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Keeping Faith With the World's Women

By Jimmy Carter

Published by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

Fourteen years ago, I signed the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women, the principle international treaty that guarantees women's equality. Now, three administrations later, the United States is the only industrialized democracy that has not ratified the convention- because of inaction by Congress. This unfortunate fact, if not corrected, will be highly noticed at the United Nations Fourth World Conference on Women, which will take place in Beijing next September.

As we celebrate International Women's Day today, a renewed call should be made to our representatives in Washington to take decisive action in favor of protecting the rights of this half of the world's population who remain more vulnerable now than we like to admit.

As the State Department's most recent annual report and the work of independent human rights organizations make imminently clear, massive violations of women's human rights persist worldwide. Women have been sexually abused as part of politically instigated ethnic conflicts in Bosnia and Rwanda. I am horrified at the systematic use of rape as a weapon of war in these conflicts.

The rise of extremist violence has led to attacks against women activists in Algeria, Pakistan, and Mauritius by government agents or opposition forces. Major economic changes in places as diverse as Russia and Japan have resulted in severe employment discrimination against women. Increasingly open national borders have only made the global trafficking of women and girls in forced prostitution easier.

Admirably, the Clinton administration introduced the Women's Convention to Congress last year, but Republican members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee delayed a floor vote, forcing the process to start from the beginning this year. Opponents of the Convention argued that the document is hollow and irrelevant, stressing that several of the countries that have ratified the women's convention did so in bad faith and are some of the worst abusers of women's rights.

This fact, however, should only serve to underscore our resolve to support the Convention. As is the case with other important international treaties, U.S. ratification would strengthen the document, shoring up a treaty that is fully consistent with international human rights standards as embodied in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, passed by the General Assembly of the United Nations in 1948.

Although women in the U.S. may not face the degree of abuse without redress that women in such countries as Algeria, Bosnia and Russia experience, they are vulnerable as well. The U.S. has fallen far short of ensuring equality of women, particularly in areas of employment, education and health care.

Women in this country receive, on average, one-third less pay than similarly educated men; receive less constructive attention and resources than men in school at all levels; and receive fewer health-care resources, especially for research on female-specific diseases such as breast cancer. Rape and domestic violence continue to be underinvestigated and underprosecuted, and the victims, who are overwhelmingly women, are often denied equal protection under the law.

The convention spells out concrete ways for governments to promote gender equality and end discrimination against women in civil, political, social, economic and cultural life. As the only international agreement to define concretely what sexual equality means and what steps governments should take to achieve it, the Women's Convention deserves unreserved support.

Strong leadership on women's rights is urgently needed. This is a role that our government is well-placed to play. The Clinton administration and Congress must put women's equality above partisan politics and ratify the Women's Convention, showing that the U.S. government is committed to full equality for its female citizens as well as for women around the world.

Former President Jimmy Carter is chairman of The Carter Center in Atlanta, which promotes projects in peace and human rights worldwide.

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