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CEDAW: Your Bill of Rights

by Yuriko Brunelle

CEDAW, the United Nations Convention for the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, is often described as an international bill of rights for women. Adopted in 1979 by the UN General Assembly, it is the first international human rights treaty to systematically address the needs of women. The Convention defines what constitutes discrimination against women and requires that women receive equity in civil, political, economic, social, and cultural spheres.

The Convention has profound implications for women worldwide in that it measures equality not through "sameness" of treatment of the genders within preexisting (and sexist) social and legal systems, but through the impact of these systems on women's everyday lives. Also crucial is the fact that all countries that have ratified or acceded to the Convention are legally bound to put its provisions into practice.

The United States is the only industrialized country in the world that has not ratified CEDAW. Impatient for DC to catch up to the times (as well as to the rest of the world), the Seattle Women's Commission is pursuing passage of CEDAW as a city ordinance. Several US states and cities have already adopted CEDAW. Organizers in Seattle are now keeping good company with those in San Jose, Los Angeles, Chicago, Cambridge, and Boston who are working to pass similar initiatives within their jurisdictions.

What could an international treaty possibly do at the local level? Plenty. It would provide a human rights framework from which to make policy decisions. It could require that a human rights impact statement -- similar to an environmental impact statement--be attached to official policy. This would obligate the city to do gender analyses, identify areas of discrimination against women, and take action to redress discrimination. For example, an ordinance could have the potential to transform how the city recruits, hires and promotes women--a particularly important issue with the end of affirmative action. It would also transform how the city provides services for the public, making sure that the services do not discriminate against women.

Some argue that we do not need the Convention in this country. They claim it wouldn't be effective, and it would require the US to spend money to combat minimal, unsystematic discrimination in the US, when the real discrimination is abroad. The US does not have bride burnings, after all. Our laws do not overtly discriminate against women.

But does that mean our laws ensure gender equality? No. Theoretical "neutrality" of law does not necessarily prevent discrimination. We need to recognize that discrimination is socially constructed and that laws, policies, and practices can unintentionally have the effect of discrimination. Instead of pretending "neutrality," CEDAW measures substantive equality, based on actual results. It provides a platform for education and action in ways to identify, and then to redress or prevent discrimination.

For example, something as seemingly innocuous as streetlights can be anything but gender neutral. How many streetlights are set up, and in what areas? At a community field and playground? At the parking lot of a professional ballfield? In which neighborhoods? The public works department that installs streetlights may not think that they are discriminating against women in the decisions they make. In fact, they may not be thinking about women at all. But if the inadequacy of streetlighting is affecting where women live, work, or play, then it is affecting their civil, political, economic, social and cultural lives.

Gender equity evaluations in Seattle might also focus on departmental budgets, allocation of funding, employment practices, delivery of direct or indirect services. Such evaluations would be an integral part of making CEDAW real at the local level.

San Francisco has already set an example for other US cities by adopting a form of CEDAW as a legally binding ordinance. The San Francisco ordinance requires a task force to conduct analyses on selected city departments to identify areas of discrimination against women and girls. The number of women employed in higher positions, such as management, is considered at least as important as the total number of women employed. Bus schedules, and the location and lighting of bus stops, are examined for how they impact on women's safety. The task force also assesses the existence of gender and culturally sensitive health outreach programs, the absence of which can leave many women and girls without adequate health care. The ordinance requires departments to take action to redress any discrimination against women and girls. It also mandates human rights education for city departments.

Seattle could follow this precedent by adopting a CEDAW ordinance of our own. But adopting or ratifying CEDAW at any level can only be the beginning. The real challenge will be in putting CEDAW to work. CEDAW is first and foremost a tool. How and whether CEDAW is used will be the real measure of its success.


CEDAW: Your Bill of Rights | Feminist Wish List for the New Millennium
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