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Women's Rights Need U.S. Support
by Dr. Bob Edgar, General Secretary, National Council of Churches

A Special Feature Offered on the Occasion of International Women's Day, March 8, 2000

Women's rights are human rights. Although women comprise half of the human community, full recognition of their inherent dignity has long been denied. This disparity led the National Council of Churches to formally endorse the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), also known as the Women’s Human Rights Treaty, in 1980. CEDAW has successfully created an international standard against which the treatment of all women can be measured in the fields of life-- including education, civil, political, economic, social, and cultural rights. The United States, however, is the only Western industrialized country not to have ratified it. Incensed by failure of the US Senate to ratify the treaty, Senator Boxer (D-CA) introduced S. Res. 237 urging hearings on CEDAW and a vote on the Senate floor by March 8, 2000, International Women’s Day. Clearly, the resolution deserves the support of all senators.

Since its entry into force in 1981, CEDAW has had significant impact. In Tanzania, it has helped to change laws so that women can now inherit land from their fathers. Nepalese women are using CEDAW as a basis for increasing the minimum age for marriage, and in South Africa, Gender Equality Rights for legal status, property ownership, and inheritance and credit have been incorporated into the new constitution.

Despite these achievements, other realities remind us that women still have a long way to go. For example, women account for only 5 to 10 percent of the world’s formal political leadership. In some countries, girls have less access to health care, accounting for mortality rates one to four times higher than their male counterparts. Approximately two million girls each year, mostly in Africa, are victims of female genital mutilation. And it is estimated that 90 million women would be alive today if not for the effects of gender discrimination. By ratifying the Convention, the United States can give voice to the plight of women around the globe.

Within our own country, US ratification could reinvigorate the implementation of current US federal statutes relating to a woman’s right to non-discrimination in matters of property and contracts, promote greater access to equal pay for equal work, and could encourage the expansion of education for women in the fields of science and math. It also could promote changes in or expansion of federal laws to ensure equality for women in such areas as health care and health insurance coverage, social security payments, fair employment, and in efforts to curb violence against women. Without US ratification, US support for women’s rights at home and abroad is merely empty rhetoric.

Internationally, 165 countries have ratified CEDAW. Domestically, the Convention has been endorsed by over one hundred organizations including The Religious Network for the Equality of Women, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, Church Women United, the Presbyterian Church U.S.A., the United Church of Christ, the United Methodist Church, and the Leadership Conference on Women Religious. Sixteen states have also passed resolutions endorsing the Convention. Overwhelming grassroots support notwithstanding, the prospects for US ratification remain grim. Senator Jesse Helms (R-NC), chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, continues to oppose hearings and a vote on the Convention. In the end, sixty-seven votes will be needed for Senate ratification.

Ultimately, US policy here and around the globe should promote women’s rights in all aspects of life--including education, civil, political, economic, social, and cultural rights. No woman can proclaim to be fully free until all women enjoy equal status to men and protection from discrimination. The US Senate should celebrate International Women’s Day by holding hearings on CEDAW, and by ensuring that women enter the new millennium as equal partners in the human community through its ratification.

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