Delivered February 29, 2008
It is a privilege to return to the United Nations, where I
served so many years as a diplomat representing my country, in
my new capacity as Director of the Center for International Trade
and Economics at the Heritage Foundation. I am particularly pleased
that the occasion for the return is the 52nd Session of the
Commission on the Status of Women.
I came here today to issue a challenge. It is a challenge
to seek truly revolutionary change for women. It has been over 60
years since the creation of the Commission on the Status of
Women (CSW), and in those 60 years the status of women has improved
for some women in some countries. For most of the women of the
world, change has been painfully slow, if it has occurred at
Even after 60 years, we still need a revolution for women. We
need to free women from discriminatory ideas and practices that
hold them back. There is no excuse for laws or cultural practices
that relegate women to second-class status.
It is not enough to eliminate discrimination in law. Almost
every country represented in this room has signed on to the
Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination
Against Women (CEDAW), committing themselves in law to ending
discrimination in the political, social, economic, and cultural
life of their countries. The United States, one of the few
countries that is not a party to the Convention, nonetheless has a
massive body of domestic law and regulation designed to ensure
freedom from discrimination.
Unfortunately, in many parts of the world, there is a large gap
between law and practice.
Law vs. Practice
Chart 1 provides information on the rule of law drawn from the
World Bank's Governance Indicators. The scores indicate relative
differences among countries or regions in observing the rule
of law. A positive number is an above-average score. A negative
number is a below-average score. If you are from a country in one
of the regions indicated by the bars that drop below the line,
there is a high probability that there is a significant gap between
protection in law for women and the conditions that actually
prevail for women in society.
We also measure respect for the rule of law in The Heritage
Foundation's Index of Economic Freedom through two
indicators focused on respect for property rights and freedom
from corruption. Of the 10 indicators we measure, scores on
these two are the lowest, below 50 percent in both cases.
There is a gap, sometimes large and sometimes small, in every
country between the status women are promised in law and the status
they actually enjoy in society. It would truly bring revolutionary
change in the lives of women if governments would simply live up to
the commitments they have made to eliminate discrimination.
Why has the gap between promise and performance
Part of the problem lies in a lack of clarity, or
confusion, or even downright disagreement about the meaning of
some of the provisions embodied in international normative
instruments like CEDAW or in the resolutions adopted by the CSW or
the General Assembly. These resolutions or agreements represent
attempts to identify areas of consensus on things that are needed
to improve the status of women. They often try to identify
conditions in which women might live that would represent an ideal
to which we all subscribe.
Unfortunately, this is a more complicated question than we
like to admit. In an era in which it is popular-indeed, almost
mandatory-to talk about the universality of human rights, we find
it difficult to admit that we still live in a world of diverse
cultural values and norms. Not every woman, or man, will
necessarily be striving for the same ideal.
The normative instruments that are offered to us by the United
Nations-the Universal Declaration of Human Rights or the Convention
on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against
Women, for example-are attempts to codify common principles
for humankind. Any such undertaking is fraught with difficulty and
even danger. Cultural imperialism can take many forms, even the
form of a U.N. declaration or treaty. "Universal" is a big word,
and anything that purports to be universal has very high hurdles to
overcome if it is not to be met with those twin killers of idealism
and progress: cynicism and hypocrisy.
I have always thought that the U.N.'s best products were
those that proposed modest but clear and realizable steps toward
lofty goals: those that acknowledged human and institutional
frailty while staying true to the idealism of the U.N. Charter.
CEDAW: Undermining Tradition
No one is likely to question the goals of eliminating
discrimination or improving the status of women, but that's
because these broad goals are easily viewed and interpreted and
accommodated within different cultural traditions. In other words,
they can mean different things to different people.
CEDAW rejects this point of view, and does so directly. The
preamble contends that "a change in the traditional role of men as
well as the role of women in society and in the family is needed to
achieve full equality between men and women." That's a bold
statement. Any change in tradition is by its very nature an
ambitious undertaking. This one is bold particularly-and
erroneously, in my view-in its use of the singular form to describe
the role of men and the role of women.
