Ratifying CEDAW: a U.S. Necessity for Human Rights Credibility

Ratifying CEDAW: a U.S. Necessity for Human Rights Credibility

The Issue

Reproductive Health. Family Leave. Gender Pay Gap. Violence Against Women. Racial Injustice. Constitutional Inequality. These are a few of the issues gravely affecting American women today. In order to help women advance, and by the same token help the nation advance, the United States is in need of specific tools. One such tool that is critically missing from its toolkit is the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW).



CEDAW is an international treaty that was adopted by the United Nations in 1979. It has been hailed as “the most comprehensive international agreement on the basic human rights of women” as it calls 1 for a specific international standard for protecting and promoting women’s rights as human rights. It is the only international treaty that systematically addresses women’s rights within political, civil, cultural, economic, and social life. 187 of the 194 countries represented within the United Nations have ratified CEDAW. Of the seven that remain, the United States is the only industrialized country represented, joining the likes of Sudan, South Sudan, Somalia, Iran, and two small Pacific Island nations (Palau and Tonga).

This treaty is described as an international “Bill of Rights” for women as it affirms “that women, like the rest of the human race, have an inalienable right to live and work free of discrimination”. Protecting their “human rights and fundamental freedoms in the political, economic, social, cultural, civil or any other field.”

Why is CEDAW relevant to the United States?

The principles promoted within CEDAW are consistent with US law as well as objectives stated in our foreign and domestic policy. Ratifying the treaty would ensure that all states are compliant with these laws and would help to ensure their enforcement. Laws affecting violence against women, access to legal protections, and other human rights.

Critics say that the treaty does not reflect American values. They are wrong. CEDAW “takes American values of equality and women’s rights and makes them global norms.” In ratifying CEDAW, The U.S. will be reaffirming its commitment to eliminate discrimination globally, starting at home. While the U.S. has already done a great job at eradicating many of the discriminatory practices mentioned in CEDAW, there is still much to be done. Improvements still need to be made in the lives of women within our borders by ending sex trafficking, combating domestic violence, rape, sexual violence, and gender-based violence. We also still need to make improvements in the area of the wage gap, eliminating pregnancy discrimination, and promoting access to reproductive health. CEDAW will help the U.S. make these improvements through a self-evaluation program required by the treaty.

What Ratification Would Mean for the U.S.

Many opponents of the treaty insist that by ratifying it we will be ignoring the sovereignty of the nation. However participating states, in reality, do nothing more than pledge to undertake “appropriate measures” toward eradicating discrimination against women, and with it the violence and violation of rights that are committed due to gender discrimination.

By ratifying the convention, the United States would be able to nominate an expert to participate on the committee of 23 experts (who represent party states).

This committee reviews country reports submitted to them regarding an implementation of CEDAW within the country. Recommendations are then given on best practices — of which the U.S. has a lot to share.

Foreign Policy

Due to our failure to ratify CEDAW, our global standing has been reduced, our diplomatic relations have been damaged, and our ability to lead in the fight for human rights has been challenged. Our allies cannot understand why we have still not ratified. Our enemies, who have a far worse record than us in human rights, use our failure to ratify as ammunition againstus. Both allies and enemies challenge the U.S. in claiming itself as a “moral leader” in the fight for human rights, as well they should. In persisting to not ratify, the United States will continue to damage its diplomatic relationships and runs the risk of harming other foreign policy interests.

If the U.S. is going to continue its foreign policy objective of ‘Global Development and Human Rights’ then ratification of CEDAW is the only way to go forward. Lack of U.S. ratification means that other foreign governments no longer see themselves obliged to uphold CEDAW’s mandate to end discrimination against women, nor can the U.S. credibly demand them to do so. By ratifying, the U.S. could aid in the document becoming a much stronger instrument in the fight for women to achieve full protection and realization of their rights. At the same time, the belief that women’s rights are human rights and should be universal across all cultures, nations and religions will be reinforced. As being worthy of guarantee by international human rights standards.

National Policy

CEDAW works. Civil organizations feel empowered. They are able to lobby the government to adopt policies that respect women’s rights, limit sex trafficking, domestic violence, and work place discrimination.

While the gender revolution of the 1970’s pushed women into the work force, into higher education, and made the United States a world leader in women’s rights, that amazing progress has been stalled. Across the board, women have started to spend more time in the home or in part-time positions. Why? Because for all the advancement in rhetoric made, the government has yet to catch up!

While the demands of the work place have become more demanding and the hours spent in the workplace have become longer, nothing has been done to adopt family-friendly practices that allow women (and men) the ability to balance home and work life. These barriers force women and men to play roles they do not want to because society thinks they should. Instead, they should be allowed to act on egalitarian values.

Image Credit: Cities for CEDAW 2014

With these barriers in place there is a loss of productivity in the work force. Lost productivity amounts to a loss of 1.2 to 2 percent of the gross domestic product.

Not only would productivity be increased under CEDAW, but the thousands of women that suffer from physical and sexual abuse every day would have more protections afforded to them. Sexual violence on our shores is not just the matter of an individual life. It is a matter of national security. In many conflicts, sexual violence is used as a weapon of war and of terrorism. If the US does not ratify CEDAW, extremist organizations like ISIS will continue to use women as prizes for their fighters. Giving them incentives to carry out acts of terror.

Progress on National Gender Equality

Gender equality is still far from being reached in the United States. The goal of CEDAW is full gender equality in health and economic opportunities, as well as protection from domestic/sexual violence and human trafficking.

Due to CEDAW requiring regular internal and review of how implementation of the treaty is working, the U.S. will be able to create dialogue around the laws, policies, and programs that may impede women in the U.S. from reaching true equality. The dialogue will be of benefit to the country in allowing for constructive engagement through all strata of society on what is needed to reach equality.

With the U.S. leading the fight against trafficking in persons and the exploitation of women and girls through prostitution internationally it is imperative that we exhibit a similar commitment domestically. CEDAW requires decisive action. The U.S. has demonstrated that it is capable of decisive action regarding trafficking, it is time to show it is also capable of decisive action with other areas of inequality.


The violent human rights abuses against women the world has been witness to in recent years have been abominable. All over the world, we see evidence of women paying the price for the wars of men. Women’s bodies have become the battleground and the object of conquest. From Afghanistan to Iraq, Syria, Bosnia, Haiti, Kosovo, and Rwanda the world is reminded of its duty to protect the rights of women.

These events are a call for action, a call for action that the US can lead. Much of the injustice against women is excused by the state as the result of culture or religion. Therefore reports given are flawed and full of gaps. With the U.S. showing its support for CEDAW through ratification and implementation within its borders, other nations will be pressured to be more honest in their reporting. The U.S. will be reinstating its moral authority on these issues as well as reclaim its spot as a leader.

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