What Can I Do About CEDAW? Own the Language and Fight the Fight

Posted on 18 December 2009 by

Last month, I had the pleasure of speaking with a community group in Vienna, Virginia, about the work of our Partnership in support of women’s leadership and human rights.  This well-informed group shared their thoughts on topics including honor killings in Jordan, the connections between social norms of violence against women and child abuse, how our partners effectively engage men, and — a question with which I frequently struggle — how US-based organizations and women’s rights activists can play a role in advocating for full implementation of CEDAW (the UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women) in other countries when we ourselves have yet to ratify it.

N.Y. Suffragettes  (cc) The Library of Congress

N.Y. Suffragettes (cc) The Library of Congress

I am an American and a trained attorney, and as such, I know full well that I must be prepared to answer to the label of “Western Elitist” when it comes to my positions on international law and women’s rights, both at home and abroad.  But as I think about the political and social barriers to the ratification of CEDAW in the United States, or in achieving full implementation of CEDAW in countries where it has been ratified, I realize that the core obstacles are not all that different.  Most notably, our partners share that a lack of political will is only part of the problem in fully realizing the universal rights of women enshrined in CEDAW.  Without public support, there can be no political will, and without education and a sense of relevance, there can be no public support.

WLP’s partners do an amazing job in working with grassroots women — cultivating one new activist at a time — to make these connections, sometimes explicitly, and sometimes only in the abstract, as women come together in WLP’s leadership trainings and identify issues of local concern such as women’s land rights or access to education. Depending upon the context of the training, participating women may learn about their explicit legal rights under domestic or international law, but their core efforts are directed towards issue-based advocacy while our partners and other likeminded activists further highlight these individual issues and concerns within broader public policy and legislative debate.  Our partners are not shy about connecting the grassroots to the global, approaching the issues that confront women on a daily basis in a more holistic manner that comes together under the umbrella of language that is simultaneously technical and simple, addressing both universal rights and the legal tools that are a jumping off point from which those rights might be achieved.

This is where the women’s movement in the US often stumbles, and why we have yet to achieve the political will or public support to ratify CEDAW (or the Equal Rights Amendment, for that matter — this is not simply a problem of our country’s apparent political disdain for international law).  We fail to educate, we fail to make the connections, and we too often fear the language itself.  Our country’s political history and our Constitution are grounded solely in the language of civil and political rights, which, for the first three-quarters or so of our history, really was the domain of (white) men.  Our social and economic realities are addressed in the language of “policy” far more frequently than in the language of “law.”  Talk about them in the language of “human rights” and you may even evoke a giggle or a smirk.  A subset of activists relying solely on judicial remedies and legislative advocacy may self-identify as “civil rights” activists, but for the most part, those engaged in more comprehensive efforts to achieve full equality through social reforms do not regularly think in terms of “human rights,” which are viewed more as a special area of international law.  Both ends of the political spectrum, whether willfully or inadvertently, think of “human rights” as something that people in other countries have to fight for, but not us.

The thing is, we have to fight too. Human rights are relevant. International law is relevant.  These rights are ours as well, and until we claim them as such — until we encourage our friends, colleagues, students, teachers, politicians to claim them as such — we won’t have them, with or without CEDAW or any other international instrument, constitutional amendment, or piece of legislation to back them up.  I am sometimes afraid of being called an elitist for using this language, for talking about international law, or for feeling as inspired and motivated to support women in other countries as I am in my own.  But I shouldn’t be.  I am fighting my own fight as well — let’s all try to own that a bit more.

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