In one US city, life under a UN treaty on women

To many Americans, the words "women's human rights" conjure issues of burqas and honor killings in distant lands, only dimly understood. Not to Jim Horan, though. To him, they bring to mind his carpentry shop down on San Francisco's industrial fringe.

In truth, the macho, male-dominated culture of the "Yard," as it is called at the city's Department of Public Works, is probably not so different from many blue-collar workplaces around the country. Then again, none of them is governed by a United Nations treaty on gender equity.

When San Francisco adopted the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women in 1998, it put a unique twist on the issue of women's rights in America. Twenty-three years after President Carter signed CEDAW, the US Senate has not passed it. Indeed, San Francisco remains the only city or state that has codified the treaty into law.

To critics, it is a tool for feminists to promote abortion and a liberal agenda. To proponents, it is a global bill of rights for women. Now, with San Francisco finishing its five-year implementation plan, it offers America a look at how the guidelines - ratified by 170 countries - could change the nation.

For the most part, the changes have been incremental, such as the establishment of a women's support group at the Yard, notes Mr. Horan of Public Works. But the program's very existence here, to many, is the beachhead for a whole new way of thinking about problems of race, poverty, and gender in the United States: as matters of human rights that demand much greater attention.

Other cities are considering the San Francisco model, particularly Los Angeles. But even here, in a city considered by some the capital of the women's rights movement, the effort is showing the difficulty of changing old ways, as well as subtle but significant successes in improving women's lives.

"We refer to what's been happening in [San Francisco] to show what the power to human rights can be," says Kim Slote of the Wellesley Centers for Women in Massachusetts. "It's pushing the movement along to get human rights respected ... as not just something for the third world."

In some ways, CEDAW does seem like a document for the third world. The United States would not need to make any legal changes to adopt it: The Constitution and various antidiscrimination laws already surpass the standards of the 1979 convention.

But ratifying CEDAW, activists say, would provide a framework for reexamining fundamental issues of public policy - from hiring practices to building codes - through the lens of their impact on women.

San Francisco's experience bears that out. The primary goal of the CEDAW task force here has been to raise awareness about how every decision can affect women. Its operative words have been cajole, educate, and prod, not punish. It is not a regulatory board.

"We don't go in and say, 'You're doing it all wrong,' " says Krishanti Dharmaraj, a member of the task force and a national human rights advocate. "What CEDAW does exquisitely is that it unveils gaps that we thought were normal - where the norm is men."

It can be as subtle as the spacing of street lamps. The Department of Public Works has added more in some areas to make neighborhoods safer to women.

Or it can be as obvious as the Yard. CEDAW pointed out that 98 percent of the skilled craftsmen in the department are men. For engineers, the figure is 85 percent. In response, Public Works has been open to more flexible schedules for female employees with children, and has increased job-training courses, says personnel manager Horan. In addition, it has started a women engineers' caucus.

The CEDAW task force has also collected data on the advantages of allowing employees in the Adult Probation Department - including busy moms - to telecommute. It has encouraged the Rent Board to keep statistics on whom it serves. And in juvenile justice, it brought attention and support to a plan to hire caseworkers to deal exclusively with girls.

"It has been an inspiration and a watchful eye to keep us moving forward," says Jesse Williams, the city's chief juvenile probation officer. "It's always good to know someone is interested."

San Francisco has been interested since the 1995 UN Conference on Women. Determined to use that momentum, San Francisco's network of human rights advocates turned to CEDAW. For the city that was a leader of the women's rights movement of the 1970s, and is the hometown of two of the most powerful women in American politics, Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D) and House minority leader Nancy Pelosi, there was little need for debate. The measure passed unanimously. "People here have a better grasp that what is going on locally and what is going on globally are interconnected," says Patti Chang, president of the Women's Foundation here.

Now, with the task force reaching the end of its five-year mandate, it is preparing plans for the future. One suggestion, says executive director Emily Murase, could be a "gendered budget," a concept that exists only in South Africa. It would ensure any resources would benefit men and women equally.

Some are anxious for such dramatic reform, however unlikely. So far, the task force deliberately targeted only six city departments, and even there, progress has been in baby steps and often encountered resistance. For instance, a group of men at the Yard recently complained of reverse discrimination, incorrectly suggesting that the women's support group was using company time.

"It's much slower than I ever thought," says Ms. Dharmaraj. "But the aim of CEDAW is cultural and systemic change, and [focusing on the government] is the best way to do that."

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