UN Conference Shines a Spotlight on the Global Status of Women

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September 28, 2015; Voice of America

The heads of more than 80 countries had the opportunity on Sunday to “publicly commit” to overcoming gender inequality gaps by the year 2030. Co-hosted by UN Women and China’s president, Xi Jinping, the event was also a commemoration of the 20th anniversary of the 1995 UN Beijing Women’s Conference, when 189 governments adopted the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action, a comprehensive plan for bringing about gender equality.

The New York event took place while world leaders were convening to define a sustainable development agenda covering 17 goals, which themselves grew out of the Millennium Development Goals established in 2000. The fifth of these goals—to achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls—targets violence against women and harmful practices such as forced marriage and female genital mutilation. It recognizes the value of unpaid care and domestic work and seeks to ensure access to reproductive healthcare, ownership of property, and full participation at all levels of decision making in the political, economic and public spheres.

In a speech to those gathered, President Xi declared that women’s rights are “basic human rights,” mirroring then-First Lady Hillary Clinton’s words at the 1995 conference that “human rights are women’s rights—and women’s rights are human rights.” Despite harsh criticism of China’s abysmal record on human rights generally, and women’s rights in particular, feminists and advocates are almost universal in their agreement that the 1995 Beijing Platform for Action was a landmark achievement, laying out an ambitious, comprehensive agenda for gender equality globally.

Women’s rights and philanthropy consultant Kimberly Otis was in Beijing in 1995 when she was the executive director of the Sister Fund. Thanks to the Beijing platform, “much more has been accomplished to empower women and girls, mainly in developing countries, through massive efforts such as those to ensure the education of all girls, reduce infant mortality, and tie women’s employment into economic growth.”

To be sure, these efforts have paid off. Evidence from a range of countries shows that increasing the share of household income controlled by women changes spending in ways that benefit them and their children, and increasing women and girls’ education contributes to higher economic growth. Even at the most local levels, strengthening women’s representation in government makes a striking difference (in rural India, for instance, the number of drinking water projects in areas with female-led councils is 62 per cent higher than in those with male-led councils). And according to a 2014 McKinsey report, it’s estimated that companies with three or more women in senior management roles score higher in all dimensions of organizational effectiveness.

Yet while the Beijing platform envisioned gender equality in all dimensions of life, no country has yet realized the full agenda in the twenty intervening years. Over the last 18 months, 167 countries have participated in national reviews to identify achievements and gaps in progress since the 1995 conference. According to UN Women, the percentage of women in parliaments today stands at only 22 percent. Women continue to bear disproportionate responsibility for unpaid care work, devoting up to three hours more a day to housework than men and up to ten times the amount of time a day to care for children, elderly, and the sick.

Worldwide, more than 700 million women alive today were under 18 when they were married and some 250 million were married before the age of 15. Women and girls represent 55 percent of the estimated 21 million victims of forced labor worldwide, and 98 percent of the estimated 4.5 million forced into sexual exploitation. Here in the United States, according to the American Association of University Women, 83 percent of girls in grades 8 through 11 have experienced some form of sexual harassment in the public schools.

The eighty countries participating in what has been branded the “Step it Up” campaign have made public commitments to continuing the fight for women’s equality, ranging from millions of dollars in financial pledges from countries such as China and Switzerland (who have pledged $10 million and $50 million, respectively) to promises of legislative, economic, and political action. Afghanistan’s chief executive Abdullah Abdullah pledged to “spare no effort” implementing a law ending violence against women while Liberia’s president Ellen Johnson Sirleaf noted that women “urgently need more protection, particularly in war zones and crisis regions.”

Bosnia and Herzegovina, too, pledged to support victims of sexual violence in conflict areas and to reduce labor market segregation, vowing to reconcile their “unfortunate past” with the demands of the future. Iceland pledged to close the gender pay gap by 2022 and the Netherlands is launching what will be the largest fund of its kind to support women’s economic and political participation. The United States has committed to support working families, encourage girls to pursue careers in the STEM fields, and provide opportunities for women entrepreneurs so that “every woman and girl can enjoy the rights and freedoms that are her birthright.”

But according to by an analysis by Kate Lappin in The Guardian, the Sustainable Development Goals adopted last weekend as they relate to women and girls fall “far short” of the 50 strategic objectives included in the 1995 Beijing platform:

Where the [Sustainable Development Goals] speak vaguely of promoting peaceful and inclusive societies, the Beijing agreement requires governments to reduce excessive military expenditure and control the availability of arms. Where the SDGs include general targets on decent work and reducing income inequality, the Beijing agreement recognizes the right of female workers to organize and states the key role of collective bargaining in eliminating wage inequality. And where the SDGs require governments to reduce illicit financial flows, the Beijing agreement requires governments to analyze and adjust macroeconomic policies, including taxation and external debt policy, from a gender perspective “to promote a more equitable distribution of productive assets, wealth, opportunities, income and services.”

Like the recent visit by Pope Francis, summits such as these are highly visible platforms offering heads of state and government leaders opportunities to openly commit to the moral high ground. And, to be fair, important initiatives come out of these gatherings, directly impacting women and girls in areas ranging from food security to employment to healthcare. However, one is left to question how far the needle will move without enforceable actions in individual countries that go beyond what are, in many cases, imprecise and vague affirmations to general principles. It is also fair to ask to what extent these pledges will bring about systemic change in countries holding fast to outdated laws and mores that subjugate the rights of millions of women (and men) worldwide. And with 80 percent of the world’s refugee population today composed of women and their children, there are far more complex economic, environmental, and social factors at play, threatening to render moot whatever steps to progress are made within the confines of a sovereign state.

According to Otis, despite their courageous efforts to be heard, the poorest women’s voices continue to be under-recognized by the UN and their own governments, although she believes more attention is being paid to them through changes in legal norms and public attitudes brought about by the Beijing platform. Describing the 40,000 grassroots women who traveled from around the work to attend the 1995 conference, in many cases against great obstacles, she noted, “It was the world’s most marginalized women, including indigenous women, LGBT women, and women with disabilities, who were the most vocal about lifting up the human rights of all people. In fact, women with disabilities were courageously protesting in the streets about the lack of accessibility at the conference, despite strict admonitions from the Chinese government against any public demonstrations. My most vivid memories are of attending these demos and carrying women in wheelchairs with many other able-bodied sisters through the mud and up the stairwells.”—Patricia Schaefer