WASHINGTON, Sept. 14 (UPI) -- Most Americans have very little idea of how poorly women are treated in much of the world.
Afghanistan's gender apartheid sparked a global effort to improve the lives of women there but, if we are serious about helping them -- and women elsewhere whose lives are only marginally better -- the United States should ratify the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, which is pending in the Senate.
When we traveled on behalf of the World Bank, we were startled by the bleak status of women in many countries. We also saw small but significant improvements, nudged and nurtured by the United Nations international conferences on women that began in 1975 in Mexico City.
Adopted in 1979, CEDAW amounts to an international women's Bill of Rights and is another crucial catalyst for change. The treaty imposes no new laws but sets a standard for women's lives in civilized countries.
It provides a blueprint for "best practices" to curb abuses -- physical, legal or sexual. So far, 170 countries have ratified the treaty. But the United States is not among them.
Former President Jimmy Carter signed the CEDAW Treaty for the Rights of Women in 1980, but the Senate has yet to ratify it. Other former presidents -- Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton -- signed similar treaties on genocide, torture, race and civil and political rights.
The women's treaty, however, has been held hostage by political and religious extremists who, in our view, oppose giving women full partnership with men.
Their misleading arguments distort the treaty's intent and its impact. They oppose the momentous progress of U.S. women in the 20th century, seeking instead to keep them "protected" as second-class citizens. They apparently could not care less about the very real threats to women's lives worldwide from being held at the bottom of the economic and political ladder.
When the United States was formed, women had no right to vote. The catalyst for reform was the Women's Rights Convention, held in Seneca Falls, N.Y. in 1848.
Changes came when women won the federal right to vote in 1920, followed by improvements in the laws on inheritance rights, equal education and those that outlawed workplace discrimination.
Efforts by activists in the United States also focused on helping full-time homemakers, especially with regard to equal credit, pensions and other economic-security issues.
It is outrageous that we cannot share our insights on how all this happened within the key international body seeking to improve the status of women elsewhere.
The United States cannot take a seat on the 23-member CEDAW Committee, which reviews countries' periodic reports on their progress, because we have not ratified the treaty.
We find ourselves instead in the embarrassing company of such other treaty hold-outs as Afghanistan, Sudan, Somalia and Syria. Like them, we cannot credibly urge other countries to make good on their treaty commitments because we have not ratified the treaty ourselves.
The treaty is working to help women around the world. Although it cannot overrule any domestic law, it serves as a tool for change as women lobby their governments to rise to the CEDAW treaty standards.
In Colombia, Uganda and Costa Rica, for example, the treaty has sparked expanded legal protections against domestic violence. Israel increased funding for mammograms for older women. The Philippines set up new maternal and newborn health care programs.
Argentina, Mexico and Australia started health care programs for indigenous and migrant women. Germany, Guatemala, Poland, Portugal, Spain, the Philippines and Britain expanded maternity and childcare benefits.
More than 20 countries have passed laws improving women's legal rights. Zambia's Bill of Rights now bars sex discrimination. China and Tanzania gave women equal inheritance and property rights. In Botswana, courts cited the treaty in striking down a law that gave citizenship to children of men married to foreigners but not to those of women married to foreigners.
Much remains to be done. A strong U.S. voice and influence are badly needed to help halt sexual trafficking of women, to bring women into the economic mainstream and to ensure that all girls and women get access to education and health care comparable to men.
We have much to offer as dozens of new democracies look for guidance on how to bring women into the 21st century. We could work with other countries -- through the CEDAW committee, for instance -- to make women full economic and political contributors, if we were at the table.
The Senate Foreign Relations Committee voted favorably on the treaty in July. Its next stop is the Senate floor.
President George W. Bush needs to provide his leadership -- shown so strongly for the women in Afghanistan -- so that the United States can be a full partner in the effort to secure the basic human rights of women and girls everywhere.
As First Lady Laura Bush told a group of Afghan women this past summer, what happened to them violated international standards. She's right, and it is past time the United States formally embraced those standards.
-- Barber Conable is a former member of Congress from New York (1964-1984) and former president of the World Bank (1986-1991); Charlotte Conable is a long-time activist and writer on national and international women's issues.
-- "Outside View" commentaries are written for UPI by outside writers who specialize in a variety of important global issues.