U.N. Women's Treaty Molds San Francisco Government

The Senate is considering today whether to approve a 1979 United Nations gender fairness treaty. Meanwhile, the City of San Francisco adopted it four years ago and implemented safer public transportation and teen programs that consider young women.

Barbara Boxer

SAN FRANCISCO (WOMENSENEWS)-While the U.S. Senate considers ratifying a landmark international treaty on women's rights, San Francisco has been quietly implementing the treaty's protocols on gender equity-with surprising results.

The Senate Committee on Foreign Relations plans to vote on the controversial treaty Thursday, the first time in eight years that the document will go before a vote. The committee's chairman, Delaware Democratic Sen. Joseph Biden, has said he wants to move the treaty through committee to a full Senate vote this summer.

The treaty, known as the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, or CEDAW, was adopted by the United Nations General Assembly in 1979 and signed by President Jimmy Carter in 1980. However, the pact has yet to be ratified by the U.S. Senate.

San Francisco voted to adopt the treaty in 1998 after delegates attended the 1995 United Nations Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing and saw how it was being used around the world. Other U.S. cities and states have adopted referendums supporting the treaty, but San Francisco is the only place in the country where its provisions are influencing local policy.

“After the Beijing conference we decided to take a local-to-national strategy rather than waiting for the treaty to be adopted by the Senate and filter down to the local level,” says Patricia Chang, president and chief executive officer of the city's Women's Foundation. Chang was president of the San Francisco Commission on the Status of Women at the time the treaty was adopted.

With an initial budget of $100,000, a task force began reviewing city departments and addressing policies preventing women from getting adequate social services and from advancing to leading positions within city government. The task force will disband at the end of this year-its work apparently completed. City departments have begun incorporating its recommendations into hiring practices and budgets relating to services ranging from juvenile rehabilitation programs to public transportation.

“San Francisco is a model and a pioneer in how the United States can use the treaty to provide equal rights for women,” says Sarah Albert, co-chair of the Working Group on the Ratification of CEDAW, which is lobbying for treaty ratification by the Senate. “It says to the rest of the country that this is not some wild U.N. treaty that came in from outer space. This is relevant.”

Profound Changes in Countries That Support Treaty

Adopted by 170 countries worldwide, CEDAW does not supersede local laws. Instead, it provides a framework for governments to examine the existing rights of women and girls in areas including employment opportunities, education, health care and equal protection under the law.

In countries that have adopted the treaty, the results have been profound. Women in China are now guaranteed joint ownership of marital property and equal inheritance. The Tanzanian Supreme Court invalidated a law barring women from inheriting clan property after that country adopted the treaty. And the Australian government cited treaty obligations in passing national legislation against sexual harassment in the workplace.

While changes in San Francisco are not as dramatic-most are not evident and few residents are even aware that the city adopted the treaty-they do highlight inequities that activists say women still face in the United States. For instance, the task force found that the city's Juvenile Probation Department was not providing services crucial to young women such as safe housing, domestic violence and sexual assault counseling, parenting skills and pregnancy prevention.

“Girls' needs were considered something extra,” says Chang. “By changing the standard from boys to both boys and girls we were able to move to more of a true notion of equity in city services.”

Opponents of CEDAW in the Senate, such as North Carolina Republican Sen. Jesse Helms, have argued that the treaty would spur frivolous lawsuits. But San Francisco officials say that by addressing gender inequality early on, legal action can be avoided.

“It's a proactive approach to gender equity, as opposed to waiting for lawsuits to happen,” says Belle Taylor-McGhee, executive director for the San Francisco Department on the Status of Women, which oversees the ordinance's implementation in the city. “This process highlights the fact that unless there is a way to deal with these issues, they won't get dealt with.”

‘It's Not About Looking at Quotas. It's Saying, “What Is Our Response?”‘

A review of the city's Department of Public Works, for instance, found that women often did not feel safe while waiting at bus stops or walking city streets at night because the stops were not well lit and city lights were spaced far apart. By simply adding more lights, women felt safer commuting to and from work in the early morning and night hours, Chang says.

