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Ebti Numari

American feminists should drop the 'global saviour' rhetoric

The US has not ratified CEDAW, the convention to eliminate discrimination against women [Getty]

Date of publication: 12 July, 2018

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Comment: American women's activists should start by asking why the US has resisted ratifying global women's rights treaties and human rights initiatives, writes Ebti Numari.
It is a new day for women in America. 

The Women's March and the #MeToo movements are not only bringing feminism to the core of every political and social discussion, but they are generating victories along the way. The seeds for more radical change in the future are being planted at a time when even hard earned freedoms such as abortion rights are at risk.

It is laudable that the movement's organisers hope to amplify the achievements they have won in a relatively short period of time, outside of US borders.

While the #MeToo movement evolved into the Time's Up national campaign with the specific goal of fighting "sexual assault, harassment and inequality in the workplace," the Women's March launched the global version of their movement.

The Women's March Global aims - according to the email I got from them - to "empower communities, organisations and individuals to start Chapters, take action, organise events and learn".

But how will this empowerment be executed? And what kind of learning do they plan on sharing? Ironically, the Women's March Global appears to have missed the "empowering and the learning" part it preaches worldwide.

Although the global version of the movement links its four mission goals - health, economic security, representation and safety - to supportive articles from the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, it makes no reference to the only human rights treaty that affirms the reproductive rights of women, and that addresses a much wider, and more detailed range of rights for women.

Indeed, it's unfortunate that the vast majority of American women are unaware of this pivotal United Nations international treaty that is often described as the international bill of rights for women.

The organisers should start a national discussion to investigate the the worrisome reasons behind the resistance

The Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, known as the CEDAW, is the solid foundation that activists and civil society organisations have been successfully using and building on, to rally and improve conditions for women in their countries since the early 80s.

Article I of CEDAW defines discrimination against women as "...any distinction, exclusion or restriction made on the basis of sex which has the effect or purpose of impairing or nullifying the recognition, enjoyment or exercise by women, irrespective of their marital status, on a basis of equality of men and women, of human rights and fundamental freedoms in the political, economic, social, cultural, civil or any other field."

The treaty has been ratified by 189 states, with the notable exceptions of Iran and the United States.

For many decades, American mainstream media and pop culture have painted the picture perfect image of the modern American woman who has it all.

They are portrayed as already fully enjoying all their rights, and the US apparently considers itself beyond the need to ratify treaties that offer protection to women. This fallacy has in fact heavily contributed to the delay, if not the derailment, of the recent national reckonings around the prevalence of sexual harassment and gender inequality in society.

A recent poll by the Thomson Reuters Foundation listed the United States among the top 10 most dangerous countries for women.

America is the only western country that does not mandate a paid maternity leave, nor does it guarantee safe access to reproductive healthcare.

Two weeks ago the Supreme Court sided with California's anti-abortion pregnancy clinics by reversing a lower court decision to uphold a California law. This law had required these centres to disclose whether they are licensed, and to provide information on availability of contraception, abortion and prenatal care.

And when it comes to women's representation in politics, the US ranks behind 101 other countries.

While policy recommendations might not transform a society, when it comes to women's rights, their integration into law can be a powerful tool for disrupting pervasive injustices and structural inequalities.

The CEDAW's profound impact on improving women's lives is evident from the global South countries to the West.

The South African and Ugandan constitutions contain significant clauses guaranteeing women's equality based on the convention's articles. The Supreme Court in Canada has drawn on the CEDAW to combat violence against women.

The ratification of the treaty provided the framework for impressive reform of family laws in Morocco, Tunisia, and Turkey. And earlier this year, the European parliament voted overwhelmingly to support a resolution that would mandate gender equality in "all future EU trade agreements" based on the CEDAW.

The Women's March Global now has the opportunity to break and deconstruct the toxic myths of nationalistic greatness

International treaties are not magic rods, they don't solve a nation's inequalities overnight, and yes, many countries that ratify these treaties have an unfavourable, sometimes gruesome record of human rights violations.

But that is precisely why we should rally for them, so we can hold each other accountable to the same universal standards, instead of yielding to powerful countries bullying others in the name of human rights.

Read more: Listen to Arab women: They know what they're doing

The Trump administration's decision to withdraw its membership from the United Nations Human Rights Council was not surprising. Last year the US pulled out of the Paris climate agreement, and before that they ended their funding to the UN Population Fund (UNFPA.)

The new national security adviser, John Bolton, believes that international organisations and treaties are threats to US sovereignty.

The new kind of feminism that is genuinely global does not assume the role of the saviour, or ship off its good intentions

But even before Trump, these parochial policies were recurring practices. President George W. Bush also boycotted the UN council for three years. Presidents Ronald Reagan, George HW Bush, and George W Bush withheld funding from the UNFPA, too.

The Women's March Global now has the opportunity to break and deconstruct the toxic myths of nationalistic greatness, rather than unconsciously inflating them.

Instead of deepening American women's isolation by creating "global initiatives" that lack the very global mechanism, the organisers should start a national discussion to investigate the the worrisome reasons behind the resistance and negligence of acknowledging existing human rights treaties. The unconditional ratification of these treaties is paramount. 

The new kind of feminism that is genuinely global does not assume the role of the saviour, or ship off its good intentions.

It instead understands that true empowerment takes place when the learning process goes both ways. The Us vs Them mentality has no place here.

The Global Women's March ought to join the more than 40 years of work and debate of the CEDAW's bona fide organised women's rights work. Fortunately, this step is made easier for them through the diligent work of a small, but growing group, Cities for CEDAW


The nationwide chapters of the group have been doing a remarkably impressive job in pushing to initiate the CEDAW convention through local ordinances within American cities, towns, counties, and states. Their motto, "to make the global local," is what the Women's March must adopt before going global.


Ebti Numari is a journalist writing on human rights, feminism, and civil liberties. She's the recipient of the United Nations Dag Hammarskjöld Journalism Fellowship. She lives in New York City.

Follow her on Twitter: @EbtiNumari

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.

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