Governments uphold fundamental rights of women at Beijing Plus Five

UNITED NATIONS - Despite concern by some women's groups that governments might pull back from commitments made at the 1995 Fourth World Conference on Women, delegates from more than 180 nations upheld the fundamental importance of full rights for women worldwide at a Special Session of the UN General Assembly here in June.

Governments at the Special Session, which ran 5-10 June 2000 and was entitled "Women 2000: Gender Equality, Development and Peace for the Twenty-first Century," also made additional commitments to address issues which have gained significance in the past five years, such as women's health and violence against women.

"There was no backward movement on any of the Beijing language and commitments," said UN General Assembly President Theo Ben-Gurirab of Namibia, referring to the ground-breaking Platform for Action, an international agenda for women's empowerment that was adopted at the 1995 Conference, held in Beijing. "That Platform, with its numerous proposals for action, remains fully valid for national and international actions."

Amb. Ben-Gurirab and others said that in many ways the text negotiated and adopted by the Session updates the Platform, further strengthening the international community's commitments in the areas of violence against women; trafficking in women; health, including the right to sexual and reproductive health; education; human rights; poverty, debt relief and globalization; armed conflict; sovereignty; land and inheritance rights for women; and political participation and decision-making.

Nevertheless, some non-governmental organizations (NGOs) expressed disappointment, saying they had hoped governments would go farther in setting specific goals for promoting women's advancement.

"While there have been positive aspects to this review process, we want to register our disappointment," said a statement of the Linkage Caucus, a coalition of NGOs focused on women's issues. "We regret that there was not enough political will on the part of some governments and the UN system to agree on a stronger document with more concrete benchmarks, numerical goals, time-bound targets, indicators, and resources aimed at implementing the Beijing Platform."

The goal of the Special Session, also known as "Beijing Plus Five," was to undertake a review of how well the Platform for Action has been implemented since its adoption five years ago. The Platform, unanimously adopted in Beijing by 189 countries, identified 12 critical areas for action: poverty, education and training, health, violence against women, armed conflict, economy, power and decision-making, institutional mechanisms, human rights, the media, the environment and the girl child. Designed as an agenda for women's empowerment, the Platform's emphasis was not only on achieving equality and eliminating discrimination, but on the integration of women as full and equal partners in all policies and decision-making processes.

More than 2,000 representatives of NGOs attended the June Session, and thousands more participated in NGO-sponsored activities off-site at the Women 2000 forum. These activities included panel discussions, workshops and symposia on issues ranging from the girl child to economic empowerment for women.

Before the Session, governments, UN agencies and NGOs released a number of studies and reports indicating that although much progress has been made by women around the world since 1995, many goals have not been achieved, and in some cases the status of women has deteriorated.

For example, a report issued during the Session by UNIFEM (the United Nations Development Fund for Women) concluded that during the last decade only eight nations have successfully met global agreements to achieve both gender equality in secondary education enrollment and at least a 30 per cent share of women's seats in parliament.

NGOs themselves issued more than 100 "alternative reports," which chronicled the views of NGOs around the world. The alternative report on women in Africa, for example, said that "Women continue to constitute the majority of the poor, lacking access to resources such as land, capital, technology, water and adequate and nutritious food. Global trade negotiations are reinforcing the marginalization of Africa, particularly in the area of property rights, patenting of resources and knowledge."

Many government delegates admitted that they had not achieved everything promised in Beijing. "While progress has been recorded in certain areas, there have been difficulties in others," said Hajia Aisha M.S. Ismail, Nigeria's Minister for Women's Affairs and Youth Development, explaining that the burden of debt and the impact of globalization on the weak economies and institutional structures of developing countries had made it difficult for them to fulfill commitments that require more services for women.

Although most of the negotiations on the document took place in closed session, it was widely reported that some countries, influenced by fundamentalist religious groups and/or the Vatican, sought to reduce the scope of rights granted to women by the Platform for Action, especially in areas relating to reproductive health.

In the end, however, government delegates agreed that governments have a "duty" to "promote and protect all human rights and fundamental freedoms" no matter what a country's "political, economic or cultural" system may be.

"The full realization of all human rights and fundamental freedoms of all women is essential for the empowerment of women," states the Session's final text, known as the "outcome document." "While the significance of national and regional particularities and various historical, cultural and religious backgrounds must be borne in mind, it is the duty of States, regardless of their political, economic and cultural systems, to promote and protect all human rights and fundamental freedoms."

Those areas of the document that go beyond the Platform for Action deal, in general, with issues that have gained significance in the last five years. The provisions related to women and health, for example, put strong emphasis on the gender aspects of the HIV/AIDS pandemic, sexually transmitted infections, malaria and tuberculosis, pointing out their disproportionate impact on women's and girls' health and calling for new policies and measures to address these challenges.

The outcome document also expands the discussion on violence against women, specifically encouraging governments to take steps against "all forms of domestic violence, including marital rape" and to develop measures "to eradicate harmful customary or traditional practices including female genital mutilation, early and forced marriage, and so-called honor crimes that are violations of the human rights of women and girls…"

"This is significant in that it is a step into the 'private' realm," said Amanda Sullivan of Equality Now, an international NGO that fights violence and discrimination against women, explaining that honor crimes include those when a female family member is harmed or murdered for alleged "immoral" behavior. "Many countries have laws or judicial decisions on the record that exempt marital rape from criminal prosecution. So it is really remarkable that we were able to get this language in."

The document makes repeated mention of the important role of NGOs. "The advances that have been made for women internationally since the beginning have largely come at the behest of NGOs," said Bani Dugal Gujral, director of the Bahá'í International Community's Office for the Advancement of Women. "At this conference, we could see that the numbers and networking of women's NGOs are at an all-time high, and governments are without doubt increasingly recognizing the value of NGOs."

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