Reflecting on 25 years of women’s rights action


Despite the revolution brought on by the adoption of the Beijing Declaration and Programme of Action twenty-five years ago, now is "no time for complacency," cautioned UN Human Rights Chief, Michelle Bachelet.

Women discuss the issues at the Non-Governmental Organizations Forum held in Huairou, China, as part of the United Nations Fourth World Conference on Women held in Beijing, China on 4-15 September 1995. UN Photo

Bachelet was speaking at a High Level panel at the Human Rights Council in Geneva to look back at the progress achieved in the past 25 years in reaching equal rights for women.

She pointed out that, among other developments, over 140 countries now guarantee gender parity in their constitutions and ten more have enacted laws on sexual harassment. Further, the percentage of women in paid jobs has increased and countries have significantly more data on violence against women.

However, Bachelet cautioned, the risks of setbacks are growing. "We are seeing the resurgence of narratives against gender equality based on centuries-long discrimination," she said. "We must resist all challenges to hard-won affirmation of what we know: that women's rights are human rights – in their universality and indivisibility, and for all women, in their full and free diversity," she added.

The Beijing Conference as a standards creator

As a young Nepalese journalist attending the forth conference on women in 1995, Bandana Rana, now Vice-Chair of the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), was overcome then with what she described as "the euphoria and power of a collective movement" that changed her life. She felt a strong urge to defend the women and girls who are exploited and discriminated against, and never looked back.

"The ground-breaking Beijing Platform for Action has been a strong guiding framework throughout my journey as an advocate for gender equality and peace, and 25 years later remains even more relevant to protect human rights and gender equality," Rana Said.

CEDAW, with its constructive dialogue and its recommendations can help countries measure their progress, and through that mechanism she witnesses the interconnectedness of Beijing commitments and changes that take place on the ground, Rana pointed out.

"With its legislative framework the CEDAW Committee is helping Member States in building their accountability to a world free from violence, stigma and stereotype; where there are no child marriages; where there is equal pay for equal work; and a world that establishes lasting peace and security of all," she said.

"We need to create effective institutions and allocate adequate resources for women to realize their rights. We need to listen to the voices of women and young girls. The different needs of women, in the public as well as the private sphere, must be addressed," she added.

The struggle for women's equality fought on "a battlefield"

Magalys Arocha Dominguez, Expert on Human Rights and Gender Equality, described the Beijing Conference and its agreements as "a battlefield."

"Several issues were hostages of the most backward and reactionary forces: economic resources, sexual and reproductive rights, armed conflicts. The concept of gender, sexual and family diversity, among others, was strongly debated, under pressure and threats," Arocha Dominguez said.

Twenty-five years on, in Geneva, Arocha Dominguez called for more strategies and action to eliminate harmful practices and male supremacy, and the sexist stereotypes that are the basis of all discrimination and violence against women and distinctions made among women themselves.

"Women's equality cannot be achieved in isolation; it requires structural changes within societies," she added.

Today, more girls are in school than ever before and the gender gap in school enrolment is closing, pointed out Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, Executive Director of UN-Women. Fewer women, she added, are dying in childbirth because more are able to access maternity care. She regretted, however, the lack of substantive equality for women in particular on the economic front; the persistence of violence against women and girls; and the ecological breakdown that have put women at the forefront of environmental movements.

Mlambo-Ngcuka announced that she is hoping that the Generation Equality Forum, to be hosted later this year in Mexico and France, would bring six Action Coalitions that would deliver concrete, game-changing results for women and girls over the next five years.

6 March 2020

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