I was recently among a few thousand people at the public launch of a year-long UN Women campaign marking 20 years since the Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing. Women leaders, celebrities, officials and activists of all ages came together with musicians and performers in New York’s iconic Apollo Theater on 26 June to celebrate the landmark summit which made the slogan “women’s rights are human rights” universal.
In 1995, as a graduate student volunteering with the New York-based Women’s Environment and Development Organization, I went to Beijing, one of more than 30,000 women’s advocates in the NGO Forum in Huairou.
‘Beijing’ symbolized the moment when, as feminist leader Charlotte Bunch put it, “all issues came together. Crossing borders and boundaries, race, culture, class, sexual orientation, age, diversity was key to women’s success in Beijing.” Women’s work and tireless advocacy were in large part behind the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action with its 12 critical areas of concern. To date, it is the most comprehensive bill of women’s rights that women have won by consensus.
Much has since changed for the world’s women and girls – in health, education, work, rights and opportunities. But celebrations of Beijing are tempered with unfulfilled promises. Today just over a fifth of the world’s parliamentarians are women. Thirty-five percent of women have experienced some form of physical or sexual violence. Thirty million girls are at risk of female genital mutilation in the next decade. Women make up more than half the world’s population living with HIV. More laws codify rather than combat inequality. Conflicts increasingly target civilians, using women and girls as weapons of war.
Speakers called attention to several horrific crimes of violence against women that have made global headlines – in Delhi, Steubenville, U.S. military, Eastern Congo, Nigeria, Pakistan, Iraq, Syria. Twenty years after Beijing, it is a sad commentary on our world today, on our laws, societies and attitudes, that women continue to face escalating violence in all forms – often for speaking out and standing up for their rights. Just the day before, Libyan leader and women’s rights advocate Salwa Bugaighis had been assassinated, highlighting the special dangers faced by women’s human rights defenders.
The human race, said Gloria Steinem simply, is like “a bird with two wings. When one wing is broken, no one can fly.”
The celebratory setting was not the space to ask the hard and essential questions of why we have not done more to realize what Beijing envisioned. But these questions and their answers must form the basis of the campaign, even as new goals and commitments are sought from governments.
The Beijing anniversary is an opportunity, said, UN Women Executive Director Phumzile Mlambo-Ngucka, “to position gender equality, women’s rights and women’s empowerment at the centre of the post-2015 global agenda and make it a reality.”
So as we launch Beijing+20, it is time for truthful assessments and concrete actions to advance the time-worn and yet timeless Beijing Platform. It is also long past time for men and boys to unequivocally be part of any renewed agenda for women’s rights and empowerment.