by Heather Hill
Someone told me recently that "Most people believe in human rights. The problem is a lack of awareness for how to translate that belief into action that makes a difference."
This year the United Nations turns 70. In the Charter of the United Nations, signing governments committed to "reaffirm faith in fundamental human rights, in the dignity and worth of the human person, in the equal rights of men and women and of nations large and small," and subsequently, to secure "fundamental freedoms for all without distinction as to race, sex, language, or religion."
What a commitment, right? Such idealism.
These last two sentences do not have to be read ironically. This commitment was not made with the expectation that the path to securing freedoms for all without distinction would be easy. Affirmation of faith is not a necessary action unless there is demand for it, unless effort will be required. And we, the people who beget governments and form nations, are the ones from whom this effort and this affirmation are finally required.
As a woman, I spend a great deal of time thinking about the rights of women. I think about how nice it would be to walk down the street unmolested by strangers’ eyes, words, or hands. I wonder what it would be like to receive the same immediate respect, or even the same salary, as a man. I wonder how it would feel to receive those privileges without having to work extra hard to verify my worth. What it would be like to operate in a system that automatically rewards rather than punishes me for being woman. I dream of a world where education for girls is considered a value rather than a wasted expense; where sexuality is not mistrusted, destroyed, or exploited; where women can own property, run businesses, and lead in government without reprisal or threat.
These are not merely one woman’s wishes and, more importantly, they are not simply "women's issues." They are issues that belong to all of us whether we be men, women, or non-binary.
In 1979, the Conventionof the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) was introduced and adopted by the General Assembly. It was called for by the UN Commission on the Status of Women after injustices and discrimination continued to shape the experiences of women worldwide.
Governments that ratify CEDAW are committing to not only enable but also ensure the full development and advancement of women so that they can enjoy and make use of the human rights and fundamental freedoms promised in the Charter.
CEDAW is not a document of wishful thinking but rather a powerful tool in the hands of signers. Ratifying countries submit periodic reports of their status—both good and bad—in fulfilling CEDAW, and non-binding recommendations are returned to them. The resultant recommendations serve as guidelines for continued progress as well as the conversation sprung during the review itself—both of great importance to the effort of eliminating all forms of discrimination against women. (International Center for Research on Women, "Recognizing Rights, Promoting Progress: CEDAW" Report, 2010.)
For a country that prides itself on strides in human rights and on being a voice for the voiceless, it surprised me to learn that the United States has not ratified this convention. The United States aligns with only six other countries in not ratifying CEDAW:Iran, Somalia, Sudan, South Sudan, Palau, and Tonga.
When we as a country speak up about human rights across race, sex, language, and religion, we stand on tremulous ground. How can we look at other countries and say, "human rights are important and you should listen to what we have to share," when we haven’t ratified this Convention. They have only to look at the blank space on the paper where our signature should be.
If we ratified the Convention as a country, we could lead the conversation not only in words but also by example. We could show without a doubt that, as we take on issues such as sex trafficking or racial, ethnic, and religious inequality across the world, we are equally serious about them at home and committed without restraint to the principle of equality and dignity for all.
Cities for CEDAW is a movement that helps to translate global policy into local action. In 1998, San Francisco adopted an ordinance that reflects the principles of CEDAW, leading the way for other cities to follow suit. You can see some of what they have accomplished at their website. While we might not convince our Senate to ratify CEDAW tomorrow, we can mobilize our cities and our local government to adopt CEDAW into local legislation.
Just this past week in Washington, D.C., we learnt that D.C. for CEDAW legislation is soon to be introduced into the D.C. Council. "What we do here locally connects with what we do globally," D.C. Council Member David Grosso commented as he laid out the intentions of the legislation.
When we act on our beliefs, we give our words a foundation to stand on; when we step up as leaders at the local level, we connect with the global issues pressing around us. If, one by one, our cities across the United States incorporate CEDAW into their legislation, then one day the government of "we the people" will see that we are the body, that we ratified for them, and that they must listen and act accordingly.
The air in the room on Tuesday night at "Cities for CEDAW: From Global Policy to Local Action," hosted at the UN Foundation was electrifying. The room was packed, and not only with women. It was an electricity generated from looking around and recognizing others who share a belief in human rights for everyone alike; knowing that we do ourselves, together, ratify this convention and that we intend to collaborate to make it part of our legislation and daily lives. We have the chance to translate our beliefs from words tossed around social media to real-world action with a meaningful impact.
Cities for CEDAW: Bring it to your hometown today by pledging your support at the Cities for CEDAW site, calling your local council and elected officials, or hosting a meeting, yourself. Together let's make sure that, from the grassroots up, the United States ratifies the Convention of the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women. As people, individuals and communities alike, we have only ourselves to stand between us and a ratification of CEDAW.
For more information on how to implement CEDAW in your city, visit:
Heather Hill is an active volunteer for the UNA-NCA Human Rights Committee. She is a writer, photographer, and fundraiser living in DC, her 6th capital city in the world to call home.