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July 01, 2002

Ensuring the Rights of Women in Afghanistan and Beyond

by Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-CA)

In 1999, when I assumed a seat as the only woman on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, I felt a special responsibility to raise certain important issues to the highest levels of our government and governments throughout the world. As a result, I decided to establish as personal priorities, (1) ending the oppression of Afghan women by the Taliban regime, and (2) working for our country’s ratification of the treaty for the rights of women, known as the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW).

At that time, the Taliban’s treatment of Afghan women and girls went largely unreported. I had learned about it from friends in California who sent me a burqa—the suffocating covering the Taliban forced women to wear. It has only a small mesh opening from which to breathe. I keep the burqa in my office as a reminder of what these women must endure. In Afghanistan, they were made invisible.

Through its Ministry for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice, the Taliban carried out punishments against women such as stonings, hangings, floggings, and amputation of limbs. They used food as a weapon and did not allow women to go to work or school. The Taliban even required women to black out the windows of their homes to avoid being seen from the street.

Today, Afghan women are free from the Taliban and its harsh edicts, but it was an accidental liberation brought on by the events of September 11. It is shameful that the international community allowed the Taliban’s abuses to go on for so many years, but it is also a clear sign that the world needs to take seriously the issue of human rights for women. The first step is U.S. ratification of CEDAW.

Such ratification will be a clear sign to the world that we will use our influence as the world’s only superpower to press for the rights of women. We will be making it clear to the international community that women’s rights are a foreign policy priority for the United States.

Central to CEDAW’s foundation is the establishment of an international definition of discrimination against women. This definition specifically addresses "freedoms in the political, economic, social, cultural, civil, or any other field." These are the very rights denied women by the Taliban.

Since its adoption by the United Nations in 1979, 170 nations have ratified CEDAW. Yet, the United States stands among the few countries that have not ratified, such as Iran, Somalia, and Afghanistan. This is unconscionable.

How would U.S. ratification of CEDAW improve the lives of women throughout the world? First, it would bring new and needed attention to the treaty, causing nations to reexamine their policies relating to women. Second, foreign governments would no longer be allowed to hide behind the United States’s failure to ratify the treaty when our diplomats push for greater rights for women.

The CEDAW treaty has been credited for many changes that have improved the lives of women and girls throughout the world. For example, when Brazil and South Africa reformed their constitutions, they used CEDAW as a guide for including guarantees of human rights for women. In Costa Rica, the treaty was helpful in developing property rights and political participation for women.

President Carter signed the CEDAW treaty in 1980. Yet, for twenty-two years, the full Senate has not voted on ratification. The closest we have ever come was in 1994 when the Senate Foreign Relations Committee voted in favor of ratification with a bipartisan vote of 13-5. The Senate, unfortunately, was unable to act before the November elections that same year.

Today, I am working to build on the bipartisan support that the treaty enjoyed in 1994 to get the sixty-seven votes needed for ratification. To that end, on June 13, 2002, I chaired a hearing of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on the treaty. This marked the first such Senate hearing in eight years. During the hearing, the Committee heard from several witnesses, both Republican and Democrat, who supported U.S. ratification of the treaty. I also submitted for the official record a letter written to me from Dr. Sima Samar, the Afghan Minister for Women’s Affairs. In the letter, Dr. Samar called CEDAW, "the most important international guide and set of standards on the human rights of women" and said that U.S. support for the treaty will help her efforts to promote the rights of women in Afghanistan.

That same week, Dr. Samar and the people of Afghanistan were in the midst of a grand assembly known as the loya jirga to form a post-Taliban society with a new government, laws, and constitution. As we work with Afghanistan to restore and protect the rights of women in their country, using CEDAW as a guide, let us demonstrate our own commitment to the women of the world by ratifying this important treaty now.

Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-CA)

Barbara Boxer, U.S. Senator from California, is chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Subcommittee on International Operations and Terrorism and has led the charge in the Senate for U.S. ratification of the CEDAW treaty. In June 2002, she chaired a full Senate Committee hearing on CEDAW.