Where next for progress on women’s rights?

In the run up to International Women’s Day, IDS’s Jenny Edwards asks ‘where next for progress on women’s rights?

The Fourth World Conference on Women (FWCW) held in Beijing in 1995 and its resultant Platform for Action marked a pivotal moment in getting the concepts of ‘women’s empowerment’ and ‘gender equality’ mainstreamed within development discourse. Buoyed by the collective excitement of the FWCW, the event’s legacy, supported by a strong women’s movement, has been characterised by clear progress on women’s rights issues including: focusing on tackling violence against women, highlighting the issues of unpaid care, and shining a light on the gross disparity in political and big business gender representation. A key milestone has been the establishment of a UN entity for gender equality and women’s empowerment – UN Women – in July 2010, tasked with meeting the needs of the world’s women.

Despite all this progress, however, there is still so far to go. Women still face deep inequity within the workplace and in political participation – only 11 per cent of the world’s political leaders are women. Violence is still a frighteningly common reality for many women – a recent study by the EU Agency for Fundamental Rights found high levels of violence against women even in relatively wealthy countries such as the UK and Sweden. In many countries in the world women are still struggling with the right to have control over their own bodies – around 40 per cent of the world’s population still live in countries with highly restrictive or non-existent abortion rights (Center for Reproductive Rights). Added to this, when shocks occur such as the emergence of global recession in 2008 or the Ebola crisis in 2014, women have been found to be disproportionately adversely affected.

So where next for progress on women’s rights? The proposed Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 5 with its inclusion of commitments on unpaid care, sexual and reproductive rights, tackling violence, and equal participation of women in all aspects of public life, amongst other issues, is an encouraging step towards the future. Vigilant, active and well-resourced women’s and feminist organising will be essential for holding states to account on their commitments and ensuring positive change happens. Social media, still in its very early infancy in 1995, has now blossomed all over the world and is a key tool in calling for action to support women and harnessing public outrage. What trends might we see in support for women’s rights come the end of the SDGs in 2030?

A special issue of the IDS Bulletin, supported by UN Women and to be co-published with the Institute of Development Studies (IDS) in July 2015, will take the opportunity of the anniversary of the Beijing meeting to explore its impact and legacy, to assess where the challenges still remain across a whole range of issues such as education, economic rights, political rights, climate change, and sexual and reproductive rights. What are the positive and negative influences on women’s rights and how are they affected by diverse external interests such as, for instance, religious groups and private enterprise? Where is the future heading for feminism?

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