US: Gains and Disappointments on Women’s Rights

HRW & Huffington Post
New Law Supports Equal Pay, But Contraceptives Financing Dropped From Economic Stimulus.
The new law supporting the right to equal pay is a major step forward for women, but dropping funds for contraceptives from the economic stimulus package will impede women's rights and cost more in the long run, Human Rights Watch said today.
The Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Restoration Act, the first bill President Obama signed, expands the time period for filing pay-discrimination claims. The victims, many of them women, were previously limited by a 2007 Supreme Court decision that said they could only file claims against their employer within 180 days of their first unfair paycheck, even if they did not learn of the problem until years later. Under the new law, claims can be filed within 180 days of receiving any discriminatory paycheck.

"This bill dramatically improves a woman's chance to fight pay discrimination," said Meghan Rhoad, researcher in the women's rights division at Human Rights Watch. "And it greatly improves the fairness of the system for everyone."

However, with President Obama's support, members of Congress removed provisions of the economic stimulus proposal that supported access to contraceptives. Human Rights Watch understands that the provisions, which would have allowed states to expand access to contraceptives under Medicaid, were taken out after protests from some congressional members. However, a 2007 Congressional Budget Office analysis of an almost identical proposal estimated that such funding for contraceptives would save $200 million over five years, including money Medicaid would otherwise have spent on services related to unintended pregnancies.

Access to contraceptives enables women and their families to make considered decisions about the number and spacing of their children. These decisions carry profound financial and other implications for families, and the decision not to expand access to contraception under Medicaid means that fewer families will be able to make those decisions, Human Rights Watch noted.

"Ensuring access to contraception is not only the right thing to do, it makes economic sense," said Rhoad.

30 January 2009

Source: Human Rights Watch

US Women Also Have Human Rights Issues

On October 10, 2003, after years of abuse at the hands of her former partner, a 35-year-old woman in Hungary decided to seek intervention in a way American women can currently only wish for. The woman, identified as A.T., filed a petition with a United Nations body on women's rights. The body promptly asked her government to prevent further harm while they considered her case. Subsequently, it directed Hungary both to take measures to guarantee her physical and mental health and to ensure protection and justice for all the nation's victims of domestic violence.

The petition, was filed with the UN Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women, known as CEDAW. It diligently analyzed Hungarian law and court proceedings, and concluded that available remedies both in A.T.'s case and in general were too weak, too slow, and too begrudgingly implemented.

Women living in the United States cannot appeal to CEDAW, though, when their rights are inadequately protected by US law. Why? Because the United States still, almost 30 years after it came into force, has not agreed to be bound by the provisions of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, which created the committee.

The Convention is a global treatise on women's equality. It reflects the consensus of the international community on what specific protections and actions states must take to ensure equality between men and women. The treaty has been ratified by 185 UN Member States, placing the United States in the dubious company of Iran, Nauru, Palau, Qatar, Somalia, Sudan, and Tonga as the last states that have not ratified it. The convention was signed by President Carter in July 1980, but was not considered by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee till 1990. It was favorably voted out of the Foreign Relations Committee twice: once in 1994 and once in 2002. The convention has been awaiting comments from the Justice Department ever since. Senate rules require the treaty to be taken up in Committee again before it goes to full Senate vote.

Opponents of ratification cite a general opposition to international treaties as infringing upon national sovereignty. But they also contend that the convention includes provisions that are offensive to "American" culture. They contend that ratification would force the United States government to provide abortion on demand, to intrude in family situations and to legalize sex work.

The first argument is sometimes used to oppose the very concept of international human rights. Such arguments maintain that every nation is free to pursue whatever policies it wants, even slavery and apartheid. Such arguments are hard to defend in the context of modern international relations. Perhaps more to the point, the very act of ratifying a treaty, and thereby agreeing to uphold universally recognized standards, is a classic exercise of national sovereignty - a declaration that a nation believes in and will uphold these standards. With regard to the clash between US culture and the specific provisions of the Convention, the opposition is also wrong:

Abortion. The CEDAW Convention protects a woman's equal right to life and health, and to decide on the number and spacing of her children. The full protection of these rights will in some cases require access to abortion services, and will also require the state to provide such services to some. The United States is already bound by international human rights commitments in this regard through its ratification of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and through its membership of the Organization of American States. The ratification of the CEDAW Convention would not substantively alter existing obligations. Intrusion of privacy. The CEDAW Convention requires the nations to end practices based on the idea of the inferiority of either of the sexes. This provision is key, and indeed Human Rights Watch research shows that even the best policies are not effective if they are undermined by existing prejudices. Moreover, US federal law on violence against women, education, and other issues, already includes the need for government oversight of what at some point was seen as private matters.

Sex work. The CEDAW Convention contains a provision requiring states to take all measures "to suppress exploitation of prostitution of women." Human Rights Watch's research on this issue indicates that the criminalization of women involved in sex work tends to expose them to specific types of exploitation--including extortion by police. Various countries have fulfilled this particular CEDAW obligation in many ways, including decriminalizing sex work while clamping down on trafficking, providing health care options for sex workers and investigating police abuse.

Back in Hungary, since A.T.'s case was filed in 2003, the government has both held awareness-raising sessions for police officers about domestic violence and developed a more stringent mandate for police to deal with domestic violence. Moreover, the CEDAW Committee's analysis and recommendations have provided much needed fuel to domestic groups seeking to reform the law. Women in the United States should be able to benefit from this kind of support too. The Obama administration and the US Senate should make ratification of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women a priority.

28 January 2009

By: Marianne Mollman

The Huffington Post