This year we commemorate the 20th anniversary of an important milestone in the history of the global women’s movement: The Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action (BPfA). The BPfA was the outcome document of the U.N. Fourth World Conference on Women, which took place in Beijing, China, in September, 1995, along with the parallel NGO Forum in Huairou, China. The U.N. Fourth World Conference on Women represented the culmination of two decades of international women’s mobilizations (in Mexico City, Copenhagen, and Nairobi) and announced the formation of a truly global women’s movement. The Beijing/Huairou events were attended by over 50,000 people. Thus, this 20th anniversary is an important time of both celebration and reflection, not only for those who attended the events, but also for all those who care about and work on the issues enshrined in the BPfA.
The BPfA encompassed 12 “critical areas of concern,” including: 1) women and poverty, 2) education and training of women, 3) women and health, 4) violence against women, 5) women and armed conflict, 6) women and the economy, 7) women in power and decision making, 8) institutional mechanisms for the advancement of women, 9) human rights of women, 10) women and the media, 11) women and the environment, and 12) the girl-child. It is noteworthy how many of these areas overlap, currently and historically, with key thematic concerns and areas of work at the Wellesley Centers for Women!
The Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action (BPfA) advanced the global human rights discourse by establishing the now widely accepted dictum that “women’s rights are human rights” and creating an international framework for the implementation of women’s human rights at the national level across the globe. Viewed together with the 1979 U.N. Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of discrimination against Women (CEDAW), an “international bill of rights for women’s equality,” the BPfA “crystallized normative human rights standards, which are inherent, inalienable, and universal, prioritizing an end to inequality and to discrimination.” It has been referred to as “the most progressive blueprint ever for advancing women’s rights.” (Quotes from U.N. Women, en/about)
Last year, the U.N. launched its Beijing+20 campaign, “Empowering Women, Empowering Humanity: Picture It!”—a theme and approach that resonate with WCW’s longstanding motto, “A world that is good for women is good for everyone.” (Thank you, Susan McGee Bailey, for that!). This year’s U.N. Commission on the Status of Women meetings—known as CSW59—focused on a global review of our progress towards the BPfA targets, including gains, losses, and new developments. Let me say a few words about each.
First of all, some impactful changes that have occurred in the global women’s movement context since 1995 should be noted. Some examples include the emergence of the internet, the rise of transgender identities and politics, the urgency of climate change and other environmental issues, the ascendancy of neoliberal economic frameworks and policies, and the 2008 financial crisis and its after-effects. It is also important to note the launch of the Millennium Development Goals (MDG) framework in 2000, just five years after the BPfA, because it included two explicitly women-and-gender related planks: to promote gender equality (Goal 3) and to improve maternal health (Goal 5). Because of how the MDGs framed and steered the development agenda from 2000 until this year (when the MDGs expire, to be replaced by the U.N.’s Sustainable Development Goals [SDGs] of the Post-2015 development agenda in September), those who identify with the global women’s movement have debated whether the MDGs advanced or constrained women’s and girls’ advancement, since they stockpiled resources with regard to certain objectives and deflected resources away from others. Whether the MDGs were a help or a hindrance, they certainly impacted women and girls in ways that we are still analyzing.
Nevertheless, analysts agree in general that we have made certain notable gains since the BPfA. For example, there have been many legal advances “on the books,” such as the removal of gender discrimination laws and the addition of laws to address violence against women. In general, it can be said that we have achieved gender parity in elementary school enrollment and gains for girls in secondary education in many parts of the world. Furthermore, women’s participation in the labor force has increased, although with little corresponding improvement of working conditions, prospects for advancement, or equal pay. However, the number and proportion of women in national parliaments has increased in many countries (for example, Rwanda achieved a parliament that was >50% women). Finally, there is evidence that female genital mutilation, child marriage, and forced marriage are all declining, although unevenly.
One of the most widely acclaimed outcomes of the BPfA and its invigoration of the global women’s movement has been U.N. Security Council Resolution 1325 on women, peace, and security, which highlights the gendered impacts of modern warfare and institutionalizes women’s participation in conflict-resolution, transitional justice, and peacebuilding processes. UNSCR 1325 grew directly out of women’s highly visible roles in ending civil wars and rebuilding societies in Bosnia and Liberia. The singular effectiveness of autonomous women’s movements is documented in a now widely-cited study by Mala Htun and S. Laurel Weldon, who studied the civic origins of progressive policy change using 40 years of data from 70 countries. They found that feminist mobilization did more to make change benefiting women than either national economic prosperity or the proportion of women in office. This research lets us know that women’s movements—specifically, autonomous feminist organizations—are the real drivers of change as we attempt to realize such international instruments as the BPfA and CEDAW. See Common Documents
That being said, there are still areas of ongoing challenge. For starters, despite efforts mobilized as a result of the MDGs, maternal mortality is still unacceptably high with little change over time. In fact, it is increasing in some places, such as the United States, where mothers now die at twice the rate they did in 2000. Additionally, public and private violence against women persists at alarmingly high levels worldwide—a fact that has been made even more visible thanks to the aid of social media. Sadly, we can also still say that women are limited economically, educationally, and in other ways by their disproportionate share of unpaid care work. And, despite seeming gains, women are still significantly underrepresented at the highest levels of political leadership and their presence in decision-making is limited at all levels.
The global women’s movement is now faced with new challenges. The global rise of fundamentalism and other ultra-conservative positionalities threatens to roll back women’s gains and places thousands of women worldwide in the path of harm daily. Activists worldwide note retrenchment on issues related to sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR) and sexual identity/gender identity, observing that many countries that were once hospitable in these areas have become more conservative and regressive since 1995. Then there is the accelerating global economic polarization (often popularly referred to as “the one percent vs. the 99 percent”) exacerbating the feminization of poverty. The digital divide is creating new issues for women and girls, even as more and more people obtain access to the World Wide Web. Lately, the media has showcased an alarming rise of racism and xenophobia in the U.S. and globally. And, sadly, women and girls who experience multiple and intersecting forms of discrimination or marginalization are still at the bottom—their experience has changed little since 1995.
One interesting and potentially hopeful development is proliferation of social and ecological movements. Today, women’s movements intersect with environmental movements, those for racial, religious, or cultural justice or indigenous rights, justice around sexual orientation and gender expression, disability rights movements, activism for economic justice, food security, and more. Yet, one inherent risk in this proliferation is that there is an accompanying lack of coordination in these movements—a failure to align and amplify one another’s efforts and highlight shared goals. Indeed, at times we observe competition among movements rather than a unified and harmonious press for ending all forms of oppression, marginalization, and violence.
One of my aims as Executive Director of the Wellesley Centers for Women is to make sure that our work—research, theory, and action—contributes to solution-making at global, national, and local levels. As an officially recognized NGO of the U.N. with special consultative status, it is important for members of our community to be involved in key dialogues—inside and outside the U.N. To this end, we direct our work towards policymakers, media outlets (traditional and social), and other key changemakers. You can help us by tuning in to the research, theory, and action projects of ours that interest you, and by bringing them into your own conversations at whatever tables you sit. We are all part of the larger movement for gender equality, social justice, and human wellbeing, and Beijing+20 reminds us of just how powerful we are! It’s time once again to take leadership and accelerate social change!