Elected to a second term on the elite UN committee for women’s rights,
Doors seem to swing smoothly open in the career path of Prof. Ruth Halperin-Kaddari from Israel, the youngest woman member of the United Nations Committee for the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW).
Since the late 1990s, the 44-year-old mother of four (who also has the greatest number of children of all committee members) has been working with the UN in the realm of women’s rights. She started out reporting on the status of women’s rights in Israel for the UN, on behalf of the government. In 2007, she tells ISRAEL21c, her 10-year dream came true, when she was elected a member of the elite, predominantly female UN committee that analyzes reports submitted by the 192 UN member countries.
Recently, at UN headquarters in New York, Halperin-Kaddari was elected for a second term. She didn’t expect to win this time around, she explains, because most of the UN’s Moslem and Arab states tend to automatically vote against Israeli candidates, regardless of their credentials, and in addition the vote took place shortly after the Turkish flotilla incident which resulted in the deaths of nine Turkish citizens and several injured Israeli soldiers, which she anticipated would have an adverse effect on her chances.
But despite the politics and negative press for Israel, Halperin-Kaddari received 103 votes and was elected, beating out contenders from countries such as Chile, Bahrain and the Republic of Cameroon. “Happily, the success in this campaign was a lot of hard work coming together with respect for professionalism,” she declares.
CEDAW was established in 1982, and Halperin-Kaddari remains one of the 23 experts who review reports on the status of women submitted by UN countries once in four years. The committee meets three times a year for three-week sessions that are held in either Geneva or New York.
Family lawyer contributes unique insights
The Yale graduate, who lives in Shoham near Israel’s international airport, says that through her specialty, Family Law, she has been able to contribute unique insights to the committee about women’s rights pertaining to both marriage and divorce – nuances that were previously absent from UN conventions. She teaches and publishes about her field of expertise from Israel’s Bar-Ilan University.
The CEDAW is one of the most prestigious and highly valued UN committees, and Halperin-Kaddari says she is thrilled to be a member: “It’s a very special experience. It gives me a perspective I couldn’t achieve anywhere else and makes me feel that we are doing something very important – the women I work with on the Committee, the United Nations and Israel.”
Born in the Tel Aviv suburb of Ramat Gan, like most young Israeli women Halperin-Kaddari served in the Israel Army at age 18, in her case in an intelligence unit. She earned her first degree at Bar-Ilan University, and her Doctorate of Law, a JSD at Yale University in the US, and subsequently worked as a law clerk for Justice Aharon Barak, who was president of Israel’s Supreme Court from 1995-2006.
She easily landed a faculty position at the university, teaching family law. Soon after, the Ministry of Justice and Foreign Affairs commissioned her to write a report for the UN on women’s issues in Israel.
“The truth is that I wasn’t quite aware of what I was taking upon myself, and it was done during my post-doctoral period. Fortunately, I had the time to work on it,” she recalls.
That was in 1996, and in 1997 she went to the UN as part of the Israeli delegation that presented the report. “I remember it quite well,” she says, reflecting on the opening speech she heard: “I said to myself ‘one day I’d like to be one of these [UN] experts who hears those reports.’ Ten years later, I closed the circle.”
Existential conflict permeates all issues
Involved in women’s rights issues in Israel as well as international women’s rights, in the late 1990s, Rabbi Emanuel Rackman, the chancellor of Bar-Ilan who was 90 years old at the time, asked Halperin-Kaddari to help establish a center for women’s rights at the university. The result is the Ruth and Emanuel Rackman Center for the Advancement of Women’s Status. While she feels that, “It came at a stage a bit too early in my academic career… it was an opportunity that couldn’t be missed,” according to the professor. And it was the center that helped to enhance her status at the UN and it is still the base from where she champions women’s rights in Israel.
Particular challenges that women in Israel face, she says, are the problems associated with marriage laws, and the fact that they’re governed by religion and not the state. This is an ominous situation for both the Muslim and Jewish populations in Israel, she warns, with each religion having its own interests in preserving control over laws pertaining to marriage. Also, the ongoing political conflict in the region trickles down and affects every woman, regardless of her religious or socio-economic group.
“It’s very frustrating that the conflict that we live in is all-inclusive and includes all venues of life. It’s almost inescapable,” she says. “Whatever you challenge or you try to face [parts] separately, you go back to the key issue – the almost eternal conflict and existential conflict for Israel.”
At the UN, Halperin-Kaddari deals with international issues, while drawing on local experience. Over the 15 or so years that she’s been involved, changes have come about. Although they aren’t radical changes with respect to the status of women in countries like Afghanistan, for example, she has effected change with respect to the law.
“In the most extreme cases we cannot be effective [in Afghanistan]. But where we can be effective is in the in-between cases: For example, Egypt. Egypt has enacted a law that prevents female genital manipulation; and countries in Asia or Africa or the former USSR, countries that have enacted comprehensive laws and schemes working to combat gender-based violence of women – or the prevention of polygamy.”
Halperin-Kaddari is happy working in two worlds – both locally in academia, and internationally via the UN – and is convinced that the one can engender change in the other. “I have a strong belief in the connection between the academic world and social change, and using research from academia to make these changes in the real world,” she concludes.