At the UN, women rally to preserve advances gained in Beijing

Ten-year review of 1995 Fourth World Conference on Women finds a mixed record of gains and delays on women's rights worldwide and sees a large turnout of NGOs.

UNITED NATIONS — For two weeks in March, the stately halls of the glass and steel UN building took on a distinctly different look and feel.

Thousands of women representing grassroots organizations from all over the world descended on this center of international diplomacy, bringing with them a colorful diversity that was reminiscent of the vibrant atmosphere at a previous UN conference held some ten years ago in Beijing.

In multihued Indian saris, bright African print dresses, and modest Muslim headscarves, women packed the basement-level conference rooms and upper-level assembly halls here, anxious to ensure that governments do not roll back any of the hard-won rights and prerogatives promised at the 1995 Fourth World Conference on Women.

They succeeded, in large part, winning from governments at the 49th session of the Commission on the Status of Women a clearly worded declaration that reaffirmed the commitments made in Beijing, connected the Beijing promises to the Millennium Development Goals, and pledged further action towards their full implementation.

“The full and effective implementation of the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action is essential to achieving the internationally agreed development goals, including those contained in the Millennium Declaration,” stated the Commission's declaration.

Held 28 February–11 March 2005, the Commission also adopted ten wide-ranging resolutions aimed at further improving women's status. They included texts on the possible appointment of a special rapporteur on discrimination against women, on trafficking in women, and on the importance of gender perspective in relation to women's economic advancement.

“Without doubt, the participation of thousands of women activists in the Beijing review process had its impact on governments,” said Bani Dugal, chair of the NGO Committee on the Status of Women. “The diversity of women represented ­from every region, along with the evident participation of younger women, demonstrated the strength of the global women's movement — and its commitment to seeing that the governments of the world fulfill the promises made in Beijing.”

Ms. Dugal, who is also the principal representative of the Bahá'í International Community to the United Nations, said that more than 2,700 representatives of Non-Governmental Organizations participated in the Commission, a record-breaking number for NGOs at a UN commission meeting.

Evaluating Beijing 's milestone

The 1995 Beijing Conference has been widely viewed as a milestone in international efforts to promote the advancement of women. Representatives of 189 nations adopted a sweeping Declaration and Platform for Action that sought to launch a global campaign to bring women into full and equal participation in all spheres of public and private life worldwide.

Held 4-15 September 1995, the Conference was one of the largest international meetings ever convened under United Nations auspices, with some 17,000 people registered. Many were representatives of non-governmental organizations, which also held their own parallel NGO Forum, drawing more than 20,000 people.

In addition to an overall agenda for women's empowerment, the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action dealt with 12 critical areas of concern for women: 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.

The Commission meeting in March 2005 was charged with reviewing the success governments have had in implementing the Platform for Action. By all accounts, the record was mixed.

Some 95 governments spoke at a high-level plenary session during the first week of the Commission, and the majority were represented at the ministerial level. For the most part, government representatives told of progress at implementing Beijing Platform for Action goals. But many were also frank about shortcomings.

“Despite many achievements in the implementation of the Declaration and Beijing Platform for Action, we have identified some gaps and challenges that persist, such as women's disproportionate representation among the poor; the high prevalence rate of HIV/AIDS among women; the low level of women's participation in decision making at various levels; continued violence against women, including trafficking in women and children; gender stereotyping; and lack of sex-disaggregated data and gender statistics,” said Meutia Farida Hatta Swasono, Indonesia's state minister for Women's Empowerment.

At the center of many discussions was a report to the Commission by the UN Secretary General that sought to present an overview of progress and failure in meeting Beijing goals. On the positive side, the report said, Beijing had fostered a dramatic change worldwide in attitudes towards women's rights.

“Over the past 10 years, the status and role of women has undergone a significant change on a global scale although not at an equal pace in all regions,” said the report, which was issued on 6 December 2004.

Yet, the report added, a “large gap remains between policy and practice in promotion of gender equality.”

Positive trends detailed by the report included a greater emphasis on women's rights as human rights, a stronger commitment by governments to gender mainstreaming, and the passage of more national-level legislation to eliminate discrimination and promote gender equality.

“Many Governments also noted an increase in women's organizations and networks and their critical advocacy role, for example in relation to violence against women,” the report added. “They also reported enhancing collaboration with NGOs and civil society groups and networks.”

As well, the report said, there have been statistical improvements in the number of girls in school, in women's poverty, in women's health, and in the representation of women in public life.

Shortfalls in implementation

At the same time, however, the report noted many shortfalls in implementation, including low levels of women's representation in decision-making positions, stereotypical attitudes and discriminatory practices, and occupational segregation.

“Violence against women, including domestic violence, was noted as a major challenge worldwide, with several African countries reporting continuing harmful practices,” the report said. “In some regions, in particular in Africa, parts of Asia and Latin America and the Caribbean, Governments noted disproportionately high poverty levels among women and insufficient access to or control of economic resources.”

