35 Years Later: The U.S. Still Hasn’t Ratified CEDAW, But Local Activists are Working to Make a Difference for Women and Girls

By Patrick McNeil and Tara Yarlagadda

Though we’re sometimes regarded as an exemplar of human rights, the United States stands out internationally today for one disappointing – and shameful – reason.

That’s because 35 years after President Carter signed the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), an international human rights treaty intended to bring equality to women around the world, the United States still hasn’t ratified it.

In the absence of ratification by the U.S. Senate, an effort is underway on the local level to bring the foundation of CEDAW to cities across the country. The goal of this emerging grassroots campaign, called Cities for CEDAW, is to protect the rights of women and girls by passing ordinances establishing the principles of CEDAW in cities and towns across the United States.

In 1998, San Francisco became the first city to adopt an ordinance reflecting the principles of CEDAW. More recently, the city of Louisville, Ky., passed a resolution last November that will use CEDAW as a framework for all future policy aimed toward ending gender-based discrimination. Washington, D.C. is on the cusp of passing its own after an ordinance was introduced in the D.C City Council last year. Overall, eight cities have either already passed an ordinance or are making significant progress toward an ordinance. Over two dozen more cities have expressed interest in organizing to establish the principles of CEDAW locally, and the number continues to grow.

These ordinances work to ‘make the global local’ and protect women and girls by requiring three key components: a gender analysis of city departments and operations, an oversight body to monitor the implementation of a local CEDAW ordinance, and funding to support the implementation of the principles of CEDAW.

Implementing CEDAW ordinances at the local level would benefit many women and girls across the country, but the United States will still lack international leadership without actual ratification. Right now, we’re one of just a handful of nations – including Sudan, Somalia, Iran, Palau, and Tonga – that haven’t taken that step. South Sudan just took it on April 30.

Today, 35 years after we signed it, ratifying CEDAW should be a priority. The Cities for CEDAW campaign takes an important first step in that direction by lifting up the necessity to ratify the treaty while pushing for change at the local level.

Leadership Conference background on CEDAW

Assuming leadership of the campaign for U.S. ratification of CEDAW in 2010, The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights has since convened a national coalition of 190 organizations seeking ratification of CEDAW in the U.S. We have also participated in global reviews of the United States under ICCPR, CERD and the UPR focused on a wide range of civil and human rights issues. Our goal is to use the treaties and human rights process to hold the U.S. accountable for all of its human rights obligations, including eliminating discrimination against women.