WHY WE DON'T LEAD THE WORLD ON WOMEN'S RIGHTS ISSUES:
As Shown By An Unsigned Treaty, Not Cultural Imperialism

By MADHAVI SUNDER
Thursday, Oct. 10, 2002

Earlier this week, President Bush heightened his campaign for war against Iraq with a speech to the nation. As one among several reasons for an attack on Saddam Hussein, he highlighted the rape of "wives and mothers of political opponents . . . as a method of intimidation."

The comment builds on a theme of the war in Afghanistan. First Lady Laura Bush put the administration's position most succinctly: "The fight against terrorism is also a fight for the rights and dignity of women," she declared last year.

U.S. concern for the rights of women worldwide is unquestionably a good thing. Indeed, we waited too long in the case of the Taliban to act on behalf of women suffering a deplorable deprivation, by their ruthless leaders, of their rights to freedom of movement, and basic access to education, employment, and health care.

But thus far, President Bush has hardly proven to be a champion of women's rights--either abroad or at home. Sadly, his actual record on women's rights calls into question his true motives. Disturbingly, it undermines the United States' potential to truly be a world leader on women's human rights.

President Bush's sore spot with respect to foreign policy relating to women's rights is his continued opposition to ratification of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW). The Administration's failure to support ratification of the treaty is both a major part of, and a symbol of, its hypocrisy on women's rights issues.

The President's Opposition to a Major Women's Rights Treaty

CEDAW, frequently referred to as an "international bill of rights for women," is the only comprehensive global treaty dealing exclusively with the rights of women. But ironically--and embarrassingly--the United States, despite its claim to be a "leader" on women's rights, is the only industrialized democratic country not to have ratified it.

The Bush Administration opposes U.S. ratification of CEDAW, arguing that the treaty is pro-abortion rights and anti-family. Opposition on these grounds is unfounded. The truth is that nothing in the treaty addresses abortion specifically or women's traditional familial roles negatively.

The Administration also argues that ratification would threaten national sovereignty. But that position inevitably undermines our argument that other nations should conform to international standards for the treatment of women. How can we insist that others live up to standards that we ourselves will not agree to meet?

The President Has a Poor Record on Other Women's Rights Issues As Well

In other areas, too, the President's foreign policy has consistently undermined, not bolstered, women's rights. On his very first day in office he cut off funding to international family planning organizations. This past July, he again cut $34 million from the United Nations Population Fund--the very organization that helps women throughout the world.

Perhaps most significantly, the President has assumed that bombs "save" women without asking women themselves what they most need. (Check out a forum held at the National Press Club last week on the "Unheard Voices of Iraqi Women" to hear some of their positions on how best to combat Saddam Hussein.)

The President has consistently chosen to spend billions of dollars on missiles - it is estimated that the war in Afghanistan cost roughly $1 billion a month at its height. Meanwhile, at the same time, he has allocated relatively paltry amounts on humanitarian aid for health and education for women, or toward ensuring that stable, democratic, and pro-women governments be established.

Recently Bush announced that U.S. humanitarian aid to Afghanistan--which only amounted to approximately $300 million dollars altogether, or only slightly more than a dollar for each U.S. citizen--would only go to build roads. All money for health, education, and other projects will be cut off starting this month.

The President's Domestic Policy on Women's Rights Issues Is Also Weak

Meanwhile, Bush has been far from a feminist at home--another fact not lost on the world's people. Since the President took office in January 2001, the future of a woman's right to choose is in its most precarious position in our history. And funding for programs protecting women from violence in the home has been slashed.

Why Ratifying CEDAW Would Make A Real Difference to U.S. Women

Recent pronouncements--made, ironically, by both proponents and opponents of ratification--have suggested that CEDAW "would make no difference in America," and is only relevant in other countries where women's rights are abysmal. But that's not accurate. In fact, the administration's opposition to CEDAW is an important domestic women's rights issue in itself, and ratification would indeed make a difference domestically.

Indeed, ratification of CEDAW can help to reestablish many women's rights that are faltering at home. While the United States is undeniably a much freer country for women than many places around the world, we still have a long way to go before achieving true equality between the sexes.

For example, a U.S. GAO report on the status of women and management in ten selected industries, issued this past January, finds that in 7 out of 10 industries, the wage gap between male and female managers actually widened between 1995 and 2000.

Meanwhile, at the start of the twenty-first century, only 13 of our 100 senators are women, and there are only 61 women serving in the House of Representatives out of a total of 435 members. A mere 11 women currently lead Fortune 1,000 companies--that's only 1.1 percent!

Furthermore, in the ever-powerful culture industries, men continue to define how we see and understand the world. For example, men directed more than nine out of ten films released in 2001. It is men's points of view that are valued - not women's.

Multilateralism and Introspection: Why We Should Admit Our Domestic Problems

It is a mistake for even CEDAW's proponents to insist it will not affect women's rights here at home. Being a leader for women's human rights around the world begins with respecting multilateralism and looking within, at our own country's treatment of women, if we are going to also point fingers at others.

Ratifying a treaty with the understanding that it requires no critical assessment of our own national commitment to women's rights would smack of hypocrisy. It suggests that the U.S. views these international norms as being applicable in other countries but sees no room for improvement in its own performance.

The U.S. is perfectly within its moral authority to speak and take action against injustice to women around the world. But if the U.S. wants other countries to obey international law and respect the United States, we must ourselves pay "decent respect to the opinions of mankind," in the words of the Declaration of Independence.

Let us now listen to the opinion of the 170 nations who have ratified CEDAW - and consider if many of them may be ahead of us in recognizing the importance of an international standard for women rights. We must be willing to respect multilateral agreements and international law that may, at times, turn a critical eye on the United States along with other nations.

The world wants to see a multilateral, introspective United States. This is the kind of leadership that will earn global respect.

Why CEDAW May Be Ratified After All - And Why More Is Needed

There has been a renewed focus on women's human rights since September 11--and it will only intensify if we go to war against Iraq. Women's rights advocates have expressed hope that this new stress on women's rights may get the U.S. to finally, after 22 years, ratify CEDAW.

If all goes well, the Senate will vote on the issue this fall and, if the treaty passes, the President will be asked to sign it. The good news is that as the self-declared new world leader on women's rights, he will be hard pressed not to go along. The bad news is that, without more, America will not earn the respect it needs to truly lead the world on this important issue.


Madhavi Sunder is Assistant Professor of Law at the University of California, Davis. A graduate of Stanford Law School and Harvard College, she specializes in women's international human rights and intellectual property.

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