top of page

How CA Local Governments Make a Difference for Women’s Rights

Credit: Sergio Ruiz, SPUR | Flickr


The United Nations’ (UN) Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) was adopted in 1979 by the UN General Assembly. Often described as an international bill of rights for women, the convention provides a basis for promoting equality between genders “in the political, economic, social, cultural, civil, or any other field.” The United States is part of a short list of countries that have yet to ratify CEDAW, including Iran, Niue Island, Palau Island, Somalia, Sudan, and Tonga. 

Leading theories suggest the United States' hesitation stems from arguments that (1) “the treaty is at best unnecessary and at worst subjects the U.S. to the whims of an international agency,” and (2) the treaty advocates for reproductive rights and gender neutrality in workforce policies. Whatever the reason, the result is that the United States has failed to join its peers in making a global commitment to end all forms of discrimination against women.

Although local governments cannot ratify CEDAW, county and city-level grassroots efforts to implement the Convention’s principles are emerging in spite of the nation’s lack of initiative in furthering the equality of women’s rights. 

What can Local CA Governments do?

The implementation capabilities of county governments–as subdivisions of the state–differ from those of city governments–as instruments of local governments–in California, authorized under the California Constitution. Counties do not possess the broad, self-governing authority that California cities have, while legislative oversight over counties is more comprehensive in comparison to cities. The City of San José, for example, is a charter city that may use its own governing rules and pass its own city constitutions to enact policies beyond California law. San José can readily adopt ordinances relating to CEDAW principles and potentially implement them more effectively from the City’s unique ability to shape local policies. Most California counties, on the other hand, are general law counties that must generally adhere to state law and have a limited degree of authority. A handful of charter counties, such as Santa Clara County, have greater autonomy, but both types of county have the authority to pass ordinances that do not conflict with state law, including CEDAW ordinances.

For example, under California’s Government Code § 33200, the county board of supervisors may “organize. . .the delivery of health and human services for which county government is responsible under state law into departments that provide human assistance, human services, and medical systems.” Within county-operated hospitals or medical systems, including those in Alameda, San Francisco, Riverside, Los Angeles, and Santa Clara County, authorities could take steps to achieve gender equality by allocating resources towards minimizing the discrepancy of fatal medical complications during pregnancy and childbirth between women of color and white women or by allocating resources to processing the backlog of rape kits that disproportionately affect women. As a current example, Santa Clara County recently passed a resolution to create a dedicated OBGYN clinic in their public hospital system.

Furthermore, both cities and counties must emphasize implementation after adopting these ordinances to ensure that tangible changes occur. In charter cities, mayors, if elected, can set priorities, establishing a few enumerated lenses through which they review and tackle local issues. Encouraging cities and counties to prioritize CEDAW principles in their goal-setting processes and staff reports are also necessary to facilitate implementation. It's important to note, however, that these efforts are dependent on continued advocacy and community engagement to ensure that resolutions or ordinances translate into substantive progress in gender equity. 

Santa Clara County

Santa Clara County officials have made strides on this front as they recently approved “landmark legislation” to implement key CEDAW principles within local government. The International Human Rights Clinic (IHRC) at Santa Clara Law was instrumental in supporting Santa Clara County's recent ordinance. The IHRC collaborated with the Santa Clara County Commission on the Status of Women and engaged in discussions with county leaders regarding proposed language and drew insights from similar ordinances implemented in other jurisdictions. After eight years of work, the County Board of Supervisors approved the ordinance in May of 2023. 

Benaifer Dastoor, chair of the county’s Commission on the Status of Women, says the first step in this implementation is gathering data from various departments on factors affecting gender inequality such as employment discrimination in pay or hiring practices. Then, Dastoor says they must review the reports and implement specialized plans for each office so they can properly address the discrimination on their front. 

Implementing CEDAW principles will ensure the county has an ongoing analysis of gender equality among its agencies, but Dastoor suggests this integration will take four years at least. Although this seems rather long, passage of the ordinance represents a major step towards equity, given that they are only the fourth county in the state to pass a permanent CEDAW ordinance, along with the counties of San Francisco, Los Angeles, and San Diego.

Thus far, the Santa Clara County CEDAW ordinance mandates anti-discrimination measures in priority areas including criminal justice, economic development, and housing. Section A18-157 of the ordinance provides for an implementation plan, specifying that the adoption of these policies will include the “effectuation of a baseline intersectional gender analysis, ongoing iterative intersectional gender analyses, and a Countywide intersectional gender equity action plan.” 

With this ordinance, Santa Clara County, and those that have begun to implement CEDAW principles at the local level, are assuring their residents that a “consideration of the intersectionality of discrimination is at the forefront of all efforts…” 


While the United States has yet to ratify the treaty, grassroots initiatives at the county and city levels of California are translating CEDAW's goals into tangible actions, such as establishing dedicated healthcare services and formulating comprehensive gender equity plans. Through collaboration and proactive policymaking, these jurisdictions are setting an example for others, prioritizing anti-discrimination measures and intersectional gender analyses. Santa Clara County's recent landmark legislation exemplifies a multi-year commitment to gender equality, demonstrating that the consideration of gender equity remains a central tenet of local governance. As more counties and cities follow suit, it becomes clear that the commitment to ending discrimination against women extends beyond national boundaries, fostering a more equitable society through localized efforts.

*The views expressed in this article do not represent the views of Santa Clara University.


bottom of page