Hopefully, our understanding of culture and anthropology has
advanced to the point that we can acknowledge that both men and
women have multiple and often overlapping roles in society.
Can we acknowledge that these roles may differ among individuals
within a single society and differ even more among the range of
cultures whose representatives mingle together here at the
United Nations? We must find a way to reconcile the idea of
universal norms with cultural diversity. If we don't, we will
foster conflict rather than consensus.
The preamble to CEDAW challenges tradition without defining it.
It calls both men and women to adopt a new role (singular) in
society without defining what that role should be.
This is a recipe for controversy, and we have plenty of that in
debates and discussions in the Commission on the Status of Women.
When each delegation or even each delegate comes to these
deliberations with their own idea of the appropriate role for women
in society, and when those views differ across cultures, and when
they are strongly held, it is likely that the debates will produce
either conflict or meaningless platitudes. Here at the U.N., we see
The Convention tries in its articles to go into greater detail
and specify exactly what must be done. But when language, even if
couched in legal phrasing, is subject to interpretation, you can be
sure that governments, even the most progressive, will interpret it
in whatever way most suits their particular political views.
For example, Article 6 of CEDAW would seem to be a
straightforward condemnation of trafficking in women and
prostitution. The language says: "States Parties shall take all
appropriate measures, including legislation, to suppress all forms
of trafficking in women and exploitation of prostitution of women."
Yet some countries that have ratified the Convention interpret this
phrase to allow not only legalized prostitution, but its
financial exploitation by the state through the taxation of
prostitutes' earnings. The state's role here-taking a share of a
prostitute's earnings and providing protection or care in
exchange- is remarkably similar to the role of a pimp.
In its articles, the Convention sets out what the U.N. refers to
as an "agenda for equality." That agenda has three broad
themes: civil and political rights, health and reproduction, and
establishment of "the new international economic order."
Nothing is sadder in CEDAW than this call in the preamble for a
"new international economic order." Nothing sets the convention
more in its time and place than this reference to an economic
debate that was highly controversial and dominated this
organization at the time but which has thankfully faded into
obscurity and irrelevance. Like the call for a new international
economic order, much in the economic provisions of the
Convention is almost quaint, certainly out of touch with economic
reality in a globalized world. Women suffer as a result.
The Convention calls in broad strokes for equal treatment of
women and men in economic activities. There is nothing wrong
with that. Unfortunately, the Convention is oriented toward
socialist thinking about the role of the state in the provision of
goods and services. It calls for the state to ensure the provision
to women of everything from health care to agricultural credit to
housing, sanitation, electricity, water, transport, and
It is here that the Convention fails most miserably in
improving the actual conditions of life for women, because states
that provide all of these things to their citizens generally don't
do a very good job of it. Providing equal opportunity for women
with men when opportunities for either are poor doesn't do
much for women.
A Revolution of Economic Freedom
We need an economic revolution for both women and men: a
revolution of economic freedom to provide opportunity,
economic growth, and prosperity.
At The Heritage Foundation, we have been measuring economic
freedom for 14 years. The Index of Economic Freedom
measures 10 categories of economic freedom and ranks countries
both regionally and worldwide. One of the most striking results
from these rankings is the strong correlation between economic
freedom and prosperity.
Chart 2 shows the relationship between economic freedom and
women's income. Societies with high levels of economic freedom
enjoy much higher levels of per capita income than those that
There is also a striking relationship between economic
freedom and gender equality, as can be seen in Chart 3, which
compares scores from the Index of Economic Freedom and the
U.N. Development Program's Human Development Report.
These strong relationships between economic freedom, economic
growth, and gender equality show clearly that we need to embrace an
ideology of economic liberation for women, one that frees them from
economic domination and economic repression.
