Speaking of Women's Rights...: Human Rights On The Homefront

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Human Rights On The Homefront

Guest Blog by Lillian Hewko

As holiday travel commenced, the blogosphere filled with stories of the new TSA travel regulations that force individuals to “choose” between projecting one’s naked body image for a security guard or undergoing an invasive pat down of one’s most intimate areas. Advocates appropriately voiced concern for survivors of sexual violence, as well as transgender and gender non-conforming individuals for whom the intrusion would be greater. Amidst this debate, however, I was surprised that an equally important event—the first ever U.S. Senate Committee on the Judiciary hearing on the ratification of the Convention on Elimination of Discrimination Against Women and Children (CEDAW)—gained much less attention.

We are the only industrialized nation that has not yet ratified CEDAW. CEDAW affirms basic human rights for women and girls and serves as a tool to end abuses against them. So why hasn’t possible ratification gained more coverage? One blogger pointed out that the TSA uproar received media importance since it was men who were leading the backlash. It may also have something to do with the U.S.’s emphasis on negative rights: we are up in arms at the slightest invasion of our privacy, while many of us sit idly by as hunger increases, access to health care and housing decreases, and prison rates go up. Unlike the invasion of privacy, these poverty-related issues are seen as a result of individual choices—think meritocracy and the American Dream.

Our rights framework is touted for its victories in terms of desegregation, abortion rights, and the repeal of sodomy laws. However, “victory” only goes so far. At present, schools are said to be more segregated, many low-income women lack comprehensive reproductive healthcare, and the criminalization of transgender people continues, therefore for many in the U.S.—particularly low-income individuals who are disproportionately people of color—our framework falls short of ensuring full equality.

A true human rights legal framework supports positive rights. As a party to CEDAW, the U.S. government would not only be obligated to respect and protect women’s rights, it would be required to take affirmative steps to ensure all persons have the means and conditions necessary to enjoy their rights. Does fear of fulfilling these rights explain our reticence in ratifying CEDAW?

Mainstream proponents such as Senator Durbin, chair of the judiciary hearing, avoid the topic. He rightfully recognizes that ratification will give us credibility in the international arena where we demand other governments to uphold women’s rights. But—possibly to appease opponents who see CEDAW as a “tool for mischief”—he claims the U.S. does not need to ratify CEDAW to protect the rights of American women and girls. Yet, ratification could greatly advance women’s rights abroad and on the home front. For example, under CEDAW, the right to access reproductive health services would support repeal of the Hyde Amendment and policies that restrict access to contraception, such as pharmacist refusal clauses, lack of insurance, and abstinence only education programs. Such possibilities for real equality warrant more attention. It’s not too late to join the effort to get CEDAW ratified by the U.S. Senate:

Contact your Senators and urge them to support CEDAW.

Contact President Obama
and urge him to make CEDAW a priority.

Support CEDAW grassroots activities in the United States.


Lillian is a former Legal Voice intern and a third-year law student at the University of Washington School of Law, where she recently founded the UW Incarcerated Mothers Advocacy Project and currently serves on the national board of Law Students for Reproductive Justice.

Photo Credit: Brian Glanz

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