Passing international treaties at the local level to impact public policy and promote human rights standards

The Women’s Institute for Leadership Development for Human Rights (WILD) has used the United Nations Con­vention to End Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) to advocate for human rights at the local level.

In 1996, WILD for Human Rights began advocating for San Francisco to become the first U.S. city to pass a law promoting the principles of CEDAW. Discussing human rights standards in relation to discrimination and to set­ting up measurable community-based outcomes, WILD for Human Rights worked with government officials, public citizens and advocacy groups focused on domestic violence, poverty and health issues.

WILD for Human Rights held a public hearing at which community members were encouraged to record personal testimony relating to the rights of women, and girls and to their pledges to uphold the principles of the Convention. Through this hearing, the group hoped to give community members and city officials a leadership role in the pro­cess, helping them feel personally committed to seeing the Convention’s principles upheld throughout the city.

Testimony on the relevance of CEDAW in the lives of local women was presented to government officials at a public hearing in the fall of 1997. In April 1998 the city passed an ordinance requiring city departments to review budgets, employment policies and the delivery of services within the context of gender and human rights, and allocating funds to help the departments put the ordinance into practice. The ordinance entered a new phase in 2003.


New Tactics in Human Rights does not advocate for or endorse specific tactics, policies or issues.

What we can learn from this tactic: 

Local legislators constitute a potentially powerful constituency that is rarely involved in human rights struggles. In some countries local officials are not accustomed to thinking of their work in terms of human rights; their day-to-day work centers around zoning decisions, permits and budgets. The Women’s Institute for Leadership and Development (WILD for Human Rights) works with local government to help officials see the role they could play in shaping policies that protect human rights. They also engage local communities, the constituencies to which these legislators are accountable.

In response to the ordinance, the San Francisco city government has examined the Departments of Public Works, Juvenile and Adult Probation, and the Environment, as well as the Rent Board and the Arts Commission. And city departments have made a number of changes, creating, for example, nontraditional jobs for women in city government, and adding more streetlights in unsafe neighborhoods.

WILD for Human Rights is now extending its reach, and advising organizations in cities across the United States on how those cities might adopt the principles of CEDAW, as well as those of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (CERD).

The people who testified at the public meetings may never have seen their experiences in terms of human rights, just as the local officials in San Francisco may never have considered their work in terms of fulfilling human rights obligations. But WILD for Human Rights helped them to put their work and their experience into that framework and drew them into the human rights movement.

This tactic could help change a national mindset, bit by bit, and eventually lead to the implementation and monitoring of human rights standards. Other groups working on a wide variety of issues may also decide that finding supporters and building constituencies on the local level can help them make more significant changes both locally and globally.