This past weekend in Geneva, Switzerland, a CEDAW quadrennial review of countries took place. Although we were not able to send a delegate to Geneva, we submitted a report – which is now our new FAQ section – and included the following speech.
My fellow delegates for Cities for CEDAW, the New York City for CEDAW Steering Committee sends our apologies for not having a representative at this meeting. We are truly appreciative of Soon-Young Yoon for initiating the New York City for CEDAW initiative and entrust her to deliver this statement for our Steering Committee. It was difficult to justify traveling to Geneva for a meeting when we are working locally.
New York City has a population of 8.4 million people. We are the largest city in the United States and over twice the size of the 2nd, Los Angeles. One out of every 38 people residing in the United States lives in New York City. We have a larger population than 40 of the 50 states. We are incredibly diverse, with representatives from virtually every country in the world and virtually every language of the world is spoken in our city. This is the city that we wish to organize with NYC for CEDAW.
We have had to ask ourselves some very fundamental questions as we formulate a local law for Women’s Rights. New York City has a well-developed human rights law with Title 8 of the Administrative Code and the Human Rights Commission. Are we intending to highlight any rights that are not already covered in the law? How do we create a sustainable institution, not just a law? How do we create an institution that will survive beyond the next election and will have the support and, most importantly, the participation of New York City residents?
There were three goals that we wished to accomplish:
1) Define discrimination. It is always easy to point to others as a violator of human rights, but it is much more difficult to look at one’s own actions, either intended or not. CEDAW, in its first 17 articles, provides an objective definition of gender discrimination. Many people have claimed that these rights are not part of their culture. CEDAW, having been negotiated and signed by 188 countries, is the embodiment of an international consensus of the definitions of discrimination. This is extremely important in our diverse city.
2) Hold government accountable to fix discrimination. When government is shown to contribute to gender discrimination, it is held accountable to make the necessary changes. This alters the relationship between activists and government. At present, this is confrontational as the activist fights to get the government to change behaviors. Because government is held obligated to correct instances of gender discrimination, it is in their interest to bring in the activist who is the expert on possible solutions.
3) Give the public a means to assert their rights. The public asserts their rights today through the court system. A lawsuit requires great resources to pursue, having to retain a lawyer and the many years it takes to litigate. Many victims are forced to choose between their rights and their jobs when they have to publicly confront employers. The results of the lawsuit only applies to the plaintiff and does not change the underlying structures that create the discrimination in the first place. A women’s bill of rights would require negotiation instead of confrontation. The public can bring areas of discrimination to the attention of the Commission and, upon finding gender discrimination, would force government to action.
Our goals and questions help frame our strategy. We could have decided upon a top-down strategy to pass a women’s bill of rights. We could have lobbied the City Council and the Mayor, after all New York has recently elected officials very amenable to women’s rights. This would have helped these officials in their next elections by claims for women’s rights, however this would not have necessarily helped in effectiveness of the law and its sustainability. The next administration could easily sideline the initiative when there is not active public support.
A bottom-up strategy is where the public is lobbied to join the initiative. Their ideas are incorporated. Organizations join and educate their constituents to issues of gender discrimination that this law entails. People are encouraged to speak to members of their community and to their City Council Members. This public involvement would force the institutionalization of the law, encourage their participation, and prevent future administrations from marginalizing the law.
Our strategy is bottom-up – well actually squeezing the middle – we are talking to government officials. Our Steering Committee works with three principal organizations that supply resources and expertise, understand our neighborhoods, have relationships with the City Council and can assist us with fund raising. Other organizations join our coalition to help with outreach – presently 62 and counting.
Thank you and we look forward to hearing of this meeting’s findings.