A pair of incredible events with one stated goal—the empowerment and advancement of women and girls everywhere—took place fifteen years ago in Beijing. The official UN conference drew 189 national governments to negotiate a global agreement, and 50,000 women and men activists gathered for a nongovernmental organization (NGO) meeting in parallel with the formal meeting.
A Personal Context
As a women’s equality advocate, I was exhilarated to be a U.S. delegate to the official UN Fourth World Conference for Women—and was deeply hopeful for positive results.
Being in Beijing was a life-changing experience that not only brought me a series of powerful impressions, but also guided my future work. The amazing kaleidoscope of colors of women and men in national dress was stunning, especially compared to most of the Western delegates looking pale and somber in the usual dark business suits. Before my eyes was a global picture of womankind. We were electrified by then First Lady Hillary Clinton’s ringing words, “Women’s rights are human rights and human rights are women’s rights.” Presidents and ministers from a variety of countries highlighted the urgency of women’s empowerment as a cornerstone for thriving economies and democracies as well as for justice and human rights. Talking with women from Eastern Europe, Asia, Latin America, and Africa opened a window into the incredible sacrifices many participants made to be part of this event, the difficult road they faced, and their hunger for more interaction with American women.
Despite my enthusiasm, nagging questions were on my mind about whether this conference would produce any real results. Would it be anything more than a wonderful opportunity to network and learn from women across the globe? Could an international meeting with countries starting from such divergent social, cultural, and legal places on achieving equality really serve as a catalyst for global action? Could nonbinding international agreements actually help women and girls by spurring policy action? Would Beijing make any real difference in women’s lives?
Beijing Achieves Positive Impact Globally but Less So in the United States
My answer is a qualified yes. The Beijing Platform for Action that was agreed on by all 189 countries (with a few provisos by many, including the United States) created benchmarks for achieving women’s empowerment and advancement as an investment for societies. Here was a road map for women’s full participation in every aspect of society—economic and employment opportunities, health and education, prevention of violence against women, the “Girl Child” (of particular importance to African delegates), land and inheritance rights, family law, participation in decision-making, and the role of the media.
A U.S. vantage point does not provide much insight into the potential of Beijing to spur change, as concerted action lasted only five years until the 2000 election. The World Economic Forum Gender Gap Report, which shows comparative national progress on closing the gender gap in major areas of society, ranks the United States as thirty-first with countries further up the list including the Philippines, Lesotho, South Africa, Sri Lanka, Argentina, and Mongolia, as well as other Western countries. Today, despite the reality that American women comprise more than half the workforce, are a consumer powerhouse, and are educated at much greater proportions than men, the United States is far from being a world leader on many critical gender issues.
We lag on ratification of the women’s human rights treaty, the UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), on securing constitutional protection under an Equal Rights Amendment, on equal pay, on representation in decision-making, on addressing disparate male/female poverty rates, and on moving on supportive policies for working parents. With Congress composed of 17 percent women—our best-ever number—the United States is ranked seventy-first in the world in terms of women in the top levels of government. By comparison, in 1995, the United States was forty-second, so others have clearly passed us by. While Norway, France, the Netherlands, and Spain are legislating quotas of 30 to 40 percent women on all corporate boards to improve competitiveness, McKinsey reports that three-quarters of Fortune 1500 companies do not have a single woman on their board.
Despite vigorous issue-by-issue advocacy, without realizing it, American women are experiencing the loss of tools to achieve legislative change that have proven so valuable in other countries. A wider look at what has happened in other countries since 1995 makes a strong case for the importance of accountability for forward momentum to advance women’s empowerment by utilizing goals, benchmarks, and metrics to continuously monitor and press for further actions. It is worth asking why the commitments of other countries to the Platform for Action—not a legally binding agreement—have made action possible, even probable.
A primary goal coming out of Beijing was for member states to ratify CEDAW and create a legal basis for change within each country—a goal met by all but seven countries since 1995. Other factors are also important. Certainly, the power of consensus with the world watching has been used effectively to press governmental action elsewhere, but has limited leverage in a society that complacently assumes it is the best. Formal UN General Assembly action on the Millennium Development Goals, which includes a gender-specific goal, as well as major post-Beijing checkpoints at five, ten, and fifteen years, has helped keep the spotlight on. Most critically, the vigorous engagement and monitoring of NGOs from the world over that continually reference their country’s acceptance of the Beijing Platform has provided ongoing pressure for change.
Progress has obviously been uneven as politics, culture, religious practices, economic ups-and-downs, wars, and natural disasters have interrupted the positive trend line in many countries, but the record is clear. The Beijing Platform has resulted in considerable positive movement toward equality for the world’s women and girls in the last fifteen years.
