Burnishing The Mirror of Democracy
By Linda Tarr-Whelan
On Dec, 10, 1948, Eleanor Roosevelt was the United States representative as the United Nations adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. “It seems to me that America’s objective today should be to try to make herself the best possible mirror of democracy that she can,” she later said. “The people of the world can see what happens here. They watch us to see what we are going to do and how well we can do it.”
This remains true today, especially in the Middle Eastern and North African countries rewriting their constitutions in the wake of the Arab Spring. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton leads a global drive to support formal recognition in these budding democracies of rights for the women who marched, organized and put their lives on the line beside the men to end entrenched dictatorships. President Obama has spoken out, and led by its women members, the Senate has passed bipartisan resolutions of support.
But that is not enough to achieve lasting change. The United States cannot be “the best possible mirror of democracy” in pushing for women’s human rights, because we are one of only six countries that have not yet ratified CEDAW, the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women.
As First Lady, Hillary Clinton proclaimed that “women’s rights are human rights,” at the ground-breaking UN Conference on Women at Beijing in 1995. Democracy cannot be real if only half of citizens have rights, she said. Women working with scores of organizations in the Middle East recently echoed that view, testifying before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that their courageous fight for justice at home had relied on CEDAW terms for guidance and would be aided greatly if the United States, too, ratified CEDAW.
This U.N human rights treaty is the most comprehensive women’s human rights treaty -- the gold standard that affirms principles of achieving fundamental equality for women and girls. And, as Eleanor Roosevelt observed, countries that diminish those rights are watching what America does about women’s rights, not just what we say. They see that U.S. leaders talk a firm line on women, but the words can be ignored because we do not subscribe to CEDAW.
Around the world, CEDAW has been used to reduce sex trafficking and domestic abuse, provide access to education and vocational training, guarantee the right to vote, ensure the ability to work and own a business without discrimination, improve maternal health care, end forced marriage and child marriage, and ensure inheritance rights.
In countries that have ratified CEDAW, women have partnered with their governments to engage in a national dialogue about the status of women and girls, and as a result have shaped policies to create greater safety and opportunity for women and their families.
What stands in the way of U.S. ratification? Half-truths, scare tactics, old myths, stereotypes and downright misrepresentations of what the treaty – arguments virtually unchanged since President Carter signed it more than 30 years ago – would do. Ratification of CEDAW will not automatically change U.S. law, will not mean unisex bathrooms, nor will it mean the end of Mothers’ Day.
The simple fact is that CEDAW offers countries a practical blueprint to achieve progress for women and girls by calling on each ratifying country to overcome barriers to discrimination. Each country must then determine its own best strategy for achieving these goals.
I was part of the Carter White House staff when CEDAW was signed and I am now past 70, one of the millions of women who hope the ratification of this important human rights treaty becomes reality in our lifetime. Women have made great progress in the United States, but we still face too much violence, unequal pay and too-limited participation in the political and corporate decisions that determine the future for all of us. Looking at my daughter and granddaughters, I still feel the need to keep working toward full equality alongside the women of the Middle East.
It is long past time for the United States to burnish our mirror of democracy, stop the daisy chain of fairytales about CEDAW and respond to the call of women of the Arab Spring. We should ratify this landmark treaty now.
Tarr-Whelan is a distinguished senior fellow at the progressive think tank Demos. She was U.S. ambassador to the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women during the Clinton administration and served under President Carter as deputy assistant for women's concerns.
© American Forum. 12/11.