Law Links - May 2015

Bringing the Women’s Human Rights Treaty to Buffalo

Alyssa Weiss, Chief of Staff to Buffalo Common Council Member Michael LoCurto, Mary Travers Murphy, Director of the Family Justice Center of Erie County, Sawrie Becker, Chair of the Erie County Commission on the Status of Women, Karen Mulhauser, Chair of the United Nations Association-USA and Assoc. Professor of Law Tara J. Melish

What does it mean to implement international human rights treaties locally? What would that mean in Buffalo? Those were the key question engaged at an exciting conversation held among Buffalo women’s rights advocates ata panel held at the School of Law on April 16, 2015. The evening was co-sponsored by the Buffalo Human Rights Center, UB’s Gender Institute, and law student-run organization, Women of UB School of Law.

Titled “Bringing the Women’s Human Rights Treaty to Buffalo: Implementing CEDAW Locally,” the event explored how Buffalo might join a growing movement of cities across the United States in adopting a city-wide ordinance aimed at ensuring that the gender-equality commitments of the U.N. Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) are affirmatively reflected in all city policies and programs. In particular, it highlighted the need for gender audits within city departments, an annual city report on the measures taken and progress achieved in ensuring gender equity, and a monitoring body to oversee progress and make recommendations.

CEDAW, also known as the “Women’s Rights Treaty,” has been ratified by 187 of 194 U.N. member states worldwide (the United States being one of only seven hold-out nations). It creates an important set of principles-driven framework obligations that governments commit to for affirmatively addressing gender-based discrimination in all areas of public and private life, including employment, wages, job security, public safety, child-care, domestic violence, and reproductive health.

“Sadly, the United States ranks near the bottom among industrial democracies on the major global indices of women’s equality rights enjoyment,” says Assoc. Professor of Law Tara J. Melish, who teaches Human Rights at the School of Law. “Erie County, for its part, fares poorly even within the nation on many of these indices,” she says.

Women in Erie County, Melish points out, comprise over 52 percent of the population, 59 percent of the labor force, and 54 percent of registered voters. And yet women are underrepresented at all levels of city and county government: Buffalo has never had a female mayor, Erie County has never had a female Executive Officer, and there are currently no women on the Buffalo Common Council.

Nationally, women make approximately 78 cents for every dollar that a man makes; in Buffalo women earn only 73 cents. In 2012, there were 12,700 reported cases of domestic violence in Erie Country, a figure that doesn’t consider that on average, only 1 in 7 cases of domestic violence is ever reported. Since February 2009, sixteen Buffalo-area women have lost their lives at the hands of a domestic partner.

A targeted, proactive approach to fighting gender inequality at the city and county-wide levels is clearly necessary, Melish says. And yet the traditional approach to gender equality rights recognition has been to focus resources and attention at the federal level—lobbying for U.S. ratification of CEDAW or passage of the Equal Rights Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

As Melish noted, such approaches in some ways turn human rights law on its head.

“The very purpose of a human rights treaty,” Melish underscored, “is to serve as a tool for local communities to know and discuss their rights, to assess their own situations of rights enjoyment, to identify inequities and barriers to equal opportunity as they manifest in real peoples’ lives, and to act deliberately to redress those inequalities and remove those barriers, as they are experienced locally.” “An overly narrow focus on national-level ratification of CEDAW, without simultaneous efforts to incorporate the treaty’s principles into local thinking, planning, policy, and practice,” Melish stressed, “merely pushes down the road what ultimately needs to be done at the local level, even after ratification.” “It is a delay we can no longer afford,” she said.

The goals of the gender-equality event were three-fold. The first goal was to critically explore models undertaken by other U.S. cities to incorporate CEDAW’s principles and commitments into local policymaking. For this, Karen Mulhauser, Chair of the United Nations Association-USA, and a key driver behind the national and Washington DC-based “Cities for CEDAW” movement, shared with the audience the recent experiences of other U.S. cities in adopting city CEDAW ordinances, including San Francisco, Los Angeles, Louisville, and Washington, DC.

She explored how these ordinances were organized and put in place and how their city-based implementation mechanisms, when structured to create binding commitments on governments, have led to concrete improvements in city policies affecting the everyday lives and opportunities of local women and girls.

The second goal of the event was to identify some of the key gender disparities that exist in Buffalo that could potentially be the focus of a city-wide monitoring, oversight, implementation, and accountability effort. Two of Buffalo’s most prominent women’s rights advocates were on hand to discuss these issues: Sawrie Becker, Chair of the Erie County Commission on the Status of Women, and Mary Travers Murphy, Director of the Family Justice Center of Erie County. Each highlighted the many barriers to equal opportunity women and girls face in Erie County, and the importance of coordinated efforts to address them in local policy work.

The final aim of the event was to begin to explore the institutional architecture that a CEDAW ordinance might rest upon in Buffalo. What institutional pathways or synergies might be built upon, learning from the experiences of other cities but responding to our own realities? For this, Alyssa Weiss, Chief of Staff to Buffalo Common Council Member Michael LoCurto, addressed the institutional architecture that a CEDAW ordinance might rest upon within Buffalo city governance.

An energetic discussion then commenced amongst the panelists and audience participants, with the group agreeing on the necessity of forming a Steering Committee to take the project forward over the next year. As was concluded, Buffalo has a surfeit of resources available to it for moving a “Cities for CEDAW-Buffalo” campaign forward quickly and effectively. Buffalo enjoys an impressive array of women’s rights advocacy organizations and other leading groups that have made women’s equality rights a priority. And, as part of the city’s exciting revitalization, it has the energy to take this project up. Within this context, Melish recalled the observation Eleanor Roosevelt famously made over sixty years ago in her plea for local communities to embrace human rights commitments as their own: “Without concerted citizen action to uphold [human rights] close to home,” in small places, Roosevelt said in her eloquent “In Your Hands” speech, “we shall look in vain for progress in the larger world.”

The emerging Cities for CEDAW-Buffalo campaign is directed precisely to this end: putting the tools of gender analysis, policy oversight, and accountability into the hands of local communities, such that they can use instruments like CEDAW as a community-driven tool for redressing systematic gender-based inequities and disparities that women, girls and transgendered persons confront on a daily basis in public and private life—in our workplaces, in our homes, on our streets, and in our schools.