Some San Francisco women, however, say they don't notice a difference in lighting at the stops, and even those that are well-lit can't always prevent crime. Rebecca Etherington-Smith learned this in February, when a man slashed her face and throat with a knife while she waited for a bus alone in the early morning hours in the North Beach section of the city. The 30-year-old suffered two deep gashes, as long as 5 inches, each requiring 30 stitches. A man with a history of mental illness-who had no connection to the victim-was later arrested and charged with attempted murder.

Krishanti Dharmaraj, executive director of the Women's Institute for Leadership Development for Human Rights, who came up with the idea to implement CEDAW in San Francisco, says that changes for city residents are subtle, but important.

As one of the most expensive cities to live in the country, San Francisco is now addressing whether women have access to affordable housing. The city's rent-control board, which classified residents into groups of either women or minorities, is now keeping data on women minorities. The board has also promoted qualified women to leadership roles.

“It's not about looking at quotas or saying the entire city is biased against women. It's saying, ‘What is the norm? What is our response?'” Dharmaraj says. “Making populations visible is one key component.”

City Effort Will Make a More of a Difference When Others Follow Suit

A stickier issue is equity in employment practices, such as hiring and promoting women into high levels in city departments and providing equal pay.

Sonia Melara, a member of San Francisco's CEDAW task force and executive director of Arriba Juntos, a local group that provides employment services to low-income workers, says the ordinance provides a framework to evaluate hiring practices. One issue that kept coming up among both male and female city workers was that family obligations-such as child care, pregnancy or caring for an elderly relative-prevented them from taking a job or getting promoted. For instance, some employees at the Department of Public Works punch in at 6 a.m., but if day care doesn't start until 8 a.m., single parents-men or women-often don't apply for those jobs.

“Family issues kept coming up in every department,” Melara says. “Employers have to realize that to hold onto good employees they need to be more flexible in meeting individual needs.”

Another problem, Melara says, is that women still tend to make up the majority of low-wage workers in government, often filling positions such as secretaries, while few women hold higher paying jobs as managers or, say, environmental engineers. However, low turnover in local government and a hiring freeze due to the economic downturn means that changes in these practices may not be seen for years.

“In government, it takes 10 times longer to accept and implement changes than in the private sector,” Melara says.

Officials say that real change will come when municipalities around San Francisco adopt similar practices in gender equity. For example, when girls from surrounding counties are arrested in San Francisco on prostitution charges and then released to their home counties, gender-specific services are often not available to them there. As a result, they often end up back on San Francisco streets.

The San Francisco ordinance is catching the eye of other municipalities in California, however. Officials from Los Angeles, San Diego and Santa Cruz are consulting with the city and considering using the model to review local policies.

Senators Downplay Impact of Treaty on U.S. Women

San Francisco is rarely discussed in national debates about CEDAW. Biden and California Democratic Sen. Barbara Boxer recently wrote an editorial for the San Francisco Chronicle urging support for the treaty, but downplayed its potential to help American women.

“Ratification of the treaty would not impose a single new requirement in our laws-because our Constitution and gender-discrimination laws already comply with the treaty requirements,” the two senators wrote. “But U.S. participation could advance the lives of millions of women elsewhere.”

Albert, from the national coalition, says that without treaty ratification the United States cannot claim moral leadership on human rights and cannot attend periodic United Nations conferences on the treaty.

But Chang says that San Francisco is proof that the treaty could help American women as well.

“Downplaying the national significance is a political strategy to get it passed through the Senate,” Chang says. “But the treaty could be instrumental to women here to question issues like access to health care, social services and employment equity.”

Rebecca Vesely writes about politics and social issues from San Francisco.

For more information:

The United Nations Convention on the Elimination of All Forms
of Discrimination Against Women:

Treaty for the Rights of Women:

San Francisco and CEDAW: