would have
strengthened critical anti-discrimination protections, lawmakers
again locked horns on gender equity at the international level, in
a debate on the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of
Discrimination against Women (CEDAW).
Along with Sudan, Iran and Somalia, the U.S. has yet to formally
ratify the United Nations' CEDAW since it was launched over three decades ago. (It hasn't
even been a century since the 19th Amendment, so conservatives
understandably need a little more time to adjust.) The CEDAW is
associated with campaigns against gross human rights violations
like human trafficking or systematic violence against women. But
the Convention is also a versatile framework for measuring equality
in many arenas, including the global economy and the workplace.
Article 3 provides for equality in the "full development and
advancement of women," especially in the "political, social,
economic and cultural fields." Such words may prompt the same red
flags that conservatives waved when fighting the Equal Rights Amendment ("by 'equality,' they
mean mass abortions and the demise of the American family!"). But
the text articulates a vision of gender
justice that draws upon decades of feminist discourse.
Article 11 not only sets a standard of gender non-discrimination
in employment, but also bars bias on the basis of marital or
maternity status, which in theory decouples a woman's freedom to
earn a living from her ties to a spouse or family planning
Article 10 ensures equal educational opportunity for women,
including job training, which may undercut structural barriers
that exclude women from certain sectors or higher-skill positions.
Other provisions guarantee equal access to financial resources
and credit, give rural women a voice in community development
planning, ensure equality before the law in terms of contracts and
property holding. The Convention also enshrines equality before
the law without regard to gender.
You could argue that an "advanced" society like the U.S. needn't
bother with CEDAW, a treaty that seems geared toward countries
like Morrocco and Kuwait, which struggle with severe
restrictions on women's political and economic activities.
But understanding how gender equity plays out in America requires
reading between the lines. For example, the Senate would have a
lot to answer for if it were really bound to certain provisions of Article 11:
(d) The right to equal remuneration, including benefits, and to
equal treatment in respect of work of equal value, as well as
equality of treatment in the evaluation of the quality of work;
(e) The right to social security, particularly in cases of
retirement, unemployment, sickness, invalidity and old age and
other incapacity to work, as well as the right to paid leave
Sadly, the Senate's failure on Paycheck Fairness appears to be
entirely consistent with our global outlook. In terms of the
overall safety net, core concepts like social security, unemployment benefits, and paid medical
leave, have all been stifled or threatened by deficit hawks in recent months.
Research indicates that the lack of such benefits hurts workers
overall, but disproportionately punishes lower-income mothers and
families. But, as we've reported before on this blog, initiatives on the federal, state and local level to provide paid sick leave-a benefit that millions of
workers lack despite widespread public support-have confronted militant resistance from the right.
Many of the controversial family-friendly policies are of course
taken for granted in Western Europe, where
the welfare state is not (yet) politically taboo. But even so, the
European Union continues to reflect CEDAW's guiding principles in ongoing
efforts to close the gender wage gap and expand political
The Convention has enjoyed only a brief flash in the Washington
spotlight at a Senate hearing last week. As the Iowa
Independent reports, the CEDAW has languished on the
Senate's backburner for years despite the broad support from
current and previous administrations, together with a slew of
other national and international human rights, legal advocacy and
Melanne Verveer, Ambassador-at-Large with the State Department's
Office of Global Women's Issues, testified before the Senate Judiciary
Subcommittee on Human Rights and Law:
In my time at the State Department, I have visited scores of
countries and met with women from all walks of life, from human
rights activists in Russia, to microcredit recipients and
small-business entrepreneurs in rural South Asia, to survivors
of rape and conflict in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. In
my travels, the number-one question I am asked time and time
again is, "Why hasn't the United States ratified CEDAW?" ...
Some governments use the fact that the U.S. has not ratified
the treaty as a pretext for not living up to their own
obligations under it. Our failure to ratify also deprives us of
a powerful tool to combat discrimination against women around
the world, because as a non-party, it makes it more difficult
for us to press other parties to live up to their commitments
under the treaty.
While U.S. hypocrisy is exposed when addressing the most blatant
human rights crises on a global scale, the everyday injustice that
women face in the American workplace displays a subtler paradox:
hegemony is not leadership. In fact, it might just mean you never
have to explain why you lag so far behind.
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