Ellen Kennedy: Eliminating discrimination against women

Ellen Kennedy. Photograph courtesy of Ellen Kennedy.

” “For many, there is a misconception that the U.S. is not only a good player in this scenario of human rights, but truly a leader, the knight in shining armor. The story is really quite different.”
– Ellen Kennedy

It’s been called the women’s human rights bill. The Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) is an international treaty adopted in 1979 by the United Nations General Assembly. It has been ratified by 189 countries in the world. All but six: Iran, Palau, Somalia, Sudan, Tonga and the United States.

There are efforts in Minnesota to rally support for CEDAW. Since December 2015, three major cities and a professional law organization have passed resolutions supporting CEDAW, contributing knowledge about the bill statewide and eventually nationwide.

The Women’s Press spoke with Ellen Kennedy, executive director of World Without Genocide and a local leader in rallying support for CEDAW.

MN Women’s Press: Why hasn’t the U.S. supported CEDAW?
Ellen Kennedy: 
For an international treaty or resolution to become law it has to be approved by the U.S. Senate with 67 “yes” votes. Before coming to the Senate, it has to go through the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Twice it has passed the Committee with bipartisan support. But there has to be an advocate to bring the bill forward so it can be heard on the floor of the Senate. There has been no real champion for CEDAW yet.

MWP: What’s happening locally?
 Our vision for CEDAW in Minnesota is to generate a groundswell of support by individuals, organizations and cities so that when the time is appropriate we can go to our Senators and say “there are 500,000 or a million supporters of CEDAW and we want you to be the champion for it.”

I’m encouraged by steps happening so far. In December 2015, the city of Minneapolis passed a resolution of support for CEDAW. The Minnesota State Bar passed a similar resolution. A few months later, St. Paul and Edina passed resolutions of support. We are moving forward with two other cities and I am very hopeful there will be many more cities and organizations to come. As we hold events throughout the state, people sign letters to our Senators, urging their support. Perhaps we’ll have 1,000 letters of support by the end of 2016.

MWP: What’s happening around the country for CEDAW?
There is an initiative called 100 Cities for CEDAW, designed to get 100 cities to pass resolutions of support by the end of 2016.

In 2013, the National Council of Mayors passed a resolution endorsing CEDAW – several hundred mayors indicated that they would work to advocate for CEDAW in their cities.

MWP: What are the misconceptions in the U.S. surrounding the CEDAW resolution?
 The United States has not been a particularly good global player in supporting international initiatives for human rights. Not only has the U.S. failed to support CEDAW, but the United States is the only country on the planet that has not ratified the Convention on the Rights of the Child. [Somalia was the last holdout but ratified recently.]

The United States also has not yet ratified the International Criminal Court, formed in 2002. It is the world’s only permanent international court to prosecute individuals for war crimes, genocide and crimes against humanity; 125 countries in the world have ratified this court. The United States has not.

For many, there is a misconception that the U.S. is not only a good player in this scenario of human rights, but truly a leader, the knight in shining armor. The story is really quite different. The term that often is used is “exceptionalism.”

There are people in the U.S. who would prefer that the U.S. not be a party to various international agreements – in a mistaken belief that this could affect our sovereignty and independence. But the truth is quite different. These conventions in no way fly in the face of the values or principles that U.S. law supports.

For example, there is a mistaken impression that CEDAW would encourage abortion. CEDAW makes no reference to abortion, and CEDAW has been ratified by countries such as Ireland, Burkina Faso and Rwanda, where abortion is not legal. Some opponents fear that CEDAW will interfere in ways parents choose to raise their children. CEDAW only calls for the recognition for the “common responsibility of men and women in the upbringing and development of their children to promote what is in the best interests of the child.”

There’s an erroneous fear that anything international would erode our hegemonic position on the planet, because of the belief that we’re the exception and we do not have to play by the rules. In some ways, it’s like the child in the sandbox who has all of the toys and doesn’t want to share.

MWP: Is there a perception that violence doesn’t happen here?
 Here are some facts:
• Every nine seconds a woman in the U.S. is assaulted and beaten.
• Women are 94 percent of victims of murder/suicides in the U.S.
• An estimated 684,000 Minnesota women will suffer rape, physical violence or stalking by an intimate partner in their lifetimes.
• Economically, U.S. women earn an average of 78 cents for every dollar that a man makes.
• On any weekend night in Minnesota, 45 girls under the age of 18 are sold for sex through websites and escort services.
• The U.S. ranks 41st among 184 countries on maternal deaths during pregnancy and childbirth; below all other industrial nations and even below a number of developing countries.
• In Minnesota, in 2013, the District Courts handled 27,288 domestic violence cases; 2,853 of them were felony domestic assaults. There were 10,965 orders for protection. This is Minnesota. Do we need a bill of human rights for women? Yes, indeed. Do we need to raise awareness at local levels? Yes, indeed.

CEDAW is not an issue relevant only over “there,” wherever “there” might be. It is relevant in the United States, in Minnesota, in all of our communities.

Perhaps if women held more than 20 percent of the seats in Congress, CEDAW would have been ratified already.

MWP: Why is this your passion, your cause?
 I know women here in Minnesota who have been sex trafficked. I know women who have fled from abusive relationships, from domestic partners. I think the question is, how could this issue not affect me?

MWP: What are actions someone can take if interested in working on CEDAW and advocating for women?
City endorsements are important for ultimately getting United States support, but at a critical level it’s about saying that in Edina, in Golden Valley, in Minneapolis, in Coon Rapids, in Eden Prairie, women are vulnerable in our own communities.

Invite someone to speak at a school or faith organization or civic group about the violence in our state and how we should raise boys and girls to treat one another with respect.

At the most local level, we can protect those at risk close to home. People can look for signs and reach out to women and girls in their own communities. Are there people whose behaviors have suddenly changed? Do they seem to be in some sort of physical or psychological distress? If so, talk to a professional person about the best way to try to recommend help for the individual.

Take small steps, like posting emergency phone numbers for hotlines and help in the bathrooms at their faith institutions and other places that people can turn to if they are victimized. The Minnesota Coalition for Battered Women directs people to a shelter in their communities.

There are shelters throughout Minnesota. Bring teddy bears, diapers, shampoo, nightgowns, things that women fleeing with nothing would always need.

These are very small steps that anyone can take.

Invite people to contact me at World Without Genocide.

MWP: What is World Without Genocide?
 We’re a nonprofit human rights organization with the mission to raise awareness about genocides and mass atrocities in the past and those that are happening today. We believe that knowledge is not power. Knowledge plus action equals power. We focus on education in every way – classes, talks, films, exhibits – to engage people in policy and legislation that can make a difference.

I believe that people want to do good. I couldn’t do the work I do without this belief. I believe everyone wants to be an upstander, not a bystander, but they don’t always know how. That’s my opportunity, my responsibility, and my obligation – to help people see different paths for becoming an upstander in their own lives, in their families, on their block, in their town, or on the global scene. I want everyone to be an upstander in some way.

I want to know that if someone sees trash on the floor it will be picked up. I want people to vote for those who care about human rights. I want people to act in ways that are appropriate, and always to act with justice in mind, not just for some, but justice for all.