For US, Lessons on Women’s Rights From San Francisco

San Francisco – In 1998, San Francisco stepped up and joined the world.

Tired of the U.S. government’s refusal to ratify The Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), women’s activists pushed the city government to adopt the convention’s principles, in an effort to improve local women’s lives.

An ordinance was passed, and now, more than a decade later, San Francisco is reflecting on their success in reforming the city’s government agencies, and taking on a push for change in the local private sector.

The original ordinance created a dedicated staff person; soon after, a task force was established, and ‘Guidelines for a Gender Analysis’, emerged: a tool for city departments to evaluate where and how discrimination was taking place.

“We knew that the city departments on their own, didn’t have the mechanism or the understanding just to take the ordinance and say ‘here’s where we are failing’,” says Krishanti Dharmaraj, a member of the task force until 2004.

“(City departments) had to report their findings to the CEDAW task force, and had to tell (the task force) what they were hoping to do to eliminate discrimination,” she says.

Predictably, the needs and the results varied by department.

The Department of Environment went from being male-dominated to having a majority of female engineers on staff.

The city’s department of juvenile justice identified the need for a girls advocate on staff, and instituted gender specific programs for young women in the system.

The department of public works established a standard, shorter distance between streetlights, so women would feel safer walking around at night. They also established a job centre where open positions were posted; previously an ‘old boys’ network resulted in many jobs going to friends of current workers.

Emily Murase, the former chair of the Task Force, and current executive director of San Francisco’s Department on the Status of Women, (a department that existed before the CEDAW adoption) says an experience with the city’s arts department exemplified to her how internalising the CEDAW principles could alter both women’s lives, and the community as a whole: it centred around a daily permit lottery for artists who wanted to sell their wares on the city streets.

“A woman with childcare responsibilities couldn’t make it there at 8:00 am, so she was repeatedly losing out on this lottery.”

After initial resistance, the arts commission agreed to allow proxies to come and represent the artists, in order to pick up a permit.

“That doesn’t just help women, but any person with care-giving responsibilities who can’t show up in person,” points out Murase.

“Not all of this can be attributed specifically to CEDAW,” says Ann Lehman, senior policy analyst for the city’s Department on the Status of Women. “But it all grew out of the work that was done initially, raising the consciousness level of people around these issues.”

“What CEDAW did was take something from the bottom that was not considered a priority for the city – because there were other pressing issues – and place it on the top,” adds Dharmaraj.

Overall, Lehman says the entire city government went from being “Very bureaucratic, be here at 8:00 in the morning, work until 5:00, no exceptions” to a “much more flexible work style across the board…now we have things like paid parental leave…which most cities and counties and states still don’t have.”

Unfortunately, the ordinance doesn’t allow legal action against city agencies that do not make policy changes. As a result, Murase says, “The fundamental philosophy behind our approach is that it’s voluntary.”

“We want departments to do this without having to hammer them…We’ve had really great success in the departments that want to do the right thing, they want to be seen in the right light, they want to be in an attractive place for women,” she says.

The original task force was disbanded in 2006, and has been folded into the Department on the Status of Women. Without any actual budget, the five staffers in that department do CEDAW monitoring as part of their normal job.

The Department on the Status of Women is currently working on a gender analysis of the entire city budget, to and has begun to take aim at reforming companies that do business in San Francisco, with a series of roundtables involving local corporations. (see sidebar)

Although advocates hope that with Barack Obama in office, the United States may finally ratify CEDAW, in the meantime, local initiatives like San Francisco’s may be the only way to proceed. But while Lehman and others frequently provide advice to other cities interested in adopting CEDAW principles, Los Angeles is the only U.S. city to do so thus far – and L.A. is plagued with a common problem – a lack of resources to put CEDAW into action.

“We’ve been speaking to a number of different commissions on the status of women (in other cities) but nobody has permanent staff,” says Murase. “There isn’t this sort of institutional agency that can carry it forward.”

Dharmaraj says that inaction, often motivated by the economic fears of corporations, is short sighted. She adds that while San Francisco still has a long way to go until all women’s lives are significantly improved, the city’s success is proof of the benefits of CEDAW.

“If the workforce is happy, our productivity would be better,” she says. “If you look at the country at large, and the quality of life of people, and the quality of life of the production services that we would provide. Then I think it is a win-win.”