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Another Voice: Buffalo must act on gender discrimination

By Tara J. Melish

The persistence of chillingly high levels of gender discrimination and gender-based violence across the U.S. despite decades of national-level advocacy has taught advocates an important lesson: If meaningful progress on gender rights is to be achieved, participatory processes for identifying, understanding and proactively targeting the multiple, complex and localized barriers to equal rights need to be institutionalized at the city level, closest to where people live, work and exercise their rights. Buffalo has a singular opportunity to do this now.

Proudly supported by the Erie County Democratic Committee and dozens of allied community-based organizations, the Cities for CEDAW-Buffalo campaign has proposed a new law to the Buffalo Common Council that would make proactively fighting gender discrimination a city policy and priority. The Buffalo CEDAW/Gender Equality Ordinance would incorporate the gender equality and human rights principles of the U.N. Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) into all city operations.

The law has two primary ends. First, on the understanding that we can only fix what we make efforts to empirically know and understand, it would require all city agencies and departments to undertake an annual gender analysis of the impacts of their operations across Buffalo’s diverse communities: Who benefits? Who doesn’t? Why? Targeted agency-specific action plans for redressing identified disparities would then be created.

Second, to foster transparency, accountability and high levels of community participation, the law would create a politically independent oversight body, the CEDAW Task Force, to assist city officials with their gender analyses and action plans and serve as a focal point for community-led problem solving on gender issues.

Such city-based mechanisms are deeply needed. Women in Buffalo suffer a massive wage gap, high rates of family and community violence, disproportionate poverty rates, a startling array of gender-related barriers to accessing essential goods and services and significant underutilization in all areas of city government except administrative support. The Queen City has never had a female mayor. Its entire Common Council is currently male.

There are no quick or easy fixes to such inequities. Rather, the aims of the Buffalo CEDAW Ordinance are both more subtle and more enduring: to create regularized city processes through which residents’ real-world experiences with gender injustice can be brought to public attention and meaningful solutions identified, planned and implemented through coordinated and participatory action.

The proposed law is thus not a critique, but a celebration of who we are, what we want for our city and where we see Buffalo’s current renaissance taking us: to greater inclusion, security, responsiveness and prosperity for all.

It would put Buffalo on the map as a statewide and national leader in the fight for gender rights as human rights. It’s our time, Buffalo.

Tara J. Melish is a professor of law and director of the Buffalo Human Rights Center at the University at Buffalo School of Law. She is on the Steering Committee of the Cities for CEDAW-Buffalo Campaign.

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