Today, Senator Dick Durbin, Chair of the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on Human Rights and the Law, held the first hearing in eight years on the ratification of the Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW, or the Women’s Rights Treaty), and the first ever in the Judiciary Committee, as opposed to the Foreign Relations Committee. Equally importantly, governmental testimony was offered not just by the State Department, but also by the Justice Department, discussing the importance of ensuring women’s rights not only abroad, but here at home. These are important steps in emphasizing that ensuring human rights is about leading by example at home as much as taking strong positions abroad.
Much of the hearing was devoted to the importance of the latter – and indeed, the impact of ratification of the treaty on our ability to lead abroad on human rights should not be underestimated. Unfortunately, the testimony from both Senator Durbin and Principal Deputy Assistant Attorney General Samuel Bagenstos gave too much away on the domestic impact of the treaty. Senator Durbin said, “we don’t need CEDAW to protect women here,” and AAG Bagenstos emphasized that the package of Reservations, Understandings, and Declarations submitted with the treaty for ratification would ensure no American law would have to be modified, and the recommendations of the CEDAW Committee would not bind us.
We do need CEDAW to help protect women in the U.S. As the Senator and all those offering testimony acknowledged, while we have made great strides in promoting equality for women and girls on paper, we have far to go in practice. One example, noted in our testimony submitted for the Committee, is that 22% to 57% of homeless women reported that domestic violence was the immediate cause of their homelessness. Women need accessible shelter options to ensure that lack of housing does not force them and their families to continue to endure abuse just to stay under a roof.
The processes of ratification and review by the Committee should serve as important occasions for self-reflection on where our laws fall short of guaranteeing full equality to women, not as an opportunity to prove that we already comply or take exception where the treaty extends further than current U.S. law. And while the CEDAW Committee’s recommendations are not binding, they should serve as guidance to legislators and judiciary in crafting and interpreting laws as they apply to women’s rights. As with all human rights treaties, our sovereignty would not be threatened, but CEDAW, and the Committee’s recommendations would be implemented through our own democratic structures.
As Marcia Greenberger, Director of the National Women’s Law Center, said in her closing testimony today, attention to women’s equality helps not just women and girls, but men, boys, and families. Ratification of CEDAW by the U.S. Senate would continue America’s bipartisan tradition of promoting and protecting human rights here at home, and would strengthen the U.S.’s global leadership in standing up for the rights of women and girls around the world.
To view the hearing and read testimony, click here.
-Eric Tars, Human Rights Program Director