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Washington, D.C., Just O.K.’d a Law Equalizing Women’s Rights. Why Can’t the US Senate Do the Same?


A participant at the 40th anniversary commemoration on the ratification of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, known as Cedaw, Dec. 18, 2019. Washington, D.C., has recently passed a law enshrining a local version of the United Nations treaty. The author, a longtime advocate of women’s equal rights, says it’s time for the United States Senate to ratify Cedaw. MANUEL ELIAS/UN PHOTO

Washington, D.C.’s new Elimination of Discrimination Against Women law went into effect on March 10, 2023. Now that the nation’s capital is ready to carry out the principles of the United Nations gender equality treaty, it’s time for the United States to ratify the global version of the pact. Joe Biden backed ratification of it when he was chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee more than 20 years ago. As US president, he can push for it again.

The US ratified the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948. Seventy-five years later, the US has still not recognized that women and girls should have the same human rights as men and boys. Ratifying the UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, or Cedaw, would acknowledge a legal standard for deciding discrimination cases based on gender. It would also set a nationwide standard for gender equality that would apply to such spheres as sports, politics, education and economics.

Cedaw was adopted by the UN General Assembly in 1979 and signed the next year by President Jimmy Carter, but the treaty has never been brought to the full US Senate for a vote. Today, 189 countries have ratified Cedaw. The US is the only industrialized country that has not done so, and one of only six countries that has not ratified it. The reason is not totally clear, given that the US has ratified other human-rights treaties, including the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. In the current political climate, it is hard to imagine the Senate will vote for gender equality with the required supermajority of 67 votes. However, this could change if people who support gender equality show up on Election Day and vote for candidates who agree with this mind-set.

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In 1998, when it was apparent that the US would not ratify Cedaw in the near future, the city of San Francisco passed its own ordinance to implement the principles of Cedaw. Today, a Cities for Cedaw network supports similar efforts throughout the country.

The US ratification process begins in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, which must pass a resolution to ratify a treaty. The entire Senate then votes, requiring a supermajority to pass. Although those who support ratification understand that a supermajority is not likely to happen soon, the process should begin nevertheless. It has also been found that when gender equality issues are on a ballot, the advocates often win. This is especially true when voters vote on abortion rights and reproductive freedoms.

According to Alice Miranda Ollstein and Megan Messerly in a recent report in Politico, “A surge in turnout among people motivated by the erosion of abortion rights carried Democrats to victory in races for governor, Senate, attorney general and state legislatures — defying predictions that the issue had faded for voters in the months since the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade.”

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The Senate Foreign Relations Committee considered Cedaw in 2002, when it was looked upon favorably by the then-chair, Senator Joe Biden, D-Delaware, through a resolution of advice and consent to ratification with four reservations, five understandings and two declarations. No further action was taken, so efforts to ratify are still needed. Now that the nation’s capital has joined more than 79 cities, counties and states, including Los Angeles, Pittsburgh, Toledo and Miami-Dade (county) to make Cedaw local law, it is time for the US Senate to begin the steps toward ratification. We urge the members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, including the chair, Bob Menendez, D-New Jersey, to begin doing so immediately.

Ratification will not happen overnight, and a supermajority in the Senate will take time to develop. But the strong backlash against women’s sexual and reproductive rights and other basic freedoms in the US means that we must work to protect women’s human rights right now.

This is an opinion essay.

We welcome your comments on this article.  What are your thoughts on the US ratifying Cedaw?

Karen Mulhauser is the president of Mulhauser & Associates, a consulting service to nonprofit organizations. Previously, she was the executive director of the National Abortion Rights Action League (NARAL), the Center for Education on Nuclear War and Citizens Against Nuclear War.

Mulhauser was also a senior adviser to the Obama for America campaign in 2007-2008. She started a network of self-employed women in the Washington area, among other women’s programs in the region.

Mulhauser is a graduate of Antioch College and did graduate work at the Tufts University School of Medicine. She is the past chairwoman of the UN Association of the USA and past board chair of its chapter in the National Capital area.

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Washington, D.C., Just O.K.’d a Law Equalizing Women’s Rights. Why Can’t the US Senate Do the Same?
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Kimberly Weichel
Kimberly Weichel
1 year ago

So happy that EDAW was passed and went into effect in DC!. Now it is high time, as Karen says, that the Senate ratify CEDAW, which is long overdue. We are out of step with most nations and if we want to be the global leader we say we do, then we must ratify CEDAW to ensure fairness for all.

Jill Christianson
1 year ago

It is about time for gender progress!
We have a moment of opportunity here to raise the bar for the United States with the ratification of CEDAW, joining 189 other nations, which also equips with one more tool for advancing gender equity abroad. Decades have passed – progress can be made now.
Too, we celebrate the passage of the EDAW Law – Intersectional Accountability in Washington DC. It allows every aspect of DC government – programming, staffing and budgeting, to be reported on with an intersectional gender lens. Now – DC must step up to ensure that it is funded.
This is women’s work – as it is work for everyone – to ensure that fairness is for all. CEDAW and EDAW for today and for our children in the years ahead.

Teena Halbig
1 year ago

Long overdue! Women must be treated equally and many will not give up the fight for equality. Congratulations to Karen Mulhauser and others who fought to get this law for Washington, D.C. If any want to call their Senator, the operator at 1-202-225-3121 can connect you to the office. A good and short message could be: Please support CEDAW for women’s equality.

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