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Thursday, June 30, 2011

The U.N. Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW): Issues in the U.S. Ratification Debate

Luisa Blanchfield
Specialist in International Relations

The Senate may consider providing its advice and consent to U.S. ratification of the United Nations (U.N.) Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW, or the Convention) during the 112th Congress. CEDAW is the only international human rights treaty that specifically addresses the rights of women. It calls on States Parties to take measures to eliminate discrimination against women in all areas of life, including political participation, employment, education, healthcare, and family structure. CEDAW has been ratified or acceded to by 186 States Parties. The United States is the only country to have signed but not ratified the Convention. Other governments that have not ratified the treaty include Iran, Nauru, Palau, Somalia, Sudan, and Tonga.

President Jimmy Carter signed the Convention and transmitted it to the Senate in 1980. The Senate Committee on Foreign Relations (SFRC) held hearings on CEDAW in 1988, 1990, 1994, and 2002. It reported CEDAW favorably, subject to certain conditions, in 1994 and 2002. To date, however, the Convention has not been considered by the full Senate.

The election of President Barack Obama has focused renewed attention on the possibility of U.S. ratification of CEDAW. The Obama Administration called the Convention an “important priority,” and in May 2009 identified it as a treaty on which it “supports Senate action at this time.” At a November 2010 hearing on CEDAW held by the Senate Judiciary Committee’s Subcommittee on Human Rights and the Law, Administration officials expressed further support for U.S. ratification. Ambassador-at-Large for Global Women’s Issues Melanne Verveer stated that ratification is critical to U.S. efforts to promote and defend women’s rights worldwide.

U.S. ratification of CEDAW is a contentious policy issue that has generated considerable debate in Congress and among the general public. Supporters of ratification hold that the Convention is a valuable mechanism for fighting women’s discrimination worldwide. They argue that U.S. ratification will give CEDAW added legitimacy and empower women who fight discrimination in their own countries. Opponents of the Convention maintain that it is not an effective mechanism for addressing discrimination against women internationally or domestically, emphasizing that countries widely believed to have poor women’s rights records have ratified the treaty. Critics further contend that U.S. ratification could undermine U.S. sovereignty and impact the private conducts of U.S. citizens. Some are particularly concerned with CEDAW’s possible effect on U.S. laws and policies relating to the definitions of discrimination, education, parental rights, and health care.

This report provides an overview of CEDAW’s background, objectives, and structure, including the role of the Convention’s monitoring body, the CEDAW Committee. It examines U.S. policy and issues in the U.S. ratification debate, including the Convention’s possible impact on U.S. sovereignty, its effectiveness in combating discrimination, and its role as an instrument of U.S. foreign policy.

Date of Report: June 23, 2011
Number of Pages: 29
Order Number: R40750
Price: $29.95

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