Diplomats, government representatives and women’s advocates will meet in New York throughout the week as part of a special session of the U.N. General Assembly: “Women 2000: Gender Equality, Development and Peace for the 21st Century.”
The purpose of the meeting, informally referred to as Beijing +5, is to assess how well world governments lived up to the promises made during the 1995 Fourth World Conference on Women, held in Beijing.
That convergence of women from around the globe received worldwide attention for its miserable weather, disorganization and the surly attitude of the host country, the People’s Republic of China. Less well-known is the fact that, out of this rain-sodden chaos, a blueprint emerged that many regard as the backbone of a newly energized international women’s human rights movement.
The Beijing Platform for Action identified 12 key areas affecting the advancement of women worldwide, such as unequal access to education, economic resources, health care, and decision-making, as well as the feminization of poverty and the impact of armed conflict.
Most important, it outlined specific measures for nations to take to promote women’s equality, in effect, placing the burden of women’s advancement squarely on the shoulders of the 189 governments that attended the conference.
As of May 9, 120 nations have filed action plans with the United Nations describing actions taken to improve the status of women since Beijing. One hundred forty five nations have returned U.N. questionnaires about the progress made by women in their countries. While these documents are likely to put the best possible face on an often tepid commitment to women’s rights, they are still important, said Charlotte Bunch, executive director of the Center for Women’s Global Leadership.
“What these governments feel they have to say to satisfy the demands of the women at home gives us a measure of the extent to which women have progressed,” Bunch explained. The reports can also serve as something tangible for women to grapple with in the push for progress, she added.
Non-governmental organizations such as women’s advocates, community organizers, and human rights activists have been asked to compile their own statements as counterpoints to government’s sunny self-assessments. Those organizations will be doing some self-assessment, too. One of the goals of Beijing +5 is to evaluate what works and what doesn’t in promoting women’s human rights.
Final grades are likely to be mixed. While many governments have added language to their constitutions promising equal rights to women and instituted programs to combat issues such as domestic violence, the actual dollars committed are often inadequate, Bunch said. She has proposed that setting specific targets for women’s progress should be one of the goals of Beijing +5. One of the targets would be the universal ratification of the Convention to Eliminate All Forms of Discrimination Against Women . While 165 nations–more than two-thirds of U.N. members–have ratified CEDAW, as the document is called, one notable holdout is the host country, the United States.
Diane Hammer, administrative director of the Simmons Institute for Leadership and Change in Boston, calls the U.S. failure to ratify CEDAW “mind-boggling” and “demoralizing.” But Massachusetts women will not let it slow them down, she said.
Since Beijing, she noted, they have won some important victories, such as the establishment of a permanent Commission on the Status of Women and, in preparation for Beijing +5, a review of the status of women and girls throughout Massachusetts.
“We keep marching forward,” she said.
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