Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Rural feminist grassroots organizations, and CEDAW as an expressive document

Beloved, by Toni Morrison
On March 30, 2011, Professor Pruitt and I presented our upcoming paper at a symposium entitled Applying Feminism Globally, organized by the University of Baltimore School of Law's Center on Applied Feminism. Nobel Prize Winner Toni Morrison delivered the keynote address. Many of Toni Morrison's writings explored the situation of rural African American women, notably my favorite, Beloved.

Our paper and presentation discusses the special "disability" of rural places and especially the hardships that rural women endure in addition to their gender "handicap." But our paper intends to write on a rather positive note, uncovering how the much-maligned Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) emboldened feminist grassroots organization in four countries: Australia, Canada, China, and India.

We argue that CEDAW is not only a source of law, but also an expressive document that has inspired feminist activism around the world and helped raise women’s legal consciousness. CEDAW was the first U.N. treaty that specifically considered the rural-urban axis in its catalogue of human rights. CEDAW’s Article 14 recognizes rural women as a particularly disadvantaged group in need of additional guarantees of particular rights. Article 14 stipulates that rural women — like their urban counterparts — should enjoy the panoply of CEDAW rights: education, health care, and an array of civil and political rights. But Article 14 also enumerates for rural women rights to agriculture and development more generally. It includes, for example, the right for women to organize self-help groups and cooperatives, a right not enumerated elsewhere in relation to all women. Finally, Article 14 specifies for rural women a wider range of socioeconomic rights than is recognized elsewhere in CEDAW. These include rights to various types of infrastructure, including water, sanitation, electricity, transport and housing.

In our paper we examine the four Member States’ responses to their Article 14 commitments to empowering rural women, specifically regarding how Member States have encouraged and enabled self-organization by women. Member States’ periodic reports to the Division for the Advancement of Women indicate that their governments benefit from — and, indeed, seek to achieve rural women’s empowerment through — women’s grassroots activism, including via the local self-help groups and cooperatives envisioned by Article 14. We then consider several specific local women’s organizations, looking at how they benefit from CEDAW’s mandate (however weak a mandate it is) to encourage women’s self-organization. We thus begin to construct a portrait of the symbiotic relationship between top-down lawmaking and bottom-up activism to empower women. In short, we focus on CEDAW’s role not as an enforceable human rights treaty, but as an expressive document that has facilitated grassroots feminist organizing.

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