Time to sign women's rights treaty

July 11, 2002|By Ellen Goodman

BOSTON - This time the dateline was Multan, Pakistan, although it could have happened in any other place on the globe where women are the designated punching bags of injustice.

An 18-year-old girl was "sentenced" to gang rape. Rape was the punishment allotted by a tribal council for her 11-year-old brother's "crime" of walking with an unchaperoned girl from a different tribe. For the sake of honor, four men took turns at sexual revenge, inflicting the "law" on the sister as she cried out for help.

What shall we do with this unforgettable horror story? Shall we put it in the folder next to stories of Nigerian women sentenced to be stoned to death for the crime of "adultery," whether sex was forced or consensual? Shall we add it to the studies coming out of the Barcelona AIDS conference reminding us that women's stunning vulnerability to this epidemic in sub-Saharan Africa is not just physiology, but culture?

Ever since Afghanistan came upon our radar screen as the homeland of woman-hating, we've paid more mind to the world's women. In one speech after another, President Bush has described the liberation of women as an American value worth fighting for. "A thriving nation," he told West Point graduates, "will respect the rights of women, because no society can prosper while denying opportunity to half its citizens."

In this atmosphere, how is it possible that our country cavalierly undermines its own stand on human rights?

Twenty-three years ago, America helped the world community write an international women's bill of rights.

Since then, 170 countries have ratified the United Nations' Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW).

Words like "discrimination" seem far too mild to describe female genital mutilation, or sexual trafficking. But women from Colombia to Rwanda have used the treaty as a standard to rewrite laws on inheritance and domestic abuse, to change the patterns of education and employment. The treaty has been a tool in the long, slow evolution toward women's human rights.

But who has not ratified CEDAW? Countries such as Somalia, Sudan, Iran. And the United States of America.

This year, I thought we would leave such embarrassing companions behind. After all, the Bush administration offered a tepid "general approval" for the treaty early on. The Senate Foreign Relations Committee finally held hearings in June.

But on the way to ratification, women's rights took a right turn. First, the conservative watchdog John Ashcroft declared that the treaty needed more "study." Then on Monday, Colin Powell made it clear to Joe Biden, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, that the State Department is not cramming to finish this "study." Mr. Powell's letter placed the women's rights treaty behind 17 others waiting for Senate approval.

The administration is clearly trying to balance international women's rights and the domestic political right. And politics may win.

The U.N. treaty brings out all of the ancient enemies and hoary arguments once launched against the Equal Rights Amendment. Conservative op-ed mills and politicians proclaim simultaneously that the treaty is toothless and radical. They offer a litany of alarms about the destruction of the family and even the bizarre idea that the treaty could criminalize Mother's Day.

This international agreement can't trump national laws. Saudi Arabia, no poster child for women's rights, has signed CEDAW. So has Pakistan, the scene of the rape sentence.

Slowly, though, more citizens hold countries up to their own signatures. This new consciousness about human rights was surely one reason for the Pakistani government's arrest of the rapist-jurists.

By not joining the international community, America damages its authority to call others to account. As human rights advocate Steve Rickard says, "We powerfully assist the Talibans of the world who want to argue that the treaty isn't universal because we're not a party to it."

Mr. Biden, joining in, says, "The plain fact of the matter is that we should provide a tool for women fighting for their lives in these countries." He plans to bring up this plain fact next week in executive session of the Foreign Relations Committee and expects it to be voted onto the Senate floor. "I want people to be counted," he says. But will that count add up to a two-thirds majority?

Over the past two decades, nearly every president has signed an international human-rights treaty. Ronald Reagan signed the genocide treaty. The first George Bush signed the torture convention. Bill Clinton signed the race treaty. Will the man who takes pride in freeing Afghan women see himself as a liberator or a rear guard?

Meanwhile, the stories accumulate. Every time we read about the women of the world, there is an impulse to do something. This treaty is the least we can do.

Ellen Goodman is a columnist for The Boston Globe. Her column appears Mondays and Thursdays in The Sun She can be reached via e-mail at ellengoodman@globe.com.

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