Both the report and others at the Commission also identified several new areas of special concern in relation to women's rights and advancement worldwide. In particular, there was much discussion of the impact of HIV/AIDs on women, the impact of war and conflict on women, and the general acknowledgment that trafficking in women has emerged as a major global concern.

“HIV/AIDS continues to pose serious global challenges to realizing the goals set for the advancement of women,” said Glenda Simms, executive Director of the Bureau of Women's Affairs in Jamaica, in a speech on behalf of the Group of 77 at the Commission's high-level plenary. “The statistics are now showing that the rate of infection and spread of the disease is now more pronounced among the populations of women and girls in many countries.

“For the majority of women in the developing world, access to affordable drugs to treat the disease, the growing number of children being orphaned by the disease, or stigmatized for being infected with it remains problematic. We must therefore spare no effort in the battle to solve the problem of the spread of HIV/AIDS,” said Dr. Simms.

Violence a concern

Dr. Simms and others also said that violence against women was a major human rights concern, and a high priority for international action.

“The acts of violence, be [they] in the public or private life of women, are a violation of their human rights,” said Ambassador Juliana di Tullio, Argentina's International Special Representative on Women's Issues, also speaking on behalf of the Rio Group. “One of the principal goals of the countries of our region is to design adequate policies to eliminate all forms of violence against women, especially domestic violence, both physical and psychological.”

Amb. Tullio said such programs must include a wide range of actions, including the integration of men and boys, community campaigns of public education, and the strengthening of social services. “We will not tolerate any form of violence against women and girls,” she said.

The Declaration also establishes a link between the Platform and the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), stating that “the full and effective implementation of the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action is essential to achieving the internationally agreed development goals, including those contained in the Millennium Declaration.”

“The positive thing accomplished at the Commission is that all 191 member states of the United Nations reaffirmed their commitment to the Beijing Platform for Action, and stated that the MDGs cannot be met unless member states dedicate their efforts to advancing the status of women in their countries,” said Ms. Dugal, of the NGO Committee on the Status of Women.

“Because we know that if the ultimate aim of the MDGs is to halve poverty by 2015, and we know that it is women and children who are the most marginalized in poverty stricken parts of the world, then it is important to recognize that unless countries act to alleviate the conditions faced by women, they cannot effectively meet the goal of halving poverty,” said Ms. Dugal.

Unusual measures for NGOs

Among the most important features of the 1995 Beijing conference was the high-level of involvement by NGOs — and the subsequent commitment in the Platform for Action for on-going partnership with civil society in addressing women's issues.

The continuing interest and activism of women's organizations and other groups was clear at the Commission. Some 2,700 non-governmental organizations registered to participate in the meeting, a figure up by nearly 1,000 over the number of NGOs registered for the Beijing Plus Five conference in New York in 2000 and about 1,700 more than a typical Commission meeting.

In response to the record-breaking attendance, the UN took a number of unusual measures to accommodate their participation. Extra processing stations to provide building security passes were set up and kept open late on the night before the Commission. As well, special food service areas were set up within the building and on the grounds to accommodate the anticipated extra numbers of people. And several basement-level conference rooms were equipped with large television screens so that the overflow crowds of NGO representatives could watch the high-level session.

“The Commission's secretariat really worked hard to make NGO participation as effective as possible,” said Ms. Dugal.

NGOs also organized a one-day Forum before the Commission. Hosted at Barnard College on the upper west side of Manhattan, the event showcased the degree to which women's groups have successfully organized to lobby the UN — and also reached high levels in governments and in the UN system itself. In some cases, women have moved back and forth between NGOs and governments in revolving door fashion.

For example, the Forum's keynote speaker was Ambassador Kyung-wha Kang of South Korea, the chair of the Commission. During the 1995 Beijing conference, she was a member of a Korean-based women's NGO.

Another speaker at the Forum was Patricia Licuanan, who represented NGOs in Asia and the Pacific. Ten years ago in Beijing, however, she was on the government delegation from the Philippines, and acted as chairperson of the Main Committee of the Fourth World Conference on Women.

Other notable women in attendance at the Forum included Zanele Mbeki, the First Lady of South Africa.

One of the main concerns of those gathered at the 2005 Forum was that governments not be allowed to re-open and retract any of the commitments to women's rights that were made in Beijing .

Indeed, one of the key efforts undertaken by NGOs during the first week of the Commission was to convince the United States government to back away from language it wanted to insert into the draft Declaration regarding abortion. That language, which according to news accounts sought to state that the Beijing accords “do not create any new international human rights, and that they do not include the right to abortion,” was viewed as a challenge to the overall advance of women's right by many groups.

In NGO caucus sessions during the week, NGO representatives were urged to call their governments to express concern about the US-submitted amendment. The tactics apparently worked, as by week's end, the amendment was dropped.

“One of the things we have shown, simply by the numbers of our registration, is that the women's movement is alive and kicking,” said Charlotte Bunch, Director of the Center for Women's Global Leadership at Rutgers University. “We are still a global force and the Beijing Platform for action has a constituency. It is not a document only. It represents the life, blood, sweat, and tears of women all over the world.”