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July 01, 2002

From the Chair: Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women

by Zona Hostetler

The terrorist attacks of September 11 focused attention on the rank discrimination against women in many parts of the world, particularly in those countries where terrorists have been most successful in recruiting their supporters. As President Bush stated not long after the attacks, "A central goal of the terrorists is the brutal oppression of women—and not only women of Afghanistan." And in last November’s historic radio address (the first ever given entirely by a first lady), Laura Bush strongly noted that "the fight against terrorism is also a fight for the rights and dignity of women."

This fight for the rights of women worldwide requires real determination and action, not mere words, and cannot begin soon enough. According to the United Nations, two-thirds of women worldwide are illiterate. In the countries in which terrorists thrive, women are not even allowed to attend school. Lacking both education and employment opportunities, as well as the right to vote in many instances, these women are subjugated citizens of their countries and have no say whatever in defining their political, social, and cultural institutions.

In some countries, e.g., Saudi Arabia, women cannot drive motor vehicles and must enter public transportation by separate rear entrances; married women may not undertake domestic or foreign travel without the permission of their spouses; and no woman may even be admitted to a hospital for medical treatment without the consent of a male relative. In Yemen, a married woman cannot even leave her home without her husband’s permission.

As several articles in this issue of Human Rights note, even more brutal repression of women occurs when women are subjugated citizens. The news stories out of Pakistan this past spring of a Muslim woman who was sentenced to death by stoning for the crime of adultery when she became pregnant after being raped by her brother-in-law shocked Americans. Sadly, as the articles in this issue document, assaults, including rape and brutal physical injury, are widely tolerated in Pakistan and in too many other countries. Where women lack power to control their own bodies, their susceptibility to HIV/AIDS increases dramatically. AIDS is now endemic among women in many parts of the world.

The Section of Individual Rights and Responsibilities’ committees on international human rights and women’s rights, along with Section Director Penny Wakefield, have devoted numerous hours toward the goal of seeking redress for the terrible, often horrific violations of women’s fundamental human rights that occur with depressing regularity in too many countries. In particular, IRR has been working with women’s organizations and nongovernmental organizations to implement American Bar Association policies calling for the U.S. Senate’s ratification of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW).

CEDAW was adopted by the United Nations General Assembly in 1979 and was the first comprehensive human rights treaty to address women’s rights. It provides a universal definition of discrimination against women and provides a legal framework for nations to eliminate discrimination in civil and political rights, education, healthcare, and employment.

One hundred and seventy countries have ratified CEDAW. Despite the fact that President Jimmy Carter signed the treaty twenty-two years ago in 1980, the United States remains the only industrialized democracy that has not ratified it, along with a handful of countries such as Iran, Sudan, and Somalia. The U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee conducted hearings on ratification in 1994 and subsequently recommended ratification, but the Senate adjourned that year without ratifying the convention.

Since President Bush’s announced interest in ending the oppression of women in Afghanistan and elsewhere, there has been renewed interest in CEDAW ratification. In mid-June 2002, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee held hearings on CEDAW for the first time since 1994. Following these hearings, IRR and the ABA Governmental Affairs Office issued an alert to IRR and other ABA members asking them to write the senators on the Foreign Relations Committee to urge them to support ratification and to send the treaty to the full U.S. Senate for a ratification vote. The Committee’s chair, Senator Joseph Biden, Jr. (D-Del.), indicated during the hearings that the Committee would act this summer. As of the writing of this column, the Department of Justice has asked the Senate Committee not to act until it has had an opportunity to conduct its own review of the treaty.

As IRR noted in a recent letter on the Senate vote, women around the world are using CEDAW as a tool in their struggle for basic human rights. Without U.S. ratification and leadership, governments like Afghanistan can more easily ignore CEDAW and the nondiscrimination goals it espouses. In and of itself, CEDAW affects no changes in ratifying countries’ existing laws, and each country approving the treaty need only enact implementing legislation and enforcement mechanisms to address areas not already covered by its current laws. U.S. ratification, however, would make the United States eligible to sit on the CEDAW Committee that monitors progress in the treatment of women in other countries and would make the United States more credible when it urges other countries to strengthen respect for human rights of women, as both President Bush and Laura Bush did in the aftermath of September 11. If CEDAW has not been ratified by the time this issue reaches you, Ihope you will exert every effort to persuade your senator to vote for ratification.

I also urge all IRR members at the 2002 ABA Annual Meeting in Washington, D.C., this summer to attend a very informative program on international women’s rights issues that has been planned by IRR’s women’s rights committee for Saturday, August 10, at 2:00 p.m. at the Mayflower Hotel in downtown Washington, D.C. Panel participants will include representatives of international human rights organizations who are in the forefront of the battle to end discrimination against women worldwide and are eloquent spokespersons for the need for individual ABA members to support CEDAW.

And how grand it will be if this Annual Meeting program turns out to be a celebration of the U.S. ratification of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women!

Zona Hostetler

Zona Hostetler is a former partner in the firm of O'Toole, Rothwell, Nassau & Steinbach who is now Of Counsel.