As U.S. ambassador to the UN Commission on the Status of Women, I watched annual form-above-substance meetings change before my eyes as countries began to compete with peers to proclaim progress for women and girls. It is heartening to see governments—and not just women’s activists—engaged in opening up basic education for girls in many Middle East and African nations (including some like Pakistan, where less than 20 percent of girls were educated past the third grade). Within the first five years after Beijing, constitutional amendments were enacted, ensuring equal protection under the law in virtually all Latin American countries. Numerous countries, pressed by NGOs, used the Platform for Action to press for the passage of strong laws on violence against women, including trafficking, genital mutilation, wife burning, child brides, and “honor crimes.”
Most impressive to me was watching a new mindset take hold that women are the most underutilized resource in the world—seeing the power and potential of women’s talents and skills as essential for countries to succeed—not a deficit approach focusing solely on women’s problems. Much remains to be done. Women are all-too-often poor, discriminated against, used as sexual objects, and lacking in full opportunity and human rights. Corrective action is essential. The priority governments place on closing the gender gap and meeting the needs of women is higher when the societal impact is seen as positive to economic and democratic vibrancy, not only as an exercise in helping victims.
With the World Bank (pressed by women activists inside and outside to change their approach) and the UN Development Fund for Women (UNIFEM) as leading voices, international development policy has changed dramatically. The newer paradigm based on careful studies bets on women as drivers of economic stability and growth. Providing education for girls and opening up economic opportunity, particularly through microenterprise lending; focusing attention on safe motherhood; and stopping human rights abuses and the spread of HIV-AIDs in women have become global phenomena.
Governments on every continent except North America—101 in all—have established legal, constitutional, or party changes to improve the representation of women in public policy-making, a direct outcome of Beijing. Goldman Sachs research now estimates that empowering women would raise the gross domestic product by 9 percent in this country and 13 percent in the developing world. Conclusive data from McKinsey, the World Economic Forum, and Catalyst is fueling changes in business practices to call for a critical mass of women in boardrooms and corner offices to increase profitability and long-term sustainability.
The Beijing Conference was the catalyst for “seeing the world through a gender lens,” which galvanized NGO and governmental action and resulted in some important policy trends with considerable impact on women’s lives. While it could certainly do more, the United Nations has continued to be a central leader for women’s empowerment, with vigorous NGO advocacy continuously raising the stakes. Here is a sampling of post-Beijing trends.
Major Trends Post-Beijing
1. Education of Girls and Women
Over the years prior to Beijing, many studies showed that the education of girls had both short- and long-term effects, including smaller families, often with increased income from women’s formal or informal work, and more attention to health, education, and nutrition for children. An additional but nonquantifiable benefit is the increased value placed on girls in the family when schooling for them becomes the norm and, over time, subtly changes the cultural pattern that only boys are considered important.
Attention to this issue in Beijing prompted a great deal of action in countries that had the largest gap between education of girls and boys in primary school. While the goal of parity in education is still a long way from being met, progress has been substantial. According to UN figures, enrollment of girls in primary school is 97 percent in developed regions and 87 percent in developing regions. A number of countries have addressed girls’ schooling as a national priority, with impressive results by opening new schools or classrooms for girls, recruiting and training women teachers, providing incentives to parents, and providing uniforms (a major problem for poor families).
2. Women’s Role in Peace and Security
The concept that women play an important role in promoting peace, security, and reconstruction in areas of conflict attained prominence in Beijing with a powerful call for strengthening the role of women in national reconciliation and reconstruction coupled with punishing those who perpetuate violence against women as a weapon of war. Civilians—overwhelmingly women and children—comprise up to 90 percent of the victims of modern wars; there remains a crying need for women to be involved to assure that their security is guaranteed. One only needs to see the news from Afghanistan, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and other war zones to understand the problem. Mary Robinson, former president of Ireland and UN high commissioner for Human Rights, has summarized these efforts well: “Stronger efforts to promote the role of women in peace and security must focus on empowering women to speak for themselves in the development of policies and programs that affect them directly.”
The sea change in thinking from Beijing has resulted in a series of UN Resolutions. Security Council Resolution 1325 in 2000 and three subsequent implementing resolutions have moved the role of women from conversations among women to the mainstream of Security Council deliberations. Women’s participation in maintaining the peace, as well as ending sexual violence (particularly rape as an instrument of war), is gaining strength and prominence. In response, Secretary General Ban Ki-moon has appointed Margot Wallstrom as a special representative on Sexual Violence in Conflict. Increased representation of women in decision-making in former conflict zones offers promise of changing the old ways: Rwanda, with a female majority in its Parliament, now leads the world; Liberia has a woman as president; and Sri Lanka and South Africa best the United States in rankings of closing the gender gap.
