University of Baltimore Law Review


The Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) is one of the most widely ratified human rights treaties in history, yet many view it as a failure in terms of what it has achieved for women. In spite of the lack of a meaningful enforcement mechanism and various other shortcomings, however, CEDAW has inspired feminist activism around the world and helped raise women's legal consciousness. While CEDAW itself is widely viewed as a product of feminist activism in the international arena, this essay explores the Convention's role as a source of-and tool for-grassroots feminist activism. Our focus is on such activism in rural areas of both developed and developing countries, places where law is often functionally absent.

CEDAW recognizes rural women as a particularly disadvantaged group in need of additional rights. Article 14 addresses rural women exclusively and specifically, stipulating that they-like their urban counterparts-should enjoy a panoply of rights: education, health care, and an array of civil and political rights. Moreover, Article 14 enumerates for rural women rights related to participation in agriculture and development more generally. It also includes the right for rural women to organize self-help groups and cooperatives for purposes of obtaining "equal access to economic opportunities through employment or self-employment," a right not mentioned elsewhere in relation to all women. Finally, Article 14 enumerates for rural women a wider range of socioeconomic rights than CEDAW elsewhere recognizes for all women. These include rights to various types of infrastructure, including water, sanitation, electricity, transport, and housing.

This essay first considers how Article 14 is consistent with contemporary feminism's greater focus on socioeconomic rights as a reflection of women's material concerns and lack of economic power. It considers these rights against a rural backdrop, where socioeconomic deprivations tend to be greater and where Member States face spatial and other distinct challenges to economic development, as well as to the provision of basic services such as healthcare and education. We examine Member States' responses to their Article 14 commitments to empowering rural women, with particular attention to how Member States have encouraged and facilitated self-organization by women, as required by Article 14(2)(e). Member States' periodic reports to the U.N. Division for the Advancement of Women indicate that governments seek to achieve rural women's empowerment through the women's grassroots activism, including via local self-help groups (SHGs) and cooperatives as envisioned by 14(2)(e). Indeed, some evidence suggests that Member States benefit directly from rural women's self-organizing when women's SHGs and cooperatives go beyond facilitating women's economic empowerment to become vehicles for delivering health, education, and other services in rural areas. These women's organizations thus do a range of work under the ambit of rural empowerment.

The essay next considers local women's organizations in four Member States, two developed nations and two developing ones. We analyze how these organizations draw on and benefit from CEDAW's Article 14(2)(e) mandate (however weak a mandate it is, practically speaking) to encourage women's collective mobilization. Thus, the essay sketches a portrait of the potential and actual symbiosis between top-down lawmaking and bottom-up activism to empower women. In short, we focus not on CEDAW's role as an enforceable human rights treaty, but rather on its function as an expressive document that has fostered and facilitated applied feminism.



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