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What it meant to be the City of CEDAW with Dr. Soon-Young Yoon.

My husband once asked me who was the most influential person in my life. I think he expected to hear about a teacher, or maybe my first employer. Instead, I answered, “It was someone I never met—my grandfather”. Through family stories, I learned about him--a wealthy landowner/businessman who in the early 20th century decided to break with Confucian tradition. He wanted to modernize his country as the best defense against foreign colonial rule—then under Japan. So, he divided his inheritance equally among his four children-- that included three girls --and sent them abroad to bring back knowledge about medicine, agriculture and science, and music. In the 1920’s my mother travelled to the United States to study piano at the American Conservatory of Music in Chicago. Her older sister was sent to Japan’s medical school and eventually ended up at the U. of Michigan as the first Korean to receive her Ph.D. in public health.

This family history explains how I naturally embraced gender equality and women’s empowerment as a recurring theme in my life. There are some moments I can share with you about that journey related to CEDAW. First, in 1980, when I worked with the Secretariat for the Second World Conference on Women in Copenhagen, I was given a text to review that we were going to introduce to governments at that meeting. I looked at this elegantly clear, simply stated CEDAW document. I understood that it was the only human rights treaty that affirmed the reproductive rights of women and covered almost everything we wanted in political, social, economic, and cultural rights. I told my colleagues, I thought we could easily use this document as the outcome of the world conference because it said it all. But there was little momentum behind CEDAW after 1980, even though one by one governments embraced its articles until today it has 189 ratifications. President Carter even signed it in 1980, although it has yet to pass Congress.

Slowly, I saw the feminist and women’s movement rally behind this treaty through shadow reports to the 23-member CEDAW committee that oversees its implementation at the UN. CEDAW became the cornerstone of landmark national cases and was used to protect women against tobacco advertising in Uganda and give nationality to children through the mothers in Botswana. Remarkably, in 1998, when Krishanti and a cohort of feminists returned from the UN Fourth World Conference on Women—energized and searching for how to bring message 2 home-- they spearheaded the historic event we know today. San Francisco became the first city in the world to adopt a UN human rights treaty as a legally binding city ordinance.

I never forgot the potential power of CEDAW. Thus, in 2014, when I was chair of the NGO CSW/ NY and we were to celebrate Beijing + 20, we asked the late Mayor Lee of San Francisco to be the peer leader for the US. He introduced a CEDAW resolution at the US Conference of Mayors that same year which passed with more than 200 mayors’ signatures. That event helped launch the Cities for CEDAW campaign. Eventually, more than 70 other US jurisdictions would have CEDAW resolutions or ordinances.

Fast forward to March 2022, when Toledo city council members with Zonta, the CEDAW steering committee, Women of Toledo, and so many others with Ardenia, council representatives Tiffany Whitman and Nick Komives, Karen Jennings, and others announced your commitment to CEDAW. Mayor Kapzukiewicz gave testimony recorded on YouTube, saying: “I am so excited that my city is a Cities for CEDAW…CEDAW has existed as an important guidepost in making sure that women are treated with dignity and respect not only in the workplace but everywhere….and I can tell you that we have made history lately because now a majority of Toledo city council is made up of women.”

Toledo’s ordinance is outstanding because it has concrete proposals related to equal pay, violence against women, a study, a position for implementation, intersectional layers of discrimination, and placement in the Department of Equity and Inclusion. It also stands out because, on March 21, the ceremony that took place in the Art Museum also included the inauguration of the Northwest Ohio Women’s Business Council.

In many cities, the CEDAW ordinance had an impact on city government but has also had an impact on the private sector. Equal pay for equal work is among the most recurrent themes of CEDAW implementation at the local level. We can learn from other countries where CEDAW was ratified like Iceland, Colombia, and Austria. In those countries, cities have planned safer transport for women to do their care work such as taking children to school. In Reykjavik, equal pay is implemented as national law. Imagine that Vienna offers universal free childcare to support working mothers.

