Bridging the Gap: Setting an International Precedent for Universal Gender Equality

03/27/2015 07:48 pm ET | Updated May 27, 2015

For years, the international community has attempted to establish universal gender equality through international laws passed through the United Nations and through the U.N. Millennium Development Goals . It is now 2015, the target year for the MDGs and a number of years since landmark legislation like the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women and Security Council Resolution 1325 have been passed. Yet, global gender equality is still far from a reality.

An Associated Press report from the U.N. this month details Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon's goal for equal representation of men and women in politics by 2030, pointing out that changing men's mindsets must be a priority. He is pointing to a larger and often overlooked piece of this puzzle -- that a top-down approach is not enough to change existing gender hierarchies, we need more than just international legislation to get to the roots of gender inequality. Phumzile Mlambo-Ngucka, executive director of U.N. Women, emphasizes that "the attitudes that perpetuate the culture of male superiority" must change. To achieve full gender equality, our efforts as an international community cannot simply stop at signing and ratifying idealistic laws, we need to support bottom-up, grassroots efforts that are empowering women all over the world and have the power to change the mindsets of their communities by showing the many positive outcomes of gender equality.

One of the most glaring problems with international law in regards to women's rights is that it fails to address the economic, social, and cultural barriers to gender equality that are often the biggest impediments to women gaining social power. Lack of access to education and health care coupled with often violently extreme oppression by their families and communities cannot be changed by legislation or international political pressure, but rather by empowering the women in those communities through grassroots efforts to promote education and individual autonomy. CEDAW and Resolution 1325 focus on the needs of women, during wartime and otherwise, but the lack of specificity in addressing the day-to-day cultural barriers that women face, especially women in impoverished areas of the world, makes it impossible for the ideals they set forth to be reached only through implementation of such ambiguous policies. These policies set an important international precedent, but they alone will not have any direct effect on women in communities with bindingly strict gender norms.

Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Jody Williams believes in female leadership not only at the top, but in grassroots efforts -- as she points out, women know what women need. Grassroots, community-based efforts that empower women to climb their specific social ladder simultaneously allow for those efforts to be tailored to the needs of those women, and allow the rest of their community to see that educating and empowering women is beneficial, not harmful. Further, women can provide each other the necessary support to fight oppressive, culturally-based gender norms within their community. With the backing of international support, grassroots efforts worldwide can grow in the way that Mukhtar Mai Women's Organization and Maasai Women Development Organization have.

So how then do we create effective, all-inclusive change? A clear goal combined with an active collaboration between larger NGOs, IGOs, federal and regional governments, and these grassroots efforts will provide the necessary tools for these women to fight their specific battles. A research report on CEDAW and Rural Development from UC Davis Law displays the way in which CEDAW has served as a catalyst for grassroots efforts worldwide by setting an influential precedent on the need for the practice of international gender equality beginning with the implementation of women's rights. It is evident that current international legislation does not outline the kind of clear goals that grassroots efforts do. Grassroots female empowerment organizations often come into being to fight specific barriers to reach the end goal of shattering through the glass ceiling their community has placed upon them in the specific way that it has.

Cultures can and have evolved to meet the needs of their people, but taking a top-down approach that attacks cultural traditions is not an effective means to this end. As an international community, we need to work to set the legal precedent for rights, and then support the fight from the bottom up, and empower women to fight for their own rights and to change the mindsets of their own communities. We cannot wait for international policy to pull society up, because it simply will not without a push from the bottom.