America's unfulfilled promise to women

Linda Tarr-Whelan has long advocated for women's rights and improved access to positions of leadership. Her book, "Women Lead the Way: Your Guide to Stepping Up to Leadership and Changing the World," published by Berrett-Koehler in October, explores ways women can bolster their own success. Tomorrow's anniversary of a critical UN treaty on discrimination against women reminds Tarr-Whelan of the progress that still lies ahead. Tarr-Whelan, a senior fellow at the think tank Demos, served under President Clinton as ambassador to the UN Commission on the Status of Women and under President Carter as deputy assistant for women's concerns.

GUEST BLOGGER: Linda Tarr-Whelan

President Obama gave a ringing endorsement of the importance of preserving and protecting human rights when he accepted the Nobel Prize. Of course he is right. But there's a big challenge for him at home affecting half the world's people. The United States has still not affirmed the universality of the human rights of women.

Thirty years ago, on December 18, 1979, the United Nations fulfilled Eleanor Roosevelt's dream by agreeing to the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women as one of the critical pillars of human rights. But along with only Sudan, Somalia, Iran and a handful of small island nations, the United States has not yet joined the rest of the world community by ratifying the treaty.

Thoughtful speeches that call us to a higher standard are important, but actions speak louder than words. After President Jimmy Carter signed the treaty, president after president has talked about the rights of women. Some have actually put policies in place to advance women's empowerment. Yet none have actually led the effort to get the 67 votes in the U.S. Senate that it would take to ratify the women's treaty. That's what is needed to bring America to the table as a full partner to end discrimination against women.

Human rights should not be a partisan issue. But the loud voices of a small opposition have made our leaders cautious. Maybe if we had the critical mass of 30 percent women in Congress instead of the current 17 percent, it would be different. But we don't. That's why we need the president to end America's isolation from the global community on the human rights of women along with the other issues he has on his plate. It's that important.

The treaty helps women and girls around the world and here at home. It is a framework of standards for each country to review and address barriers that stand in the way of equality, giving activists a way to hold their nation accountable to moving forward. Does it matter that we are part of the international cooperative effort to amplify the voices of women who struggle for the most elementary rights to own property, or fight against rape as an instrument of war, or strive to see their daughters educated? Does it matter that women within our borders still feel the reality of how the United States is only ranked 31st in closing the gender gap on wages and on political and economic representation?

Hanging back is costly. As an Ambassador, I saw how our powerful voice and clout are missed on behalf of women and girls around the globe. Without the treaty, American women lack an important tool to address lingering issues.

By Steven E. Levingston |  December 17, 2009; 1:18 PM ET Politics , Steven Levingston
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