FOR 14 years the United States has remained out of step with 136 other countries on its stated position on women's rights. Alone among its major allies, the US has never ratified the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, a treaty adopted by the United Nations General Assembly in December 1979.
The international convention requires that countries ensure equality before the law for women. It calls on governments to give women equal rights to work, pay, benefits, and safe working conditions. It prohibits discrimination against women in political activities. It also requires the registration of marriages and a minimum age for marriage.
Although the Carter administration signed the treaty in the summer of 1980, it was not submitted for Senate approval until November of that year. By then Carter had lost the election and the Democrats had lost control of the Senate. Presidents Reagan and Bush never sought ratification.
This month Secretary of State Warren Christopher asked that the treaty be ratified. Speaking at an international human rights conference last year, he said that guaranteeing women's rights was a ``moral imperative.''
Last week the Senate Foreign Relations Committee approved the measure by a 13-to-4 vote and sent it to the Senate. Congress could ratify the agreement before it adjourns for the year on Friday.
Opponents, among them Sen. Jesse Helms (R) of North Carolina and Sen. Nancy Kassebaum (R) of Kansas, caution that this kind of broad international convention does not allow for cultural and religious differences. For its part, the State Department would like to see issues of paid maternity leave and comparable worth in the workplace addressed through ``reservations'' that would clarify and limit US compliance with the convention.
Treaties alone cannot end discrimination, as women in many of the countries that have already ratified the convention can attest. But as a symbol and a goal, a treaty can be a valuable starting place - a reminder of the need for justice and equality for all citizens.
Ratifying the treaty will strengthen the position of the US as an international champion of human rights. It will also place the US on an equal footing with other nations at next year's UN Fourth World Conference on Women, to be held in Beijing, signaling to the world that the US takes the ``moral imperative'' of women's rights seriously.