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CEDAW and engaging the International Community in Confronting Violence Against US Women

CEDAW is not just a treaty pertaining to Native American women; rather, it supports the rights of all women by acknowledging an international standard.

The first convention addressing women’s rights was held in Seneca Falls, New York July 19-20, 1848. One hundred and sixty-nine years later, it is important to reflect on those efforts and the advances of the Women’s Rights Movement, both from a Native Nations perspective, as well as through the lens of the broader American population. In a Department of Justice (DOJ) report last updated in 2015, the department noted that Native Americans “are 2.5 times more likely to experience sexual assault crimes compared to all other races, and one in three Native American women reports having been raped during her lifetime.” A striking example can be found in South Dakota where the indigenous population is 10 percent or less, yet it accounts for 40 percent of sexual assault victims with only 35 percent of rape cases on Indian reservations in general ever prosecuted, according to an investigation by reporter Timothy Williams of The New York Times. Equally staggering, the DOJ report indicates that 88 percent of rapes against Native American women occur at the hands of non-Native men. While violence against Native American women continues to receive only token attention, violence against women in America has occurred so frequently that Congress eventually passed and later reauthorized the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA), but even that effort apparently lacks a “longitudinal evaluation or an assessment of the outcomes,” as well as the lack of a “national evaluation,” as noted by Tara Aday.


While state and federal governments toy with addressing the rights of women, the international community has long done so. In 1979, the United Nation adopted the Treaty for the Rights of Women, also known as The Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW). This treaty, Amnesty International explains, “provides an international standard for protecting and promoting women’s human rights.” Every nation in the world has ratified CEDAW, except for a very small few…less than 10, such as Iran, South Sudan, Somalia, and…the United States. For the record, the European Union recently renewed human rights-related sanctions against Iran, while both South Sudan and Somalia have remained in chaos as years of war have gripped both countries, respectively. While the United States signed CEDAW in 1980, it has not ratified it. In fact, it seems the issue has never even been presented to the full Senate for a vote.

While the treaty appears to be consistent with current U.S. laws, there are those who proclaim ratifying it would give the international community power over America; however, there is no truth to such an allegation and no such evidence has ever been provided to support it. Contrary to fear-mongers, CEDAW does not undermine the family, support abortion, mandate gender neutral textbooks, legalize prostitution or sanction same-sex marriage, all uninformed excuses presented to undermine CEDAW. In fact, the treaty has no bearing on these factors for Americans because it’s not self-executing, which means Congress must develop legislation that implements the treaty; therefore, any concerns about its implementation can be flushed out in the legislature where any “reservations, understandings and declarations” may be expressed. In other words, if some of the language of the treaty even appears confusing when compared to current federal laws or governing documents, it is clarified so that America is not adopting a provision that it cannot support.

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CEDAW is not just a treaty pertaining to Native American women; rather, it supports the rights of all women by acknowledging an international standard of comprehensive rights across the spectrum of life socially, politically, economically and culturally. As Amnesty International indicates, the treaty has been effectively used internationally to improve women’s property and political rights in Costa Rica and “fostered development of domestic violence laws in Turkey, Nepal, South Africa, and the Republic of Korea and anti-trafficking laws in Ukraine and Moldova.” In the United States, CEDAW can effectively be used to draw attention to the scores of murdered and missing Native American women, which according to a 2016 article by Mary Annette Pember, ranges in the thousands; meanwhile, the United States has allocated few resources to address the matter here at home. For comparison, after international calls for an inquiry into the murdered and missing Indigenous Women of Canada, that country began an inquiry and provided $100 million for its three-year strategy.

While Congress sits on its hands on the issue of CEDAW, there are actions that citizens can implement. Tribes and cities can adopt an ordinance that reflects the principles contained in the CEDAW, much like San Francisco did in 1998 and the Conference of Mayors did in 2014. Supporters can also contact their Senators in writing and by phone in Washington, D.C. through the Capitol Switchboard at (202) 224-3121 who will contact you with your Senators’ office. Also consider contacting the White House through its website or social media, such as Facebook in support of The Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW). Rest assured, if we do nothing, nothing will change.

Dr. Karen Melissa Hannel is an assistant professor of Fine Arts at Saint Leo University in Saint Leo, Florida. Dr. Eric Hannel is an independent researcher and Native American Law Scholar. He has spoken on numerous Native American issues and published Reinterpreting a Native American Identity: Examining the Lumbee through the Peoplehood Model in 2015.