Women and the Obama Administration

There is the shining example of Michelle Obama.  Then there are the many women who still haven’t gotten over the fact that Hillary did not get to be President.  There is the idea of a Presidential Commision on Women (like the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights).  Then there is the President’s Council on Women and Girls.  Politico reports

After Barack Obama’s election, some in the women’s movement thought big – pushing for a Cabinet-level office, or even a blue-ribbon Presidential Commission on Women.

But when Obama announced his plans Wednesday, he brushed aside those requests.

Instead, he started the White House Council on Women and Girls — a sort of inter-agency task force with no full-time staff, no Cabinet-level leader and no set meeting schedule.

Women’s advocates who filed out of his East Room announcement Wednesday said they were delighted that their issues would get White House-level attention, whatever the forum.

But Obama’s move left others in the women’s movement questioning why he simply wouldn’t give the panel the prestige and heft they feel it deserves. Some activists already are strategizing about new ways to elevate women’s issues, beyond what Obama did.

I know one of the things that President Obama can do to help women.  He can finally ask Congress to radify CEDAW, the Conventionon on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women.   Somewhere on a disk that I can no longer read is the text of a speech I gave on an International Women’s Day in the 1990’s on why the United States needed to radify CEDAW but couldn’t mostly because of objections from the late Senator Jesse Helms of North Carolina.  And after reading the many reservations conservatives in the Senate wanted to place on the it, many women, including me,  could no longer support its radification.  CEDAW was adopted by the United Nations General Assembly in 1979.  We are one of a handful of countries like North Korea and Sudan not to adopt it. 

I understand that the Obama Administration has already taken steps to start the process, but the trick will be to get Congress to adopt CEDAW with the fewest possible attached  conditions or reservations.  (Think signing statements.)  In her posting on the Nation’s Blog, Betsy Reed calls for the adoption of a “Clean CEDAW“.

What does CEDAW promise? Guaranteed maternity benefits. The right to equal pay. (And no, Lily Ledbetter didn’t give us that. The right to sue after you’ve been discriminated against for years is not the same as the right to be free from discrimination.) A commitment, at the broadest level, to eliminate acts of discrimination against women–i.e., to prohibit them, and to punish them when they do occur.

It’s good stuff. One of the best things about the treaty is that it requires governments periodically to review and evaluate their policies and programs relating to women’s equality, provoking what Human Rights Watch’s Marianne Mollmann calls “a democratic dialogue” about women’s rights, which has already occurred in some of the 184 signatory nations, including Peru.

Another admirable aspect of CEDAW is its stipulation that, when traditional cultural or religious practices collide with women’s rights, the state is obliged to intervene on the side of women.

But there will be problems like a woman’s right to choose to end a pregnancy which was the big hang-up in 2002.  Reed writes

One of the most egregious [reservations presented] addressed abortion. It read: “Nothing in this convention shall be construed to reflect or create any right to abortion and in no case should abortion be promoted as a method of family planning.” As Janet Benshoof, president of the Global Justice Center, recently noted, this language was “…drafted to be used as an antiabortion tool. Under U.S. law nearly all abortions, including those needed by women due to serious health problems or fetal abnormalities incompatible with life, are defined as abortions as a ‘method of family planning.'”

Moreover, as Benshoof points out, the inclusion of this provision would undermine women’s access to reproductive health services around the world. Already, CEDAW has been cited in court rulings striking down laws criminalizing abortion in signatory nations, such as Colombia. An endorsement of this qualification by the US it would weaken the legal position of women’s advocates in these cases, giving aid and comfort to abortion rights opponents everywhere.

To pass Congress, we need 67 votes.  But we need to pass a “clean” version.  If Morocco can do it, the United States can do it also.

This past December, in honor of the 60th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, King Mohammed VI of Morocco lifted the “reservations” that his country had imposed on the implementation of CEDAW, and embraced an unqualified version. Wouldn’t it be a fitting tribute to the late Senator Helms if the United States did the same?

So if you are reading this and you agree, call or write you Senator.  And tell Senator Boxer to keep pushing for a clean CEDAW.

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