US: Time to ratify women's treaty, groups urge

UNITED NATIONS, Mar 8 (IPS) - Rights activists in the United States are urging their newly-elected government to support global initiatives aimed at protecting women’s rights.

'If Barack Obama wants one important thing to do for women, he will direct the U.S. Senate to ratify CEDAW,' said Ritu Sharma, a leading women’s rights activist.

CEDAW is the acronym for the U.N. Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, which has been endorsed by over 170 countries.

In the past three decades, U.S. policymakers rejected CEDAW by reasoning that women in the United States already enjoyed legal protections against violence and discrimination.

But rights activists counter that the U.S. refusal to ratify the treaty encourages repressive regimes to promote discriminatory practices against women.

'There is no reason for us to wait for the U.S. ratification of CEDAW,' said Sharma, who leads the Women’s Edge Coalition, which comprises hundreds rights groups worldwide.

Created about 30 years ago, CEDAW clearly defines what constitutes gender discrimination and sets an agenda for national action to end abuse of women's rights.

Many countries that are signatory to the treaty have improved their laws, but in most cases, have failed to protect women from everyday violence and abuse.

Numerous studies carried out by the U.N. and independent think tanks in recent years show that in many parts of the world millions of women continue to face discrimination of every description.

Researchers say every year hundreds of thousands of women are forced into prostitution, with many suffering beatings not only by pimps and customers, but also policemen.

And how many women repeatedly endure violence in the supposed safety of their own homes? No one really knows, not even those who specialise in this subject. In many countries, including those with high rate of education, domestic violence is still regarded as a 'private' matter, which gives authorities a justification to look the other way.

Women’s situation, according to U.N. chief Ban Ki-moon, is not going to change unless men, particularly those in power, are willing to change their behaviour.

'Changing mindset and habits of generations is not easy,' stated Ban on the eve of International Women’s Day, which is observed all over the world on Sunday, Mar. 8.

'We must work together to state loud and clear, at the highest level, that violence against women will not be tolerated, in any form, in any context,' he said.

Women’s rights activists who work closely with the U.N. note that since the 1995 World Summit in Beijing, some progress has been made to protect women's rights. But many of them say there's still a long way to go for full recognition of women's rights as human rights.

As the U.N. Commission on the Status of Women convened its annual meeting last week, delegates said they were hopeful that the new U.S. leadership would act differently.

The past U.S. administration had imposed harsh conditions for funding to the U.N. agencies working to help improve women’s life conditions in poor countries.

The George W. Bush administration refused to fund health programmes in countries that recognised women’s right to have abortion. As a result, hundreds of thousands of women died during pregnancy.

Ban was silent on the issue of the U.S. non-ratification of CEDAW. However, in a recent conversation with IPS, he said he appreciated the intentions of the new administration.

'I think it is going to be very positive,' he said in response to a question about whether the Obama administration would be willing to sign U.N. treaties that the previous administration had either ignored or worked actively to undermine.

Last week, Ban ordered U.N. officials to organise special events all across the world in observance of International Women Day. The U.N.-sponsored events are supposed to include rallies, seminars, exhibits, film screening and concerts to create awareness about women’s rights.

Women’s rights activists say they are glad that the world community was consistent in trying to make progress on its agenda, but stress that in order to gain positive results a powerful country like the United States must be part of the movement.

Sharma hopes that the new U.S. secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, would play an important role in advancing the international agenda on women’s rights.

Before taking charge of the State Department, Clinton stressed the importance of aiding women and girls, who are at greatest risk of being poor, and form seven in 10 of the world’s hungry.

'Investing in our common humanity through social development is not marginal to our foreign policy but integral to accomplishing our goals,' she said in a recent statement. In her view, 'If half of the world’s population remains vulnerable to economic, political, legal, and social marginalisation, our hope of advancing democracy and prosperity will remain in serious jeopardy.'

Though pleased with Clinton’s position on women’s rights, Sharma, like many other activists, said she would like to see the new administration take real and practical steps to cooperate more closely with the international community.

'Clinton’s nomination as our third female secretary of state means that, once again, a woman will be the nation’s chief diplomat and public face to the world, underscoring America’s commitment to women’s equality and empowerment worldwide,' she said.

'But to take this commitment to the next level, this administration has to make U.S. international assistance a foreign policy priority and ensure that it benefits the world’s women,' she added. 'Putting a real emphasis on investing in women would mean both women and men can contribute to lifting themselves from poverty.'