UNITED NATIONS (WOMENSENEWS)–Since the fourth world conference on women in Beijing 10 years ago, governments worldwide have made strides in setting policies and introducing laws to protect women’s rights and promote female empowerment.

But in an increasingly conservative social and political climate, turning those policies into actions has turned out to be much more difficult.

This week, government delegates and women’s organizations from around the world will gather at the United Nations headquarters in New York to evaluate what progress has and has not been made in reaching the goals for gender equality that were set in Beijing. The meeting will run until March 11.

Women’s groups remain cautious about asking for too much out of the official meeting, saying that they hope to hold government officials to promises made 10 years ago.

“There is a widespread feeling that we can’t get anything better, so we should just focus on pressuring governments to fulfill their commitments,” says Charlotte Bunch, executive director of the Center for Women’s Global Leadership at Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey, who points out that the world today is much more conservative than it was in 1995.

September 1995

In September 1995, almost 45,000 representatives of governments and nongovernmental organizations participated in the Beijing conference and a parallel nongovernmental forum to discuss how to best advance the world’s women. The result was a comprehensive strategic plan, known as the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action, which was unanimously adopted by 189 governments. It identified twelve critical areas for women’s empowerment: poverty, education, health, violence against women, armed conflict, the economy, political participation, human rights, media, the environment, the girl-child, and institution-building.

“It was a landmark document in terms of women’s rights because it was the first to specifically spell out what needed to be done to achieve gender equality,” says Doris Mpoumou of the New York-based Women’s Environment and Development Organization.

Among other things, the Beijing Platform called on governments to ensure women’s equal rights to inheritance and ownership of land; make sure women can access affordable, high-quality healthcare services, including sexual and reproductive health services; provide universal access to primary education for girls by 2000; and identify and remove all barriers to women’s equal participation in political life. In addition, international institutions such as the World Bank and the U.N. were to fully integrate women’s issues and needs into their own policies and programs.

A five-year review of the Beijing Platform took place at the U.N. in the summer of 2000. While noting that there had been some improvements in education and awareness of gender issues, governments acknowledged that violence and poverty continued to threaten women’s rights and freedoms. Several new targets were set–such as removing all discriminatory laws by 2005 and cutting adult illiteracy in half by 2015–while existing ones were reaffirmed.

Measuring Achievements and Obstacles

The 10-year review will give policy makers, gender experts and women’s advocates an opportunity to assess in more depth what achievements have been made so far and what stands in the way of gender equality.

“The focus will be in implementation at the national level and the exchange of experiences and good practices,” says Carolyn Hannan, the director of the U.N. Division for the Advancement of Women.

Some of these challenges and successes have already become apparent in regional U.N. meetings and the parallel forums held by women’s organizations over the past year to prepare for the Beijing review.

On the national level, laws have been passed to strengthen women’s land and property rights. Legislation against domestic violence has been passed in at least 45 countries, while another 20 are considering it. In addition, governments have established specific task forces and ministries to promote gender equality, says Hannan.


Nevertheless, the U.N. International Research and Training Institute for the Advancement of Women, which has prepared progress reports on each of the 12 critical areas, has found that the gains women have made have resulted mostly from actions taken at the local level.

“There has been less massive change at the national level in terms of traditional gender roles, the promotion and protection of women’s human rights, or the visibility of women and gender issues in national decision-making processes,” says Hilary Anderson, the institute’s spokesperson.

For example, while the proportion of legislative seats held by women worldwide has been steadily increasing, it currently stands only at 15.6 percent–far from the 30 percent that was identified as a target in the Beijing Platform. So far, 16 countries have reached that target.

Meanwhile, violence against women has not abated. Since 1995, the proportion of the women among those living with HIV/AIDS has increased from 38 percent to 48 percent and to 58 percent in sub-Saharan Africa. Trafficking in women has emerged as an issue of its own, though one that is tied to both globalization and armed conflict. Countries in Africa and Eastern Europe have reported that the number of women living in poverty has actually increased. And despite a pledge by governments to eliminate all discriminatory laws against women by this year, a survey of 45 countries by the women’s rights organization Equality Now has found that the majority of them are still in place.

Equality Now’s executive director, Taina Bien-Aime, notes that many countries may promote women’s equal rights in their constitutions, but continue to perpetuate women’s inequality in their family or penal laws. “Law is the expression of government policy, and it’s hard to say you have gender equality when there are discriminatory laws on the books,” she said.

Fundamentalism, Militarism and Globalization

Women’s advocates say three factors have worked against women in the past decade–fundamentalism, militarism and globalization. They point to the way religious extremism both in the developed and developing world have undermined women’s reproductive rights and health, justified discriminatory laws and practices on the basis of religion or culture and supported restrictive gender roles.

“Women’s gains are lost through wars, through shifts to extremism and through the breakdown of states,” emphasizes Noeleen Heyzer of the U.N. Development Fund for Women (UNIFEM).

Although the number of armed conflicts has gone down, the world’s military spending and arms production has gone up since 9/11. June Zeitlin, executive director of the Women’s Environment and Development Organization, argues that besides perpetuating violence against women, increased militarization had led to a decrease in social spending, and women–who usually fill the role of primary caretakers–have ended up shouldering greater economic and psychological burdens as a result. In addition, fewer resources are diverted to programs and projects that could help empower women.

While globalization has created job opportunities for a few women, it has also widened the gap between those who have and have not benefited, says Bunch. This growing economic inequity, both between and within countries, disproportionately and negatively impacts women’s well-being in all areas, from health and literacy rates to their ability to exercise their human rights.

Linking Beijing to Development Goals

One of the issues that will be discussed at the 10-year review is how to link the Beijing action plan to the Millennium Development Goals, a set of eight specific targets aimed at eliminating poverty by 2015 that governments agreed to in 2000. Although one of the goals explicitly refers to promoting gender equality, women’s advocates say that women’s empowerment is implicated in all of the goals, from fighting HIV/AIDS to ensuring universal primary education.

“If governments don’t implement Beijing, they will never reach the Millennium Development Goals,” says Zeitlin.

There are also more strategic reasons to push for a closer connection between the two. “Right now, the energy and focus in development institutions and international aid agencies is going to the Millennium Goals, and if we aren’t a part of that agenda then we move backwards,” says Bunch.

In places where women have moved forward, there is usually a strong women’s movement, say activists. Zeitlin and Mpoumou point to the Philippines and South Africa as two places where women’s groups successfully campaigned for legislation on violence against women and reproductive health, as well as increased the number of women in legislative bodies. “We are both key partners and watchdogs,” says Zeitlin.

UNIFEM’s Heyzer agrees, noting that women’s groups play an important role in making sure women’s issues stay on the agenda and holding governments accountable for their commitments.

A large number of women’s nongovernmental organizations are expected to attend the Beijing review and also hold events that they hope will mobilize support for the Beijing Platform, as well as give women the opportunity to voice their own concerns and needs to governments and international organizations.

At the same time, women’s groups are wary of being too ambitious. The five-year review in 2000 resulted in prolonged negotiations over the text of the Beijing Platform, and in the end only marginally improved the original document. Advocates fear that if it undergoes a similar scrutiny this time around, it will open the door for governments to back out of the promises they made 10 years ago.

“What is needed in order to meet the targets of the [Beijing Platform] is consistent monitoring and evaluation . . . and replication of successful local-level projects in other communities, regions, and contexts,” says Anderson.

Governments will have a crucial opportunity during the next two weeks to disseminate information on these successful strategies and policies.

Bojana Stoparic is a freelance writer based in New York.

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