Thursday, January 31, 2019

Gender Equality & Human Rights in the Time of #MeToo

By JoAnn Kamuf Ward, Director, Human Rights in the US Project & Lecturer-In-Law, Columbia Law School.

Image1While 2018 has been dubbed the year of the woman, it is abundantly clear that misogyny is alive and well.  And, in order to address the underlying structures and beliefs that allow gender inequality to persist requires transformation.  It requires a cultural shift.   Treating acts of discrimination, harassment, and assault on an individual basis is simply insufficient.   It is not enough that four women have announced they are running for President.  It is not enough that more than 100 women were elected to Congress.

As advocates fighting for passage of the ERA and US adoption of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) have long recognized, the laws and institutions we have in place are insufficient to guarantee women’s equality.   

Tarana Burke founded #MeToo to challenge the underlying beliefs that allow assault and harassment to occur.  It is about reshaping relationships of power and privilege. As she has so clearly stated, “we need to dramatically shift a culture that propagates the idea that vulnerability is synonymous with permission and that bodily autonomy is not a basic human right.”  

It is not surprising that Tarana Burke has defined eradicating gender-based violence as a human rights issue.  Human rights are about systems change.  They are about centering the experience of those most vulnerable to violations.  And, they are about a new, affirmative approach to addressing discrimination and inequality.   That includes changing how each of us views our individual and collective responsibilities to address gender discrimination and inequality.  It requires reshaping gender and racial stereotypes that have led to current dynamics of power and privilege. We must reform institutions to eradicate implicit and explicit bias.  We must also change the laws in place to prevent and respond to acts of discrimination, assault, and harassment in order to foster more collective accountability.   

In the United States, the predominant paradigm for dealing with sexual harassment, gender-based violence, and discrimination has historically been largely individual. Yet, focusing on individual perpetrators and isolated incidents falls short of the transformative change that is required.   As Dahlia Lithwack wrote in September, it is a myth “that patriarchal systems, based in entrenched power, and supported by others in power, could be brought down by individual, brave women.”   Systemic change is essential, because the system in which we operate has failed women.

#MeToo has also made clear that the challenges we face are societal and institutional.

And, in response to the movement, global human rights actors have spoken out.   UN experts have recognized the need for more concerted action to address the oppression that exclude women from positions of power in order to eradicate all forms of gender discrimination, and there is increasing guidance on core elements of a rights-based approach to gender-based violence and harassment though law and policy grounded in human rights principles, building off existing standards found in principles of CEDAW.  There are also calls for more specific international protections for women in the workplace.  And examples of how U.S. workplaces can be transformed through human rights-based worker driven solutions, such as the Fair Food Program.

As already reported on this blog, across the U.S. local advocates, law school clinicsand local governments are also looking to human rights to foster broader based approaches to advancing gender equity, focusing on eradicating negative stereotypes, and identifying and addressing barriers to equality for women and girls by adopting CEDAW principles.

CEDAW offers a framework to foster gender equality and eliminate discrimination against women. It defines what constitutes discrimination against women broadly to encompass laws and policies that negatively affect women’s human rights, and identifies pathways to more equitable opportunities and outcomes in a wide range of areas.  According to CEDAW, governments must:


  • Affirmatively identify the factors that perpetuate inequality, and take steps to mitigate them.  
  • Take measures to eliminate discrimination against women in political and public life, including to ensure women’s right to vote and to hold public office. 
  • Foster equal access and non-discrimination in relation to education, employment, and health.  
  • Adopt policies to advance women’s economic stability, including equal pay and paid maternity leave.  
  • Address violence against women through efforts to identify its root causes, focus on prevention, and prioritize redress for survivors.


In order to ensure equal enjoyment of rights for all women, CEDAW calls for policies that reflect the ways that individual’s multiple identities, including her race, nationality, disability, age, as well as economic and social status, impact her enjoyment of rights, and calls for targeted and culturally-appropriate solutions.   

Recognizing the power of these principles, the umbrella organization of state and local civil and human rights agencies – many of whom are charged with resolving complaints of individual discrimination –  passed a resolution in support of CEDAW in 2017 – calling on its members to support municipal, county, and state-wide policy efforts to affirm the rights of women, eliminate all forms of discrimination, advance gender equity, and promote and affirm the principles of CEDAW.  This is an important foundation for a more affirmative, proactive approach to advancing women’s rights and achieving the transformative change that is needed.   

To cultivate action, and support state and local government human rights implementation, the Columbia Law School Human Rights Institute recently published a Gender Equity Toolkit.  Developed in partnership with the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights and UNA-USA, the toolkit highlights specific ways that state and local agencies and officials can utilize CEDAW to promote and protect women’s rights, including: fostering human rights education and awareness; assessing the status of women through a gender analysis; and incorporating CEDAW principles into local law and policy. 

The Toolkit offers a menu of activities that can strengthen protection for women’s rights, and serve as a springboard for local, city, and state efforts to break down the barriers that continue to impede full equality for women, and redefine relationships of power and privilege.   



Equality, Feminism, Gender Oppression, Gender Violence, JoAnn Kamuf Ward | Permalink


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