My attention recently has turned to the importance of learning from the history of our movement. Two years ago, we started a Cities for CEDAW History and Futures project. We find that the treaty raised the visibility of women’s commissions, resulted in city-wide gender budgeting in city/county/state departments-- as in Los Angeles-- and helped mobilize government officials to establish measurable targets and studies to assess the impact of their efforts. When one California mayor asked me why he should support CEDAW, I told him that it would make him wildly popular because it covers everything that women and girls need. Voters can be rallied around its implementation.

So, what are some of the lessons learned from our initial review of progress?

  1. Connecting with surrounding jurisdictions that have implemented CEDAW can help to strengthen grassroots networks and expand resources. For example, currently, all counties in Hawaii can support each other as they have all passed CEDAW ordinances. In the US, we have 6 counties that we are considering to network together under a CEDAW pledging campaign. Some of you may not be aware that in 2015, Cincinnati passed a CEDAW ordinance and established a Gender Equality Task Force. I just came back from U. of Cincinnati where I had a conversation with Burt Lockwood, director of the Urban Morgan Institute for Human Rights. Burt is very interested in what is happening in Toledo, and we might consider how to link some researchers to strengthen the Cincinnati-Toledo collaboration.

  2. Local issues are the best ones to choose to begin projects and programs. But to get at the root causes and long-term strategies to end discrimination we are best served by a holistic approach. As a friend of mine from Lebanon once said, CEDAW provides the roadmap to make sure all bases are covered, keeping cities updated on global legal issues and standards. We should keep our eyes on the original Articles, but the CEDAW General Recommendations covering issues like climate change and disasters, migration and refugees, trafficking and indigenous women’s rights are equally useful.

  3. Many bills like those passed in Honolulu and Washington DC mandated that departments undergo gender training. This seems most successful when department heads are consulted, and the approach is participatory. Equally important to training for city officials is the outreach to the public. Public information is urgently needed so that voters and citizens are aware of CEDAW and what it can do and IS doing for them on a continual basis. Newsletters from the city and women’s commissions help to do this. Also, awards like the ones presented by the businesswomen’s councils are great public relations and learning events. Some jurisdictions like Miami-Dade County periodically do follow-up resolutions or ordinances to build on the original one, addressing the issues of the times and thus keeping CEDAW in the news. Fairfax County created a local CEDAW guide that was handed out to voters.

  4. Reaching out to future generations and students will be key to sustaining a focus on CEDAW. At Miriam College in the Philippines, faculty and students worked together to establish CEDAW Youth. Students do podcasts and conduct voting registration campaigns, as well as public events on campus related to safety and sexual harassment. Women’s commissions may consider having a member of such student-led groups sit on the commission to represent youth.

  5. Financing of the work should be mainstreamed into the existing budget—as is being promoted in San Francisco-- because one office’s budget cannot have an impact by itself. At the same time, establishing a Friends of CEDAW can help to raise funds from outside sources. For example, the Friends of the Department of Women in San Francisco held fund-raising gala dinners. They gave awards to senators, police chiefs, educators, artists, and CEOs. At the CEDAW awards dinner I attended, tables sold for hundreds of dollars, raising non-earmarked funds for the department on women.

  6. Finally, I urge you to designate someone- perhaps an intern, to start filing records, important correspondence, and documents on your CEDAW history. This can be 4 Toledo’s contribution to the newly established Smithsonian Women’s History Museum recently approved by Congress. If we wait for historians to capture our history, it will be based on what we record today. And the most important part of that history will be moments like this that record how you-- inside and outside city government, --with your vision made a difference to future generations.

What lies ahead? Remember that the world watches America. What you are doing here can be a beacon of hope for cities in places where you may never travel. We have made two reports to the CEDAW committee in Geneva that has taken a keen interest in this bottom-up, grassroots local “ratification” of the CEDAW movement. We salute the mayor, the great city of Toledo CEDAW activists, the Women of Toledo, and the Northwest Ohio Women’s Business Council today.

by Soon-Young Yoon

UN representative of the International Alliance of Women

Toledo, Ohio, May 4, 2023

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