State of Emergency? Conservatives Warn CEDAW Ratification Will Threaten American Norms

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State of Emergency? Conservatives Warn CEDAW Ratification Will Threaten American Norms

Janine Kossen

For the first time in eight long years, the Senate held a hearing on ratification of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, a treaty which conservatives believe would end the world as we know it.

This article is cross-posted from

Can you hear that high-pitched siren? See those flashing lights? Unlike the emergency broadcasts you sometimes see on T.V., this time you won’t hear that common refrain, “This is a test. This is only a test.” That’s because we’re experiencing a real emergency here. The U.S. is about to self-destruct and it’s all because of women. Yeah, women! Who knew? I mean, I know we’re powerful and all, but I had no idea that we could single-handedly destroy the universe.

Well, that’s what conservative groups like the Heritage Foundation believe. For the first time in eight long years, the U.S. Senate held a hearing on U.S. ratification of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW, or the Women’s Treaty). During the hearing, Steven Groves from the Heritage Foundation testified about all the evils that would be bestowed upon us if the U.S. took the radical approach of joining 186 other nations in supporting CEDAW.

Apparently ratifying a treaty to protect and promote women’s rights simultaneously undermines and threatens those same rights. Wait, what? That is the most circular logic I’ve ever heard. Since when does access to educational opportunities, the right to vote, and the ability to own and inherit property pose a threat to women? How do laws protecting women from violence, sex trafficking, child marriage, and female genital cutting undermine women’s rights? Oh right, I forgot…we’d be subjecting ourselves to “scrutiny by a committee of gender experts that has established a record of promoting policies that do not comport with existing American norms and that encourages national governments to engage in social engineering on a massive scale.” I can’t believe I forgot that promoting the participation of women in the political process was counter to existing American norms! Who’s going to tell that to the millions of women who voted in the mid-terms? And how could I not realize that ratifying CEDAW would require the U.S. to abandon Mother’s Day? Silly me!

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Think you’ve had enough? Not so fast, there’s more. Groves went on to testify that the U.S. already does a pretty good job of protecting and promoting women’s rights so there’s really no need to ratify CEDAW. He painstakingly points out all the federal laws that have helped advance women’s access to employment, compensation, housing, and education. So, what’s the problem? Why not just ratify the treaty then? Well, I guess it’s because he wants it both ways. On the one hand, CEDAW promotes policies that do not comport with existing American norms, but on the other hand, we have most of these protections ingrained in existing American law already anyway. Huh? I’m getting whiplash just trying to wrap my head around these competing arguments. 

Fortunately, Senator Dick Durbin, the Chair of the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on Human Rights and the Law, took Mr. Groves to task for his organization’s opposition to CEDAW. Remember that well-founded fear about a committee of gender experts engaging in social engineering on a massive scale? Well, Mr. Groves and his fellow CEDAW opponents claim that the CEDAW Committee is a quasi-judicial body whose recommendations carry more weight than they actually do. When challenged by Senator Durbin, Groves was forced to admit that the Committee’s reports are non-binding – “that’s why I said, ‘quasi-judicial.’” Durbin retorted, “I say it’s quasi-true!”

Of course, the hearing wasn’t just a series of animated exchanges between these two men (though there were plenty of them).  As Groves pointed out when he began his testimony, he was feeling a bit outnumbered in the room full of CEDAW supporters–so many supporters in fact that an overflow room had to be set up to accommodate them all.

Among the other influential witnesses was Melanne Verveer, Ambassador for Global Women’s Issues, and Hollywood celebrity, Geena Davis, both of whom passionately urged ratification of CEDAW to help the U.S. promote and defend the rights of women across the globe. Perhaps most eloquent, however, was Wazhma Frogh, a leading women’s rights activist from Afghanistan. She shared her story of growing up under Taliban rule–the constant oppression, rampant acid burnings, and daily fear of attack just for wanting to go to school, to have a job, or to leave home without a male escort.  Using CEDAW as a framework, women in Afghanistan have been able to achieve rights unheard of just a decade ago. Their story is one of survival, but they cannot do it alone. She pointed to the fact that conservative elements in her country use the failure of the U.S. to ratify CEDAW as an excuse to commit further atrocities against women. “They constantly ask us ‘Why hasn’t the United States ratified CEDAW?’ They say that if the United States believes in women’s rights as a universal right, why haven’t they signed onto CEDAW? Today, we don’t have an answer.  Perhaps tomorrow, with your help, we can answer back.”

Want to help Ms. Frogh answer back? Do your part and show that you support women’s rights as human rights. Tell your Senators that young women and men, adult allies, and their constituents demand the U.S. ratification of CEDAW today!

Topics and Tags:

CEDAW, heritage foundation