Facts v. Fiction

The Treaty for the Rights of Women is often described as an international “Bill of Rights” for women. Consisting of a preamble and 30 articles, it defines what constitutes discrimination against women and sets up an agenda for national action to end such discrimination.

The Treaty requires regular progress reports from ratifying countries but it does not impose any changes in existing laws or require new laws of countries ratifying the treaty. It lays out models for achieving equality but contains no enforcement authority.

Opponents of U.S. ratification have distorted the facts of the Treaty and raised unfounded fears about the ways it might affect U.S. policies. In fact, the experiences of other countries—acquired over the past 20 years—demonstrate that this apprehension is misplaced. None of the concerns listed below have become reality for the 177 countries that have ratified the Treaty (as of May 2004).

Fiction: Ratification would give too much power to the international community, with treaty provisions superseding U.S. laws and violating U.S. sovereignty.

  • Fact: Despite language “mandating” various changes, the Treaty grants no enforcement authority to the United Nations or any other body. It requires only a periodic report and review process. Countries also can express “reservations, understandings, and declarations” where domestic laws diverge from the Treaty. U.S. federal and state laws generally comply with the Treaty for the Rights of Women, which is also compatible with the U.S. Constitution, except where noted in the reservations, understandings, and declarations.
  • Fact: Treaties adopted in the United States, including this one, are “non-self-executing.” This means that legislation to implement any treaty provision would come before the House and Senate in the same way any other bill does. To be in compliance with the Treaty, the United States would not be required to change any domestic laws.
  • Fact: U.S. ratification would give the United States far more leverage in the international community regarding women’s rights issues than it has now.

Fiction: The United Nations’ CEDAW Committee will demand or force changes in U.S. law.

  • Fact: The Committee’s formal “Conclusions” are only recommendations about how countries can move forward on women’s equality. No changes in U.S. domestic law would be required for the United States to be in treaty compliance.

Fiction: The Treaty is unnecessary in the United States because it defines “discrimination” too broadly and would lead to unwise laws and frivolous lawsuits.

  • Fact: The Treaty is non-self executing and would not authorize any lawsuit not already allowed under U.S. law.
  • Fact: The Treaty would urge that the same “strict scrutiny” apply to U.S. claims of unintentional sex discrimination as now applies to claims of race discrimination. In fact, the Treaty terms resemble those of the U.N. Convention to Eliminate All Forms of Racial Discrimination (CERD), which the United States ratified in 1994 with no resulting flurry of frivolous suits. There is no reason to expect them on this treaty either.

Fiction: The Treaty will destroy traditional families by redefining “family” and the roles of women and men.

  • Fact: The Treaty does not seek to regulate family life. It only urges governments “to adopt education and public information programs [to] eliminate prejudices and current practices that hinder the full operation of the principle of the social equality of women.”

Fiction: The Treaty will require the United States and other countries to send women into armed ground combat.

  • Fact: The Treaty does not require countries to send women into combat. In fact, there is no reference in the Treaty to women in the military or women in combat. In addition, the 1997 CEDAW Committee report urging “full participation of women in the military” is not a requirement but an observation that women’s absence in military decision-making councils hampers diplomacy, negotiations, and peacekeeping and peace-making efforts and neglects to take note of the effect upon women and families of military decisions in times of conflict.

Fiction: The Treaty will interfere in the proper role of parents in child-rearing.

  • Fact: The Treaty calls only for recognition of the “common responsibility of men and women in the upbringing and development of their children” and “to promote what is in the best interests of the child.” This is consistent with U.S. law.

Fiction: The Treaty will threaten single-sex schools and require “gender-neutral” textbooks.

  • Fact: Single-sex schools are not prohibited. Educational equality language refers to the need for equal educational facilities, texts, and other materials for girls and boys, whether taught in single-sex or mixed schools.

Fiction: The Treaty promotes abortion by promoting access to “family planning.”

  • Fact: The Treaty intentionally does not address the issue of abortion. Many countries where abortion is illegal have ratified it, such as Ireland, Burkina Faso, and Rwanda. The U.S. State Department says the Treaty is “abortion neutral.” In 1994, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee added an “understanding” to the Treaty noting that it does not include a right to abortion.

Fiction: The Treaty could lead to sanctioning same-sex marriages.

  • Fact: The Treaty’s terms are clearly aimed only at sex-based discrimination against women. The Treaty would not compel the United States to change any laws or pass same-sex marriage laws. In addition, the majority of countries that have ratified the treaty currently ban same-sex marriages.

Fiction: The Treaty will require legalization of prostitution.

  • Fact: The CEDAW Committee has called for the decriminalization of prostitution in specific countries such as China where prostitution and trafficking in women and children are rampant, not for all countries in general. Regulation would allow victimized women to come forward without fear of repercussions for treatment to prevent HIV/AIDS and other sexually transmitted infections, to obtain health care and education, and to halt trafficking and sex slavery practices.