To succeed in such a revolutionary undertaking, we must first
identify the enemy. What are we revolting against? I am sure we
would get many different answers just from the people in this
We need to take a clear-eyed and honest look at the forces in
the world for freedom and the forces for repression. They will not
be the same in every society, nor will they be stable over
time. Forces that favor liberation in one age may become agents of
repression at a later time. Labor unions, for example, may empower
workers in one context or enforce the status quo and existing
privilege in another. Religion may be an agent for liberation in
one society and a brutal oppressor in another. Even the
nation-state may be a powerful force for freedom or, all too often,
the primary agent of repression.
We could all give examples on both sides in each of these cases.
Cultural traditions, gender roles, marriage practices, almost any
arrangement by which we order our lives and societies can be in one
age or context a force for oppression and in another a force for
Let me be clear. I am not advocating cultural relativism.
Not every culture or cultural practice is of equal worth or equal
value. Indeed, some will be good and some will be evil. We must try
to discriminate among fundamental values and practices even as
we strive to end discrimination between men and women.
There is no magic formula, and certainly no one answer that will
be right for everyone. But I think we could go a long way toward
success if we focus our attention on the needs of the individual
woman and look for policies and reforms that will liberate her,
empower her, and increase her economic opportunities and economic
choices. This is what we try to do by publishing the Index of
Economic Freedom. It provides one tool by which members of a
society can measure some aspects of their individual liberty
against conditions in other countries.
Revolutionary Change Through Constructive
There's plenty of evidence that economic freedom works. So what
are some of the specific reforms for which we who want
revolutionary change for women should be advocating?
- First, countries need to eliminate burdensome regulations on
starting businesses. In some societies, it can take over 200 days
to get the dozens of approvals needed to start a business. Each
approval provides an opportunity for graft. Each is a burden that
must be overcome. This burden is especially hard on small
businesses and can be especially hard on women.
- Countries need to open their economies to foreign trade and
investment. Multinational companies typically provide better
working environments and higher wages than existing domestic firms
and offer more opportunities for women who want to work.
- Countries need banking systems that are open and transparent
and which provide competitive financial services to women at all
income levels. It's not enough to provide microfinance, though that
clearly has positive benefits. Women also need access to commercial
banks and financial institutions offering world-class services at
competitive rates. You get that from the private sector, not
- Countries need an independent judicial system that provides
fair access to honest justice for all.
Sad to say, the concept of individual liberty and freedom,
articulated in the American creed as the right to life, liberty,
and the pursuit of happiness, remains a truly revolutionary
ideology in the world today. It is individual liberty that
challenges the status quo, existing privilege, and elite
presumptions of the right to rule. It is through individual liberty
that women will, at last, be freed from the shackles of traditional
or modern societal mores.
If we make space for individual women, they can find and define
for themselves their unique roles as individuals in society.
Surely, this is the most practical way to do the greatest good for
the greatest number. Economic freedom works. It works in every
cultural context. It works for men, and it works for women.
Chart 4 shows the differences in per capita income between
people in the freest economies and those that are least free, in
every region of the world. Incomes are three times higher in the
freest European or Middle Eastern societies than in less free
countries. The difference between incomes in the freest and the
least free Asian societies is a staggering 900 percent. With
figures like that, there is no excuse not to give economic freedom
I came here today to issue a challenge. It is to think clearly, to
be creative, and to reject stereotypes, whether those of
tradition or those that we might try to impose in the name of
Let's make space for women, individual women, to find their
own way-not my way or the U.N.'s way, but their own way-to lives of
purpose and prosperity. Let us listen to women when they talk
about the forces that hold them back, and let us help them fight
their battles: not our battles, not yesterday's battles, but
battles that liberate and empower them as the agents and directors
and producers of their own lives.
Miller is Director of the Center for International Trade
and Economics at The Heritage Foundation. He delivered these
remarks on the occasion of a meeting of the United Nations
Commission on the Status of Women at U.N. headquarters in New