One Huge Way the United States Could Show its Commitment to Women’s Equality

Forty years ago today, after more than three decades of work by the UN Commission on the Status of Women, the United Nations adopted a new international human rights treaty: CEDAW.

This treaty – the Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination Against Women – is a landmark international agreement that affirms principles of fundamental human rights and equality for women around the world. It has, to date, been ratified by 189 countries and is an international standard for protecting and promoting women’s rights. 

But even though President Jimmy Carter signed CEDAW less than a year after its adoption on July 17, 1980, the U.S. Senate has failed to ratify it.

Our former chairwoman, the late Dr. Dorothy Height, recognized the ratification of CEDAW as fundamental to achieving equal rights and opportunities for women around the world – including the United States.

“Ratifying CEDAW remains among the unfinished business of the civil rights movement.”

– Dr. Dorothy Height

This continues to be the case. CEDAW is the only international agreement that comprehensively addresses women’s political, civil, cultural, economic, and social rights, and has been instrumental in expanding educational opportunities and voting rights and decreasing domestic violence and sex trafficking in ratifying countries.

In the absence of CEDAW ratification, Congress could be taking other steps to advance women’s rights and equality in the United States. Here are some suggestions:

  • The Senate should reauthorize the Violence Against Women Act, which the House did on a bipartisan basis more than 250 days ago.
  • The Senate should also pass the Paycheck Fairness Act (H.R. 7), which would update and strengthen the Equal Pay Act of 1963 to provide more effective protection against sex-based pay discrimination. The House passed H.R. 7 on March 27.
  • In addition, the Senate should pass the Raise the Wage Act (H.R. 582) to gradually raise the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour. This is a gender justice issue because women make up nearly two-thirds of those earning the federal minimum wage of $7.25 an hour. Women of color are more likely than any other group to be paid the lowest wages. Eliminating the subminimum wage for tipped working people, as H.R. 582 does, would also disproportionately impact women. The House passed it on July 18.
  • Congress must take workplace sexual harassment and discrimination seriously by considering the Be HEARD in the Workplace Act, which was introduced more than eight months ago and is the first comprehensive federal bill to address workplace harassment.
  • Congress must address pregnancy discrimination by passing the Pregnant Workers Fairness Act – a critical bill that will help ensure that no pregnant worker is forced to choose between a healthy pregnancy and a job. The House Education and Labor Committee’s Subcommittee on Civil Rights and Human Services held a hearing on the legislation nearly two months ago. It’s now time for Congress to move this bill closer toward passage.
  • Congress took an important step by passing 12 weeks of paid parental leave for all federal employees, which was included in the National Defense Authorization Act. But more must be done: Lawmakers must take up the FAMILY Act, which would create a national family and medical leave insurance program.

This is just the start.

Of course, the Senate must ratify CEDAW to continue America’s proud bipartisan tradition of protecting and promoting human rights. Forty years after the UN initially adopted the treaty, it is past time to show that the United States is a global leader in supporting and empowering women and girls around the world.