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Two decades ago more than 17,000 advocates for women’s rights from around the world gathered in Beijing, China for the Fourth World Conference on Women. Alongside them over 30,000 women’s rights activists attended the parallel NGO Forum held in nearby Huairou.

The Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action, which came out of the September 1995 conference has provided a grounding for international debate on women’s rights and gender equality ever since. Building on political agreements from three previous global conferences on women, it called on governments, the international community and civil society to take strategic action on 12 areas of concern, including women and health, violence, the economy, the environment and in power and decision-making. But beyond this, the ‘buzz’ of excitement engendered within the Forum provided the impetus for a generation of women’s organising to build on the opportunities the space provided for transnational and local alliances.

This September marks the 20th anniversary of the Beijing Conference and later this month the UN Sustainable Development Summit takes place in New York, during which the post-2015 development agenda will be adopted which includes amongst its goals achieving gender equality and empowering all women and girls. Coinciding with these events, a new IDS Bulletin ‘Beijing+20: Where now for Gender Equality?’ has just been published which reflects on changes and continuities in the world since the historic Beijing conference and traces its trajectories in different policy arenas, national settings and domains of practice.

Beyond Beijing

The world of 2015 is a different place to 1995. There are many global developments which impact on the lives of women, including a conservative backlash, rising fundamentalism, technology and the internet, rapid urbanisation, threats to sexual and reproductive rights, homophobia and transphobia. The recent UN Women Progress of the World’s Women report highlights the persistent severe inequalities which remain for women the world over. For countless women gender equality is not only far away, but getting further.

Many of the articles in the new IDS Bulletin concern the long, slow process of turning the commitments of Beijing into real gains for women's rights and the implications for turning subsequent commitments into action. The gap between the promises of protocols and the realities of women’s lives is all too apparent.

Alongside this is the question of where do the spaces for transformative change lie? The political declaration from the 59th Commission on the Status of Women held in March this year was criticised by women’s organisations as being ‘weak’. Naureen Shameem from AWID argued that it ‘does not go far enough towards the kind of transformative change necessary to truly achieve the promises made in Beijing two decades ago’. In her Bulletin article, Cecilia Sardenberg describes it as ‘a very bland and conservative instrument’. She describes the demonstrations staged by Latin American and Caribbean feminists to show their discontent at being excluded from providing input to the declaration. ‘Unruly ruptures’ – direct citizen action, whether organised or disorganised - are becoming increasingly important in terms of achieving change, as Mariz Tadros notes in her article. We can see this most recently in David Cameron’s apparent U-turn in UK policy on Syrian refugees following citizen campaigning.

Time for a Fifth World Conference?

In 2012, the UN Secretary General, Ban Ki Moon, and the President of the General Assembly, Nassir Abdulaziz Al-Nasser proposed a Fifth World Conference on Women to tackle emerging issues since Beijing in 1995.

But the conference has not yet happened, largely because of fears the current conservative backlash would mean that gains from Beijing could be lost. However, those in favour argue that such an event would strengthen transnational links and that the backlash is all the more reason to do it, building networks to defend women’s rights and answering back.

Anne Marie Goetz and Joanne Sandler have argued in openDemocracy that the process of making such an event on the scale of Beijing 1995 happen is just as important as the event itself and that many people have ‘no frame of reference for a process that could generate change at local, national, regional and global levels’.

They argue that a Fifth World Conference could reinvigorate international feminism and inspire young people. This is certainly the legacy left by the Fourth World Conference. In her article, Suzette Mitchell cites one grassroots organiser from PNG as saying ‘it was one of the most important events in her life’, so much so that she set up a savings account for her daughter to attend the next one.

Would putting energy and resources into organising an international conference take away from more localised activism? Goetz and Sandler argued that the international conferences ‘galvanized activism, strengthened women’s mobilizations and movement-building (especially in the countries where the world conferences were held)’.

Beyond 2015

As women and gender equality activists face increasing challenges around the world, 2015 is an important year for grassroots, cross-border feminism to find its voice. Contributors to the Bulletin identify a number of pathways forward to reanimate some of the radical potential of gender equality and women's empowerment. Looking beyond 2015, women’s organisations will continue to play a very significant part in galvanising support to continue to hold states to account for the promises and commitments made under the Sustainable Development Goals agenda. UN Women have recognised this importance in making ‘support for women’s organisations to claim rights and shape policy agendas at all levels’, one of their ten priorities for public action.

In the unpredictable world we live in it has never been more important to remember Hillary Clinton's call at Beijing 1995 that ‘women’s rights are human rights’


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