3. Participation in Decision Making and Governing with a Gender Lens
Perhaps one of the trends from Beijing with the greatest impact across the board has been the call for a critical mass of 30 percent women in decision-making as a route to hearing the voices, concerns, and ideas of women in democracies. This trend has not diluted a call for parity, but there is recognition that women are unlikely to achieve that goal without an effective strategy. UNIFEM has shown that countries with quotas are seeing major change; those without, like the United States, see only slow, incremental progress. Although there are great disparities among nations, the Intra-Parliamentary Union notes that, in general, developed countries are expected to cross the 30 percent line in 2017, and developing countries, a decade later.
Women who are in powerful positions and champion equality and justice come together in various global organizations like the Council of Women World Leaders and the International Association of Women Judges to increase the impact of having more women at power tables. Recognizing the potential of changing who makes decisions has taken hold in many areas across the globe. UNIFEM reports on two major longitudinal studies: In Norway, a review of the availability of child care in municipalities found a positive strong correlation based on the proportion of women on the council. In India, the panchayat (local village councils) must by law have one-third women members, and one-third of all councils chosen by lot must have a woman leader. Female-led councils like West Bengal’s saw a 60 percent increase in drinking-water projects compared to those of male-led councils, solving a major problem for village women.
Having a critical mass of women in decision-making roles has reached into the private sector as well, with governmental and voluntary action focused on changing the prime actors to achieve balanced leadership and take advantage of a wide range of women’s strengths (such as being more risk-aware, building teams and partnerships effectively, and managing twenty-first century workforces well). Governance changes have followed the democratization of power relations public decision-making, with gender-responsive policy analysis and gender budgeting as important subsequent steps to equalize the playing field.
4. Increased Action to End Women’s Human Rights Abuses and Promote Women’s Legal Rights
Through the Beijing Platform, we see increased attention to ending abuses of women and girls that endanger and harm them, but traditionally had been accepted as cultural or religious practices and generally not subject to legal sanction. Female genital mutilation, “honor” killings, child brides, wife burning, trafficking for sexual or other exploitation, rape, domestic violence—all have come under attack by women in their own countries and through media and international forums. Progress is slow, but legal changes in many places are beginning to limit these dangerous violations of women’s human rights. Major international initiatives are working to limit trafficking through prevention, enforce prosecution of traffickers, and provide services to women and girls who have been trafficked. Increased attention to women’s health, including reproductive health and safe motherhood initiatives to address the still sky-high maternal mortality figures, is helping women who have been victims of many of these abusive practices.
Another area of increased prominence is the improvement of women’s legal rights. Kuwait joined the rest of the world in permitting women to vote in 2005. Other efforts have focused on women’s ability to attend higher education, serve in public office and on juries, own land or a business, have rights of inheritance, obtain divorce under certain conditions, and provide for equal say in the lives of their children. The world map is spotty on how much has been done. In an analysis of the progress of the world’s women for the fifteenth anniversary of Beijing, UNIFEM identified the pressing need for strengthened judicial systems and “rule-of-law reforms to address women’s needs.”
Looking at what has happened across the globe since the Beijing Conference fifteen years ago provides both appreciation for progress and concerns for the future. To celebrate this anniversary, there were great preparations in the NGO community, many countries assessed their own progress, and regional meetings and online discussions were held. Strong concerns were raised about the lagging performance on the gender-related Millennium Development Goals, with a pointed question about how poverty could be eliminated without including half the world’s population. Newer issues such as the economic crisis and climate change received increased attention.
However, the fifteen-year review was performed at the level of the Commission on the Status of Women, not the UN General Assembly (in U.S. terms, this would be like having a subcommittee as the top authority rather than the House or Senate). We have moved from world conferences drawing tens of thousands to five-year reviews at decreasing levels of influence. Movements for additional world conferences have failed because of the lack of member state support. Unfortunately, the Beijing Platform could become less relevant as a tool for advancing women.
Ranged against that is positive change—the creation of the UN Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women (UN Women) replaced four smaller and underfunded agencies. With a strong leader as the new undersecretary general to head the agency and an adequate budget, further progress could be forthcoming.
Where does this leave us? There is an inexorable wave of change to advance and empower women as a matter of human rights and economic reality. Having widely agreed-upon benchmarks like the Beijing Platform and regular reporting intervals like CEDAW and Beijing anniversary reviews has helped activists hold their governments accountable and make progress faster.