Thousands of events are being held around the world to celebrate International Women’s Day, an idea that was launched 100 years ago when a group of women from seventeen countries gathered in Copenhagen, Denmark to champion the rights of women. Activists across the globe are drawing attention to a variety of concerns, including discriminatory laws, the high rate of pregnancy-related deaths in many parts of the world, the skewed sex ratio in China and India, the disproportionately high number of women who are killed and victimized by wars, the comparatively heavier burden of poverty on women, and the continuing disparity between men and women in terms of the quality of available employment and wages received. [includes rush transcript]
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ANJALI KAMAT: Thousands of events are being held around the world to celebrate International Women’s Day, an idea that was launched a hundred years ago, when a group of women from seventeen countries gathered in Copenhagen, Denmark to champion the rights of women. Activists across the globe are drawing attention to a variety of concerns, including discriminatory laws, the high rate of pregnancy-related deaths in many parts of the world, the skewed sex ratio in China and India, the disproportionately high number of women who are killed and victimized by wars, the comparatively heavier burden of poverty on women, and the continuing disparity between men and women in terms of the quality of available employment and wages received.
AMY GOODMAN: This year also marks thirty years since the adoption of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, or CEDAW, by the United Nations General Assembly. Seven countries that have not ratified the international treaty are the United States, Iran, Sudan, Somalia, Nauru, Palau and Tonga.
For more on the International Women’s Day, we are joined here in New York by the president and CEO of the Global Fund for Women, Kavita Ramdas. She’s following discussions at the United Nations as the Commission on the Status of Women meets to review the implementation of the Beijing Platform for Action that came out of the Fourth World Conference on Women in 1995.
Kavita Ramdas, welcome to Democracy Now!
KAVITA RAMDAS: Thank you. It’s great to be here. Happy International Women’s Day!
AMY GOODMAN: Happy one to you, and to Anjali, as well, and to all of our listeners and viewers. Kavita, CEDAW, explain what it is and why the US has not signed on as of yet.
KAVITA RAMDAS: Unfortunately, the United States has remained one of, as you mentioned, seven countries that has refused to actually ratify the treaty. The United States technically is a signatory to the treaty. This treaty can best be described as a treaty on the rights of women. It’s not unlike the Seneca Falls Declaration that is so famously touted in the United States as being sort of the first changing point, turning point, for the women’s movement for suffrage. In the United States, however, there is a strong feeling both of being anti-UN, in general, and so a desire to essentially put forward the point that you can move gender equality forward without being somehow dependent on the United Nations.
A second major issue is a lack of comfort around the clear commitment to reproductive health and rights that is spelled out in the United Nations treaty. And a third reason is that the United States failed to pass the Equal Rights Amendment Act many years ago, almost thirty years ago now, but there is actually a requirement in CEDAW to have an equal-pay-for-equal-work legislation in all countries that are signatories.
Now, there are countries that have signed the treaty and have signed with what they call clauses, which sort of allow them to express their concerns, or caveats on the treaty. The United States has simply decided that that’s not something that they actually want to move forward with. So we’re actually in the very strange position, once again, of being in the company of countries that really I don’t think anyone would hold up as models of democracy or gender equality, for that reason.
AMY GOODMAN: How does the Obama administration justify this?
KAVITA RAMDAS: Well, it’s somewhat distressing, I have to say. I think there’s very strong support for this from the State Department. Hillary Clinton is, as you famously, you know, remember, the person who said women’s rights are human rights at the Beijing conference. I was there in 1995. And I think all of us had this sort of moment of believing that that might actually be an example of the way the United States would end up. However, I would say the State Department is somewhat isolated in its position, and even within the States Department there is a sort of dismissal of “why are they bringing these women’s issues into the serious realm of national security?”
On the other side, the Obama administration feels that it’s going to run into unwarranted and unwanted, right now, opposition from Republicans and others in the Congress. And quite honestly, I think this is another example of the lack of spine that’s being shone by this administration on issues where I think they actually could be far more forthright and far more determined. We had a meeting about two weeks ago in which a number of women’s organizations gathered together at the invitation of the White House and were essentially encouraged to, you know, think about bringing the right poll numbers forward, so that then the administration could make a decision as to moving forward. And I think that’s somewhat disappointing to all of us who worked so hard for this election and who believed that, you know, we’d finally have an administration clearly on our side. I think we have a ways to go.
