Readers Debate: Should the US Ratify the U.N. Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women?

iStock_000007716967XSmallBy Hua Wang (Chicago)

The Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) was created in 1981, and within a few years following its creation was ratified by countries including the UK, France, Japan, and Brazil, among others. Today one hundred sixty-nine countries have ratified the treaty – but not the United States.

CEDAW is often described as an international bill of rights for women. The Convention provides the basis for realizing equality between women and men through ensuring women’s access to, and equal opportunities, in political and public life, irrespective of the cultures or societies in which they live. The treaty commits ratifying nations to overcome barriers to women’s equality in the areas of legal rights, education, employment, healthcare, politics and finance.

The Issues at Stake

CEDAW provides definitions of equality, a description of discriminatory practices and a mechanism for international supervision of the obligations the document imposes on nations that have ratified it.

On the other hand, CEDAW opponents in the U.S. argue that the Convention’s definition of discrimination against women could extend to private organizations and areas of personal conduct not covered by U.S. law. The use of the phrase “any other field” could mean that CEDAW could interfere in the private lives of individuals—including family life or religious practices.

Gender Stereotypes

Article 1 defines discrimination as “any distinction . . . on the basis of sex” in “any. . . field.” Article 5 calls on all governments to “modify the social and cultural patterns of conduct of men and women, with a view to achieving the elimination of . . . all. . . practices which are based on . . . stereotyped roles for men and women.” What exactly does that entail? Of course, some gender stereotypes are destructive and prejudicial and we must call attention to them. But, many generalizations about how males and females differ — what the French call la difference — are true.

Research in neuroscience, endocrinology, and psychology over the past 40 years provides evidence of a biological basis for many sex differences in aptitudes and preferences. Males have better spatial reasoning skills, females have better verbal skills. Males are greater risk-takers, females are more nurturing. There are exceptions, but CEDAW provisions are premised on the assumption that all gender preferences are socially constructed and should be targeted for elimination.

Equal Access to Education

While the intent of Article 10(b) is to ensure that boys and girls have equal access to education services, facilities and curricula, the language of the statute requires men and women to receive “access to the same curricula…examinations, teaching staff with qualifications of the same standard and school premises and equipment of the same quality.” This could pose risks to the survival of single-sex schools, private schools, or home schools.


For the first time, women whose rights have been violated by their own governments can submit claims to a United Nations committee. Imagine a scenario in which women in a remote province of Country X are sterilized without their consent while undergoing Caesarean sections. Their complaints against the hospital and doctors, as well as the health ministry, are ignored. With CEDAW, the women can now take their claims to a United Nations body for review.

Workplace Equality

Article 11 of CEDAW calls for the end of discrimination in the field of employment, including the right to work, to employment opportunities, to equal pay, to free choice of profession and employment, to social security, and to protection of health, including maternal health, and also in regard to discrimination on the grounds of marriage or maternity. Although Article 11 does not expressly address the issue of sexual harassment in the workplace, the Committee has interpreted Article 11 to prohibit workplace harassment as a form of gender-specific violence. The essential message advanced by CEDAW is “that policies and laws should not disadvantage women.” “If policies and laws leave women poorer, sicker, less able than men to move about freely, then they should be changed.”

The international standards set by CEDAW further show that issues of fairness are not dreams of small groups of feminists, but rather that they have been agreed to, at some level, by the international community. Moreover, however incremental the changes that are brought about as a result of CEDAW’s implementation, they build the foundation of both government and corporate accountability.

Benefits of U.S. Ratification

As one of the few nations that has failed to ratify CEDAW, the United States compromises its credibility as a leader for human rights and sends a strong message to its corporations that they are not accountable to or bound by the internationally agreed upon standards when it comes to women’s rights. CEDAW is a tool that women around the world are using in their struggle against the effects of discrimination: violence against women, poverty, lack of legal status, no right to inherit or own property, and access to credit. Women need the United States to speak loudly and clearly in support of CEDAW so that it becomes a stronger instrument in support of their struggles. Without U.S. ratification, other governments can more easily ignore the Convention’s mandate and their obligations under it.

Ratification of the Convention will entitle the United States to nominate a U.S. expert to be a member of the Supervisory Committee. In this capacity, the U.S. expert could bring the benefit of U.S. experience in combating discrimination against women to this international forum. U.S. failure to ratify CEDAW deprives it of the opportunity to share its experiences and effect positive change.

CEDAW’s Drawbacks

CEDAW opponents criticize the treaty for being a long list of policy promises drafted by people who, for the most part, have no intention to take responsibility for achieving those promises. No one thinks CEDAW is going to produce “comparable worth” wage regulation in Haiti or Uganda, or end forced abortions of baby girls in China or North Korea, or provide rudimentary legal rights for the women of Saudi Arabia or Yemen. The governments of these nations (all CEDAW signatories) could, if they wished, actually pursue those policies at home — and take the political credit or blame according to the views of their citizens — rather than just recommending them to others.

China, Iraq, the Congo, Cuba, Libya, and Saudi Arabia are among the ratifying nations. Opponents point out that dictators like Saddam Hussein and Fidel Castro have no problem signing their names to a document they have no intention of upholding. The U.S., on the other hand, respects its commitments.

CEDAW calls on each signatory to institute an array of expensive programs that include “maternity leave with pay,” a “network of childcare facilities,” and “the right to equal remuneration . . . in respect of work of equal value.” However, what good is paid maternity leave, subsidized daycare and comparable worth to women living in countries that practice genital mutilation, honor killings, socially sanctioned rape and domestic violence?

The issues facing CEDAW’s ratification in the U.S. are complex and worthy of discussion. Please add your point of view in the comments section below, or take the conversation to our social network’s discussion forum.

0 Response

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    Despite its drawbacks, this convention is fundamental to creating real change for women in the US. I absolutely believe we should ratify it. Does anyone know the government official I/we can write to about this?

  2. Avatar

    The people who oppose this convention tend to think women should be barefoot and pregnant in the kitchen. In the past in the US the same arguments roughly were used against slavery.

    Of course it won’t solve anything… except it does make a statement and create a vision, sets a goal.

    Sigh. Hard for this grandmother to believe it’s getting worse instead of better for women after all our work.