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Applying a Global Treaty on Gender Equality to American Cities


A scene from the 2015 Commission on the Status of Women meeting, held in March at the UN headquarters. One panel at the meeting discussed the progress of the Cities for CEDAW initiative in the United States. RYAN BROWN/UN WOMEN

WASHINGTON, D.C. — Every year at the United Nations, the Commission on the Status of Women brings together an impressive array of global leaders to publicly state their support for gender equality. This year’s meeting, occurring in March, was no different, with 8,000 attendees reiterating their support to ending gender inequality and discrimination around the world.

One approach to promoting the equality of women that appears to be working has been to tackle the problem close to home.

A solid example of this approach — taking the global and applying it locally — was addressed by the United Nations Association of the USA and other groups at a panel discussion during the Commission meeting at the UN. The panel focused on the growing Cities for Cedaw initiative here in the United States. The Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, or Cedaw, as it is known, was adopted in 1979 by the UN General Assembly. It is a landmark international agreement that affirms principles of fundamental human rights and equality for women.

Cedaw is the most comprehensive international agreement on eliminating discrimination against women in every sphere; it has been ratified by 187 of 193 UN member states, with one of the holdouts being the US, which means it shares company with Iran, Somalia, Sudan, South Sudan, Tonga and Palau.

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President Jimmy Carter signed the agreement in 1980, and the Obama administration has expressed support for it, but the treaty has never been brought to the Senate floor for a vote.

Karen Mulhauser
Karen Mulhauser

What is Cities for Cedaw, then? In response to the partisan gridlock in Congress, activists decided to bring Cedaw to their own communities. Californians took the first step in 1998, when San Francisco passed binding legislation integrating Cedaw into city and county governance. Soon after, Los Angeles passed Cedaw; in both cities, Cedaw has made a measurable difference in public safety, budgetary allocations and employment for women.

Some examples of the improvements include the formation of the San Francisco Collaborative, a coalition of community organizations and government agencies striving to eliminate modern slavery and sex trafficking. Another example is the Gender Analysis of City Agencies, which examines government policies, programs and services to ensure that they are nondiscriminatory and serve all communities of women and girls. Nine city agencies have undergone such analysis.

The United Nations Association of the USA (UNA-USA), is one of the many organizations urging more municipalities to pass resolutions or ordinances that encompass the principles of the Cedaw treaty.

In San Francisco, the initiative began with the city’s Department on the Status of Women and the Women’s Intercultural Network. By March 2014, momentum had built to the point that at the annual meeting of the UN Commission on the Status of Women, the concept of municipal support for Cedaw spread to include backing by the US National Committee for UN Women and the Cedaw Task Force of Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights (initially formed to ratify the treaty), as well as numerous human-rights and women’s rights entities.

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Indeed, more than 10 years after San Francisco’s breakthrough moment, other American cities, including Portland, Ore., and Berkeley, Calif., as well as the State of Hawaii enacted similar — albeit nonbonding — initiatives. What these new laws offer at the municipal level are guidelines that are being used in UN member states that have ratified Cedaw. An effective municipal legislation of the treaty includes a gender analysis of a city’s workforce, programs and budget; an oversight body for the gender analysis; and adequate funding to support the findings of the gender analysis.

Working with partner organizations, UNA-USA is helping its 150 nationwide chapters and more than 1,000 members of its UNA Women network to build support for Cedaw in cities, towns and counties throughout the US. In November 2014, Louisville, Ky., passed a Cedaw resolution, and on March 3, 2015, binding legislation was introduced in the Washington, D.C. Council, with all members co-sponsoring the bill. Efforts are underway in Denver, New York City, Dallas, Buffalo and in communities in Virginia, North Carolina and Florida to encourage local elected officials and civil society to recognize and carry out the principles of Cedaw.

Until the US Senate ratifies Cedaw, civil society organizations will stay committed to working with city councils and mayors to win support for the treaty and improve the lives of women and girls. The support we build locally will ultimately encourage the US Senate to join almost all other countries by ratifying the treaty.

This is an opinion essay.

We welcome your comments on this article.  What are your thoughts?

Karen Mulhauser is the president of Mulhauser & Associates, a consulting service to nonprofit organizations. Previously, she was the executive director of the National Abortion Rights Action League (NARAL), the Center for Education on Nuclear War and Citizens Against Nuclear War.

Mulhauser was also a senior adviser to the Obama for America campaign in 2007-2008. She started a network of self-employed women in the Washington area, among other women’s programs in the region.

Mulhauser is a graduate of Antioch College and did graduate work at the Tufts University School of Medicine. She is the past chairwoman of the UN Association of the USA and past board chair of its chapter in the National Capital area.

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