ANJALI KAMAT: Kavita, in a piece for Open Democracy, you write that you were told that ratifying CEDAW would be controversial.
KAVITA RAMDAS: Absolutely, and I think the controversy lies around some key points. The United States is far down on the list of countries in the so-called developed world, that actually, on the issues of gender equality, I think some 16 or maybe 17 percent representation of women at the highest bodies of the legislature, of the elected legislature, in this country. Compare that with 52 percent in Rwanda, and you get a sense of just how far apart we are right now. And there are provisions in the UN treaty on women, CEDAW, that call for the use of quotas, for example, to ensure women’s representation in the political process. That is something you can simply not say that word in the United States, perhaps no more than you can say the word “taxes,” without people breaking into a sweat.
And so, you know, unfortunately, the things that are considered controversial are not the appalling treatment of women, not the fact that a woman is raped every three minutes in this country, not the fact that we have probably one of the highest spikes in domestic violence in this country in the aftermath of a hugely militarized ten years since 9/11. Those are not considered controversial. What is considered controversial is a treaty that essentially says nothing more, nothing less, than the Seneca Falls Declaration of 1858, which Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony were willing to put their, you know, lives on the line for and which Frederick Douglass famously said, you know, needed to be one that we ratified as a country. So, here we are, almost 200 years later, not much progress.
ANJALI KAMAT: And Kavita Ramdas, you’ve been following discussions at the United Nations. It’s been fifteen years since Beijing. Explain what the Beijing Platform of Action was and what’s happening now in terms of the discussions on the international status of women.
KAVITA RAMDAS: The Beijing Platform for Action was truly a groundbreaking document. It laid out in some extraordinary detail the case for investing in women’s full equality, participation and leadership. It also made the case that the gross and continued discrimination against women and girls around the world was one that was simply not consistent with any understanding either of human rights or of our notions of what would actually bring about development in the world. That document, again, has been seen by progressive Republican governments in the United States as one that essentially challenges very conservative notions of women’s — particularly women’s reproductive health and rights. And there has been a concerted attempt to actually avoid having another UN Conference on Women, so you will see that the notion that it is Beijing-plus-fifteen suggests that we actually haven’t had another conference organized by the UN or indeed a large gathering of non-state actors, grassroots civil society organizations, to push forward a women’s agenda, a gender equality or gender justice agenda.
That situation actually leaves us in a place where, as the United States, we are actually seen as a country that jeopardizes the advancement of gender equality. Indeed, we’ve been hearing from many of the activists who were here in New York this past week that their countries are now using the fact that the United States hasn’t ratified CEDAW as an argument for exiting CEDAW themselves. This is not just true, by the way, of countries in the Middle East, although there are some there. Both — you know, activists from both Lebanon and Jordan have raised concerns around their governments’ recent comments around that, but also in places like Belarus, Ukraine, different parts of the former Soviet Union, parts of Central Asia. So you essentially have a situation in which not only is the United States not seen as a leader in human rights, but is actually now being seen as a legitimate excuse for other countries to withdraw their support for women’s equality. That seems extraordinarily troubling in 2010. And I think our hope is that the pressure from grassroots activists, both on their own countries and hopefully on this country, will succeed in turning that around.
One big problem in that area is that most Americans, women or men, have no idea. I mean, you mentioned that International Women’s Day started in Copenhagen; it actually started right here in New York City. It was a group of — prior to 1910, it was a group of activist women laborers in New York City who were challenging the fact that women in sweatshops used to be locked up in those sweatshops. And because the Socialist Movement made that workers’ struggle a banner and a cause, the United States essentially shut down any recognition of its own history in terms of that profound — most Americans have no idea what International Women’s Day is, although I grew up in India celebrating and singing songs in praise of the brave women workers of New York. So, I mean, I think there’s just a real irony here that is sort of manifest across this whole discussion, you know, which speaks both to the question of how deeply the question of labor rights is at the root of this. So...
AMY GOODMAN: Well, we want to thank you very much, Kavita Ramdas, for joining us. Kavita Ramdas is president and CEO of the Global Fund for women, as you head off, once again, to the United Nations. Thank you.
KAVITA RAMDAS: Thank you for having me.