US Senate Hearing Puts Women's Human Rights in the Spotlight

Tunisian women demonstrate for the protection of their rights in Tunis ©SALAH HABIBI/AFP/Getty Images

As the uprisings in the Middle East and North Africa continue to unfold, serious concerns are emerging regarding the inclusion of women in the plans for new governance. In Egypt, for example, women stood shoulder to shoulder with men to topple a regime notorious for its human rights abuses and yet, now that those leaders have been forced to step down, women are too often finding their calls for an equal seat at the table rejected.

Yesterday, the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee held a hearing to highlight these concerns. “Women and the Arab Spring: Spotlight on Egypt, Tunisia and Libya” focused on women’s human rights and emphasized the need for the US to ratify the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW). Senator Boxer (D-CA), Senator Casey (D-PA), Senator DeMint (R-SC), Senator Shaheen (D-NH), and Senator Udall (D-NM) were all in attendance to discuss how the US Senate could work to support women in the Middle East and North Africa.


Can a Women's Rights Treaty Make any Difference?

Earlier this week, President-elect Obama made a commitment to push for Senate ratification of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW). This treaty has been signed by several Presidents (including President Jimmy Carter in 1980) but has never reached the Senate floor. That’s a 20 year denial of women’s rights.  The United States bears the shame of being the only industrialized country which has not ratified it.

The question is, would ratifying an international treaty make any difference?  The answer is yes, CEDAW is important!  The treaty has been a vital tool for women’s rights activists in countries which have ratified it to demand their rights be enshrined in law.  It has been used to develop citizenship rights in Botswana and Japan, property rights and political participation in Costa Rica and to develop domestic violence laws in Turkey, Nepal, South Africa, and the Republic of Korea.

Arialle Crabtree demands support for Women's Rights!

Arialle Crabtree demands support for Women

Critics of the treaty say that women’s rights in the United States are enshrined in the constitution and therefore ratification is not necessary for women here.  I disagree, there are all too many women in the US whose rights are abused.  Furthermore, by not ratifing CEDAW, the US loses all credibility in demanding that women’s rights overseas be respected.  President-elect Obama has clearly recognised the value of this women’s rights treaty, both as a commitment to respecting the rights of women in the US and as a pledge to reinforce any diplomatic efforts to end abuses against women around the world.  I can’t help wondering if maybe it was the President-elect’s mother’s interest in international women’s issues that inspired him.  Whatever the reason, I hope he continues to be inspired to defend women’s rights throughout his Presidency.