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home : special issues : changemakers August 17, 2017

Arvonne Fraser: the seeds of the international women's movement
Elizabeth Noll

Not many people can claim with any legitimacy to have truly changed the world. Arvonne Fraser is one of the few who can.

Her proudest achievement is "putting women's human rights on an international agenda," and the string of hefty titles that follows her name suggests that she's been moving in the kind of circles where people do that sort of thing.

Fraser is senior fellow emerita of the Hubert H. Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs at the University of Minnesota and co-founder and director of the Institute's Center on Women and Public Policy, former director of the International Women's Rights Action Watch, former ambassador to the U.N. Commission on the Status of Women and coordinator of the Office of Women in Development at the U.S. Agency for International Development.

She's also co-editor of a recently released anthology, Developing Power: How Women Transformed International Development. The book is important, she said, because it covers the 20 years between 1975 and 1995, when there were four United Nation world conferences on women. "Mexico City, Copenhagen, Nairobi, Beijing. Because of those conferences we had a chance to get together, both at the government level and the NGO level," recalled Fraser. "These were the years that the international women's movement boomed."

Fraser was a member of the U.S. delegation to the Mexico City and Copenhagen conferences. In 1985, she started the International Women's Rights Action Watch, a group that published what she called "shadow reports" on countries that ratified the women's rights treaty known as CEDAW (the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women). The shadow reports served two purposes: they publicized CEDAW and in many cases they provided a more accurate portrait of the status of women than the official report a nation would send to the United Nations.

The reports were translated into several languages and read around the world, said Fraser. Other groups began doing similar reports. "That was a culmination of my career and my domestic [and international] activities," said Fraser. "I think when you put something in law you change culture."

On the fact that the U.S. still hasn't ratified the CEDAW treaty, Fraser offers this: "We have to elect different people. And we have to get our women's groups more internationally minded. They have to push for ratification and really push hard."

Though she has helped to change the world, Fraser is still keenly aware of the battles yet to come. The biggest fight facing U.S. women today is for recognition of their dual roles as breadwinner and caregiver, she said. "We have to get business[es] aware that its families produce the workers of the future," she said. "Somebody has to raise the kids well. If I were doing it, I would look to the schools as both educators and daycare for working parents. It's going to take some real long-range thinking and it's going to take some money. But parents are spending the money already.

"We're worse than all the other industrialized countries," she added. "They all have paid maternity leave, they have a much better system of preschool and daycare. They call that social security."

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