Beijing Conference approves "An Agenda for Women's Empowerment"

In Brief: 

Platform for Action asks governments and NGO's to commit to "the principle of shared power and responsiblility between women and men"

BEIJING -- Acknowledging that equality between women and men is an essential prerequisite for the creation of a "peaceful, just, humane and equitable world," representatives of 189 nations at the Fourth World Conference on Women adopted a sweeping Declaration and Platform for Action aimed at launching a global campaign to bring women into full and equal participation in all spheres of public and private life worldwide.

"The Platform for Action is an agenda for women's empowerment," states the first line of the Conference's main document. "This means that the principle of shared power and responsibility should be established between women and men at home, in the workplace and in the wider national and international communities. Equality between women and men is a matter of human rights and a condition for social justice and is also a necessary and fundamental prerequisite for equality, development and peace."

"Equality between women and men is a matter of human rights and a condition for social justice and is also a necesary and fundamental prerequisite for equality, development and peace."

-- Platform for Action, Fourth World, Conference on Women

Held 4-15 September, the Conference was reportedly the largest international meeting ever convened under United Nations auspices, with some 17,000 people registered. Its goal was to review progress on women's issues since the Third World Conference on Women, held in Nairobi in 1985, adopted the "Forward-looking Strategies for the Advancement of Women" and to establish a new priority of actions for the next five years.

In this regard, there was general acknowledgment that the final version of the Platform for Action did indeed represent an advance in elaborating the major concerns of women around the world and in establishing new priorities and a consensus for action to promote their advancement.

"My dear sisters and brothers, we have made it!" declared Gertrude Mongella, Secretary-General of the Conference, in her closing statement on 15 September. "We have managed to transcend historical and cultural complexities; we have managed to transcend socioeconomic disparities and diversities; we have kept aflame our common vision and goal of equality, development and peace. In a number of areas, we have significantly expanded the horizons of previous Conferences."

The Platform for Action dealt with 12 critical areas of concern: poverty, education, health, violence against women, armed conflict, economic structures, power sharing and decision-making, mechanisms to promote the advancement of women, human rights, the media, the environment, and the girl child.

Taboo Subjects Addressed

In a number of these issue areas, the Platform confronts subjects which were previously taboo, in international discussions at least, such as domestic and sexual abuse, forced pregnancy and the role of degrading or pornographic materials in generating violence against women. These and other topics related to human rights, reproductive health and sexual orientation were often the source of much controversy prior to and during the Conference.

In the end, however, the governments of the world reached a high degree of consensus on all of these issues, creating what many observers hope will be a new international momentum to address not only these subjects but the issue of women's equality and rights in general.

"The documents are a big step beyond the Nairobi document, which was itself a huge step forward for women worldwide," said Mary Power, director of the Bahá'í International Community's Office for the Advancement of Women. "And the fact that some 189 governments have agreed, after much contention and a thorough debate, to move forward with a document of this nature, setting a global agenda for women's empowerment, must be considered as an historic action."

Many of the action steps of the Platform were aimed at bringing women into positions of power and influence, circles from which they have been largely excluded. The Platform notes, for example, that women represent only 10 percent of all elected legislators worldwide.

To redress this imbalance, the Platform urges governments to "commit themselves to establishing the goal of gender balance in governmental bodies and committees, as well as in public administrative entities, and in the judiciary, including, inter alia, setting specific targets and implementing measures to substantially increase the number of women with a view to achieving equal representation of women and men, if necessary through positive action, in all governmental and public administration positions."

NGOs Highly Involved

In both the Conference itself, and in the recommendations of the Platform for Action, the role of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) has been highlighted perhaps more strongly than ever before. NGOs were key players in pushing governments to make specific commitments and in suggesting compromise language for the Conference's final documents; those same documents also look toward NGOs as key players in implementing the actions they recommend.

The Conference's Declaration, which exists as a sort of preamble to the Platform for Action, declares that: "The participation and contribution of all actors of civil society, particularly women's groups and networks and other non- governmental organizations and community-based organizations, with full respect for their autonomy, in cooperation with Governments, are important to the effective implementation and follow-up of the Platform for Action."

In virtually every section of the Platform for Action, a list of recommended "actions to be taken" includes not only steps which governments should take but also those to be taken by NGOs.

"NGOs are having quite a position of importance and a lot of influence in this Conference.

The fact that governments are begining to listen carefully to what NGos are saying is a positive move."

-- Platform for Action, Fourth World, Conference on Women

During the Conference itself, NGOs, following a suggestion made earlier this year by the Government of Australia, began to record the promises or "commitments" made by government delegations in their main speeches to the Conference plenary. A "commitments" board was put up in a main hallway, and a record of just what each government promised to do was posted. These extracurricular commitments, as recorded by NGOs, range from a pledge by Cote d'Ivoire to have 100% of girls enrolled in schools by the year 2000 to a promise by India to increase education investment to 6% of GDP (gross domestic product) with a focus on women and girls, and to set up a commission for women's rights.

"NGOs are having quite a position of importance and a lot of influence in this Conference," said Christabel Motsa, a member of the government delegation from Swaziland. "Governments need input from people who are out there working with the people, and the fact that governments are beginning to listen carefully to what NGOs are saying is a positive move."