India gang rape: Why US should ratify UN treaty on women's rights

The gang rape and death of a student in India, which has sparked protests there to change cultural views on women, should remind the United States why it’s high time to ratify the UN 'bill of rights' for women. American criticism of the treaty is based on misconceptions.

Dar Yasin/AP
Indian women march to mourn the death of a gang rape victim in New Delhi, India, Jan. 2. Op-ed contributor Jennifer Norris writes that monitors of the UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women urged India in 2007 to reform its laws relating to rape. 'Far from imposing radical agendas,' she writes, the convention 'has actually been an important source of...change for the advancement of women abroad.'

The gang rape and subsequent death of a university student in India, which has sparked protests there to change laws and cultural views on women, should remind the United States why it’s high time to ratify the United Nations “bill of rights” for women.

The US has demonstrated global leadership on women’s rights, but it has failed to ratify the seminal treaty on such rights – officially titled the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women. Only eight countries have failed to ratify the convention, leaving the US among Iran, Somalia, and Sudan.

The Obama administration must move with urgency to ensure that the convention is ratified and end this embarrassment.

The US was a primary drafter of the convention, and President Carter signed it in 1980, but it has lingered in the Senate for more than 30 years. Opponents argue that it proposes a radical feminist agenda that gives a right to abortion and legalizes prostitution.

This is a misconception. For one, the committee of independent experts that monitors the treaty’s implementation urges countries to decriminalize abortion – criminalizing it leads to unsafe procedures – but the treaty is actually “abortion neutral,” according to the US State Department. The convention does not enshrine a right to abortion. Countries in which abortion is illegal, such as Ireland and Rwanda, have ratified the convention.

Second, the treaty requires decisive action against trafficking and exploitation of women through prostitution, but the committee urges that trafficking victims are not prosecuted. That’s far from legalizing prostitution.

Sovereignty issues are also a battle cry of opponents. The question is what interest does any country have in submitting to scrutiny? And yet most countries do. At a time when the world needs more cross-border cooperation and diplomacy, the US can afford to have its own record regularly reviewed.

Perhaps most obstructive in Congress is the perceived lack of US interest in the treaty. So what are its benefits?

Far from imposing radical agendas, it has actually been an important source of constitutional, legislative, and judicial change for the advancement of women abroad. In Bangladesh, it was used to improve gender parity in primary schools. In Kenya, it was used to remove barriers to land and inheritance rights for widows and daughters. Afghanistan used it as a basis for a constitutional provision to guarantee men and women equal rights before the law. In 2007, the treaty’s monitoring committee urged India to reform its laws relating to rape and other sexual abuse against women.

US diplomats and Americans who work in international organizations say that the failure to ratify impedes Washington’s efforts to advance the rights of girls and women abroad. “Don’t lecture us. Your country hasn’t even ratified” the treaty, is a common response.

Ratification would also benefit America, which still struggles with pay equity for women, paid maternity leave, and violence against women. Upon ratification, the US would be required to submit a report every four years to the convention’s committee and be reviewed in a public meeting – an opportunity to identify shortcomings, track progress, and have a  conversation on how to improve.

It is time to reassess the idea that the US is beyond reproach on its women’s rights record. America must send a message to the world that, in solidarity with others, it will legally commit to honor universally held principles of women’s equality at home and abroad.
Jennifer Norris is an American lawyer and former human rights officer with the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights in Geneva, where she worked on the women’s treaty.

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