Perspective: The moral challenge of Beijing + 10

While statistics give the big picture, the individual stories about the everyday burdens that women face around the world are often what touch the soul and stir the conscience.

New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof recently told one such story, about a woman in rural Pakistan who was gang-raped on the orders of the village council. As bizarre as it might seem, the action was a punishment meted out to her and her family because of an accusation that the woman’s brother had had an affair with a high-status woman in the village. (Even worse, Kristof reported, the accusation was false and the brother had in fact been sexually abused by members of the high-status woman’s tribe.)

He described the scene this way in a 29 September 2004 Op-Ed piece: "As members of the high-status tribe danced in joy, four men stripped her naked and took turns raping her. Then they forced her to walk home naked in front of 300 villagers."

That and other such incidents he has reported on led Mr. Kristof to conclude: "I firmly believe that the central moral challenge of this century, equivalent to the struggles against slavery in the 19th century or against totalitarianism in the 20th, will be to address sex inequality in the third world."

Kristof’s observation offers a good starting point as the world approaches the 10th anniversary of the 1995 Fourth World Conference on Women. Held in Beijing, the Conference seemed to mark a high point in the ongoing fight for the advancement of women.

In the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action, the countries of the world committed themselves to the "full implementation of the human rights of women and of the girl child." Moreover, they identified 12 "critical areas of concern" that stood as barriers to the full equality of women.

Among those 12 critical areas were the "persistent and increasing burden of poverty on women," "unequal access to education and training," "inequalities and inadequacies" in access to health care, economic resources, and the media, and "inequality between men and women in the sharing of power and decision-making at all levels."

Another area of concern was violence against women. In the Platform, governments and civil society were also called on to address the "long-standing failure to protect and promote those rights and freedoms in the case of violence against women.… In all societies, to a greater or lesser degree, women and girls are subjected to physical, sexual and psychological abuse that cuts across lines of income, class and culture."

In March 2005, the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women will devote its 49th session to reviewing the implementation of the Platform for Action, in a high-level session that has been dubbed "Beijing + 10."

The UN Secretary General is preparing a report to the Commission that is expected to outline areas of progress and failure. However, early reports from United Nations regional commissions, analysis by non-governmental organizations, and a look at the statistical record indicate that there are many areas of shortfall.

According to The World’s Women 2000, a report of the UN Statistics Division, for example, women still remain far behind men in terms of decision-making power and influence. In 1999, the report said, women represented only about 11 percent of parliamentarians worldwide, up from 9 percent in 1987.

Likewise, although the gender gap in education is closing, in many countries in Africa and Asia primary school enrollment ratios for girls are only about 80 percent of that for boys, according to the report. Nearly two-thirds of the world’s illiterates are women.

Other pressing issues are emerging. In April, at a UN Regional Commission meeting in Lukasa, Zambia, experts said that the HIV/AIDS pandemic is hitting women and girls the hardest, in large part because they are not economically empowered to opt for safe sex. Others at the Zambia meeting noted that the effects of poverty also fall most heavily on African women, who likewise have unequal access to health care and education. And in many parts of Africa, it was reported, customs remain that make women subject to male guardianship.

Last but not least, violence against women remains a worldwide problem. In Europe, domestic violence is thought to be the major cause of death and invalidity for women between 16 and 44 years of age, ahead of cancer, road accidents and even war, according to a 2002 report of the Council of Europe.

War and civil conflict rage in many countries as well, and they often have a disproportionate impact on women. Women and children make up the bulk of refugees in war. And, increasingly, rape is being used as a weapon of war, according to reports from the former Yugoslavia, Sudan, and elsewhere.

When governments gather for the high level segment of Beijing + 10, there should be no shirking of accountability. Having adopted the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action, not to mention numerous human rights covenants and treaties that implicitly and explicitly uphold the rights of women, governments retain the primary responsibility for protecting the rights of women.

On the same line, governments must not even entertain the idea of rolling back any of the hard-won commitments agreed to in Beijing. While there have been calls in some quarters for a reconsideration of the Declaration and Platform for Action, the march of history is moving steadily towards more rights for women, not fewer, and no one should be fooled into thinking otherwise.

At the same time, it must also be acknowledged that governments can only do so much in the face of entrenched social attitudes that give the lion’s share of power, authority, and status to men in most cultures and societies.

And here is where organizations of civil society — especially faith-based communities — must play a special role.

In many, if not most, of the world’s societies and cultures, the chief vehicle for the transmission of values is religion and religious belief — a fact that must be reckoned with by the representatives of governments, international agencies, and civil society organizations that gather for Beijing + 10.

Too often, of course, religious belief and/or the interpretation of religious belief have been used to reinforce the supremacy of men and the subjugation of women. Indeed, recent UN Conferences have seen an increasing participation by groups that cling to such ideas.

Bahá'ís believe, however, that the underlying truth of all of the world’s religions upholds the moral and spiritual equality of women and men. And the Bahá'í Faith itself, an independent religion founded in our own age, quite explicitly endorses women’s equality.

"In the estimation of God there is no distinction of sex," said ‘Abdu’l-Bahá. "One whose thought is pure, whose education is superior, whose scientific attainments are greater, whose deeds of philanthropy excel, be that one man or woman, white or colored, is entitled to full rights and recognition; there is no differentiation whatsoever...."

Just as governments must begin to shoulder their responsibilities for implementing and enforcing the human rights outlined in the Beijing documents and elsewhere, it is time for the leaders of the world’s religious communities to advocate for the full advancement of women.

Many religious leaders, representing the world’s major religions, have come forward in support of equality for women and men.

Others, however, have hung back, enmeshed largely in man-made interpretations and timeworn customs — captives of poorly considered theological understandings.

Those who argue that their own religious teachings do not support the emancipation of women would do well to look at the analogy offered by Nicholas Kristof: that of slavery. In the past, at various times and places, religious leaders have given all sorts of theological reasons to support the keeping of slaves, and/or to justify the enforcement of unequal treatment between the races.

Today, however, every credible authority utterly rejects slavery and its antecedent, racism. And those who once sought to make theological arguments in support of slavery have been utterly discredited, relegated to the famous dustbin of history.

In the same way, there can be no doubt that those who continue to argue for the repression of women will likewise end up on the wrong side of time’s forward march.

In a sense, the governments of the world have already recognized this. The Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action, now nearly 10 years old, reflect the widespread realization by the majority of the world’s peoples that the time has come for full equality between women and men.

As the world prepares for Beijing + 10, governments should ponder this. So should those who would marshal any kind of theological argument against the continuing advancement of women.