CEDAW Ratification – Testimony of Wade Henderson

Location: Senate Subcommittee on Human Rights and the Law

Chairman Durbin, Ranking Member Coburn, and members of the Committee: I am Wade Henderson, President and CEO of The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights (The Leadership Conference). I appreciate the opportunity to present to you the views of the Leadership Conference in today’s hearing on U.S. ratification of CEDAW, the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women. CEDAW is a landmark international agreement that affirms principles of fundamental human rights and equality for women around the world. U.S. ratification would strengthen those principles and those who support them everywhere, and The Leadership Conference strongly urges the Senate to approve this measure as soon as possible.

This is the first hearing on CEDAW by the Senate since 2002 and the first time the Judiciary Committee has held a hearing on the need for the United States to ratify an international human rights treaty. It follows the subcommittee hearing at which I testified last year on Implementation of Human Rights Treaties, which focused on the Convention to Eliminate All Forms of Racial Discrimination (CERD) and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR).

The United States played an important role in the drafting of CEDAW, which the United Nations adopted in 1979, and which President Carter signed in 1980. Last December, the world community celebrated the 30th Anniversary of CEDAW, recognizing its success in making a real difference in women’s lives, from gaining the vote in Kuwait to expanding primary school for girls in Bangladesh. Unfortunately, the United States was missing in action because we remain one of only seven countries that have still not ratified CEDAW. Even more unfortunately, we are in the company of Iran, Somalia, Sudan and three Pacific Islands—not a group we are proud to belong to.

The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights is leading a broad coalition of more than 160 national organizations that support U.S. ratification of CEDAW. Many of those are submitting their own statements to the Subcommittee. This diverse Coalition is chaired by the ACLU, Citizens for Global Solutions, National Women’s Law Center and the YWCA. It includes civil rights organizations like the NAACP and National Council of La Raza; women’s organizations like Feminist Majority, National Council of Negro Women, and National Council of Jewish Women; human rights organizations like Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch; faith-based groups like the Women’s Missionary Society of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, United Methodist Women, and Presbyterian Church USA; labor unions like the National Education Association and the Service Employees International Union; international development organizations like Interaction and CARE; and other groups including the American Bar Association, the League of Women Voters and the United Nations Associations; and many more (see attached list).

With the addition of Human Rights to our name this year, The Leadership Conference is signaling the importance of using the international human rights framework as another powerful tool to advance our civil rights and social justice agenda. We view ratifying the CEDAW treaty as fundamental to achieving equal rights and opportunities for women around the world, including the United States. The failure to ratify this treaty for the rights of women undercuts the credibility of our nation’s stated intention to engage as a global partner, and weakens the effectiveness of our advocacy for human rights, including the rights of women and girls everywhere.

Many studies show that rights and education for girls and women are crucial to reduce violence, alleviate poverty, build democracies and strengthen economies. Countries are more stable, prosperous and secure with educated women who can fully participate in society. Indeed, one year of secondary schooling can mean 10 to 20 percent more in future wages, according to World Bank research. Furthering women’s rights is thus fundamental to America’s economic and national security interests.

Ratifying CEDAW would also benefit women and families here at home. Although American women enjoy greater opportunities and status than women in many other parts of the world, few would dispute that more progress is warranted. For example:

  • Domestic violence is prevalent – three American women a day are murdered and two million women a year report assaults by the current or former men in their lives. Some estimates suggest that 20,000 women, men, and children may be trafficked into the U.S. each year, forced to labor under slave-like conditions.
  • Women are now half the workforce, but they earn on average only 77 cents for every full-time dollar paid to men. For women of color, the wage gap is even wider.
  • One in four high school girls in this country drops out before graduation, and they have an average annual income that is $9,100 below even the low wages earned by boys who drop out.

CEDAW would be an effective tool for women working in the United States for progress in these and other areas. The principles embodied in CEDAW are fully in accord with American laws, principles and values. The U.S. Constitution already protects women’s right to due process and equality under the law, and numerous laws on both the federal and state level also protect women–prohibiting sex discrimination in employment, education, housing and credit; providing for family and medical leave and child care; and combating domestic violence and human trafficking.

As a nation, we have continued to make progress in eradicating the remaining discriminatory barriers to women here in the United States. For example, the adoption last year of the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act makes it easier for women to gain redress against systematic pay discrimination. Ratifying CEDAW does not result in any changes to U.S. law. However, it does create an opportunity, through periodic reporting to the CEDAW Committee, for a dialogue on ways to address remaining gaps in women’s equality. And as with other human rights reporting mechanisms, CEDAW would be a catalyst for regular analyses of women’s status, highlighting gaps in equality and, in partnership with civil society, suggesting innovative solutions.

For example, the United States participates in similar forums on racial issues with the CERD Committee and in the Universal Periodic Review (UPR) before the UN Human Rights Council. I was in Geneva when the United States presented its UPR report. I was proud of the stature and diversity of our official delegation, and of the report we submitted, which hailed this country’s strong record on human rights while acknowledging the need for continued progress. I was pleased that almost half the countries that commented on the U.S. report — including the United Kingdom, the Netherlands, Canada and Australia — recommended that the United States ratify CEDAW, and that in response, that our government called CEDAW ratification one of the Obama administration’s top priorities.

As the late Dr. Dorothy Height, our former chair and founding mother of the civil rights movement, noted when The Leadership Conference held its first meeting of the CEDAW Coalition: “Ratifying CEDAW remains among the unfinished business of the civil rights movement.” Her commitment, her leadership, and her fierce resolve to see this important treaty ratified was truly a galvanizing force that has strengthened our resolve to see that the U.S. joins 186 other nations in ratifying CEDAW.

Ratifying the CEDAW treaty would continue America’s proud bipartisan tradition of protecting and promoting human rights. It would strengthen the United States as a global leader standing up for women and girls around the world. Under the leadership of Presidents Reagan, Bush and Clinton, the U.S. ratified similar treaties on genocide, torture and racial discrimination. We appreciate the strong support of the Obama administration. Ratification of CEDAW is long overdue. We urge the Senate to bring CEDAW to the floor for a vote as soon as possible.