In 1995, people from around the world gathered in Beijing for the United Nations’ Fourth World Conference on Women. Over 17,000 delegates and 30,000 activists attended. By the end of the conference, 189 participating countries had developed the most progressive blue print for women’s rights ever. The Beijing Platform for Action remains the gold standard for implementing women’s rights around the world. It comprises commitments under 12 critical areas of concern:
A. Women and poverty
B. Education and training of women
C. Women and health
D. Violence against women
E. Women and armed conflict
F. Women and the economy
G. Women in power and decision-making
H. Institutional mechanisms for the advancement of women
I. Human rights of women
J. Women and the media
K. Women and the environment
L. The girl child
This year, at the United Nations’ 59th Commission on the Status of Women, we are celebrating the 20th anniversary of the Beijing Platform for Action. It was hoped that the Ministers in the General Assembly would release a Political Declaration on accelerated action on the Beijing Platform for Action, prioritising human rights and women’s empowerment, calling for irreversible progress on women’s rights by 2030. I would have liked to see references to violence against women and girls as a key issue for equality and development, and a reinforcement of the women peace and security agenda. Other important issues in the women’s movement include the protection of sexual and reproductive health rights, climate change, and indigenous rights.
Released in the opening session of the Commission on the Status of Women, the Political Declaration was none of these things. It was merely a bland statement of support for the Beijing Platform for Action. During negotiations, specific needs and issues were shut out for fear of creating an unwieldy and unhelpful list of specificities. So there is no mention of disability; intersectionality; or women, peace and security. The Holy See, Russia and Member States in the G77 including China and Iran pushed to remove all references to human rights. Only three such references remain. There has certainly been discussion among civil society of the men in frocks wanting to take away women’s control of their own bodies.
The final document did maintain a reference to the specific goal on gender equality expected from the new development framework, the Sustainable Development Goals, which will replace the soon to expire Millennium Development Goals. Some of our Pacific neighbours fought hard to maintain references to the valuable work of non-government organisations and civil society in attaining gender equality. The Political Declaration also outlined the important role of UN Women in this process, which did not exist when the Beijing Platform for Action was developed, but now has the mandate to lead and coordinate the UN system’s work on gender equality.
Many people have been disappointed by the Political Declaration, and there is much hope that the General Assembly resolution on the working methods of the Commission on the Status of Women will keep the space open for non-government organisations to participate and advocate on women’s issues. Governments and civil society both need to be proactive to ensure the voices of young women and indigenous women are heard in these fora. It all goes to show what can be done when political and social movements seize the moment, as was done in Beijing. Now, the women’s movement needs to coalesce around what we do have, the Beijing Platform for Action and continue to push for its implementation. Rather than necessarily seeking new commitments, we need to see the implementation of the existing ones.
I am participating in CSW59 as a member of the delegation from the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, of which I am a member of the Australian Section and convenor of the ACT Branch.
I have been able to travel to New York to participate in CSW59 thanks to a grant from the Australian National University Gender Institute as well as funding from my College of Arts and Social Science.