Whose Rights? Everybody’s.

December 10, 2008

I read recently that President-elect Obama has pledged to restore the United States’ international standing, including a promise to push for ratification of the women’s equal rights treaty — the United Nations Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, known as CEDAW. Although 185 countries have ratified the 1979 treaty, the United States remains one of only eight that have not, alongside Sudan, Somalia, Qatar, Iran, Nauru, Palau, and Tonga. The battle for women’s rights has paralleled that of human rights in many ways. It speaks to the basic human rights — justice, fairness, and equality. Human rights transcend all boundaries and borders. While all countries have not accepted all treaties, all countries have accepted (and implemented to varying degrees), the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR).

Today is the 60th anniversary of UDHR, the foundation of international human rights law. The day will pass by without most people even knowing about it. Most of us consider ourselves to be free and equal in this great nation of ours. We raise a little brouhaha on Equal Pay Day, but that’s about it. We often just brush off acts of discrimination, indignities, and rights violations in other countries as “a part of their culture” to justify its existence and our own helplessness and inaction. Many years ago as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Africa, I was stunned when a male African colleague told me smugly during a meeting in which I was the lone female, “If you were my wife, I would beat you every day.” All the men thought it was hilarious. I didn’t. Around the world, women’s rights are violated every second of every day.

UN Photo.

President and Chair of the Commission on Human Rights, Eleanor Roosevelt, looking at the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in Spanish. Credit: UN Photo.

The UDHR conveys the importance of upholding the human rights and fundamental freedoms of all people in its 30 articles. Amazingly progressive for its time period (1948), it was a woman, Eleanor Roosevelt, who served as the president and chair of the Commission on Human Rights. That a woman should have led such an endeavor was remarkable.

So celebrate this day not only by being thankful for the opportunity to exercise your rights to justice, freedom, and equality but also by acknowledging that, around the world, many women and girls are still seeking the basic human rights that we take for granted.

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Gloria L. Blackwell By:   |   December 10, 2008


  1. Amanda Petersen says:

    I remember when I first learned that the United States was one of the only nations left that had not ratified CEDAW. I remember exactly where I was in the library stacks, kneeling on the floor, flipping through the pages of a book. I remember it so clearly because of the intense mixture of emotions I experienced in that moment – outrage, disappointment, surprise. At the time it was symbol to me of how my country has failed women and has failed to live up to our lofty ideals.

    The United States boasts itself to be a leader amongst nations in human rights. Yet we cannot ratify a treaty that esteems the rights of women? I hope that Obama’s term will be one in which we see marked improvement of the rights of women. We shouldn’t settle for anything less.

  2. Carrie in KS says:

    A co-worker has these words posted on their wall:

    “All the world is full of suffering. It is also full of overcoming.” – Helen Keller

    May we someday overcome inequality, injustice, fear, and hatred. Happy Anniversary UDHR!

  3. Sharv in MD says:

    A day late…

    Nevertheless, it is important to recognize the anniversary of the momentous events 60 years ago, and the legacy of Eleanor Roosevelt’s trailblazing role.

    While the United States has robust laws and practices protective of women’s rights in effect domestically, ratification of the CEDAW treaty would send an important signal to the international community of our ongoing commitment to women’s rights worldwide.

    Perhaps the welcome change in the U.S. administration will bring about a change on this front as well.

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