Twenty-five years ago, in Beijing, China, the world made a promise: equal rights and opportunities for all women and girls, everywhere.
It was the Fourth World Conference on Women in 1995; more than 30,000 activists and representatives of 189 countries gathered to debate what it would take to make a gender-equal world. Together, they created the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action, the most comprehensive agenda to date, on gender equality and women’s empowerment.
It tackled global issues that are still pressing today and examined how they impact women and girls. Issues such as, poverty, environment, violence against women, girls’ education, equal participation of women in the labour market, especially in highly skilled jobs, STEM industries, and in senior management. It also committed to promote the balance of paid work and domestic responsibilities for women and men, and so much more.
The Beijing Platform for Action was a turning point in the world’s understanding of women’s and girls’ rights and ushered in a new mindset that realizing the full potential of women and girls is a powerful and essential component of successful, sustainable development.
Since 1995, the Beijing Platform for Action has served as a blueprint for advancing global gender equality. But if you’re wondering what really changed and why it still matters to women and girls today, here are just five big wins it brought about for women and girls everywhere.
Gaining ground on girls’ rights
The Girl Child. The Beijing Platform for Action was the first global policy document on women that included a specific focus on the girl child. Although the Convention on the Rights of the Child, which entered into force in September 1990, enshrined the rights of children, the Beijing Platform for Action spoke to girls and girls’ rights, specifically.
It clearly articulated that girls face discrimination from their earliest years and throughout childhood, and called for specific protection of their rights.
"Everywhere I see boys treated differently than girls… Even though I am strong and work hard, I‘ve heard completely different words to describe me: ‘weak’, ‘fragile’, ‘gentle’.” — Anna Lavreniuk, student leader and opinion shaper
For instance, the Beijing Platform for Action advocated for girls’ education that gave the issue a sustained impetus for the past 25 years. Not only did it emphasize the importance of primary education for girls, but it was truly ahead of its time in calling for actions to advance girls’ education to higher levels and STEM studies.
The comprehensive vision for girls’ education doesn’t stop there: not only does the Beijing Platform for Action outline measures for getting girls into school, but also for keeping girls in school, such as stamping out female genital mutilation and child marriage, harmful practices that prevent millions of girls from finishing their education.
Thanks to the consistent work for gender parity in education over two decades, more girls are in school than ever before and more countries have reached gender parity in educational enrolment.
However, gender gap in STEM continues to be a problem today—only 35 per cent of all students enrolled in STEM related fields of study are women, and just 30 per cent of researchers worldwide are women.
Improved levels of education among women and girls have not translated into reduced occupational segregation.
This has in turn made it difficult to bridge the gender pay gap.
In some regions there have been attempts to remove comprehensive sexuality education from school curricula and limit gender studies in tertiary education.
Education matters, and what kind of education is available, accessible and affordable for the world’s women and girls, also matters.
Paying attention to gender perspectives in every policy and programme
The gender lens. In public policy around the world and within the halls of the United Nations, the term, “gender mainstreaming,” is everywhere, but it doesn’t translate well outside these spaces. What is it, and why is it significant that the Beijing Platform for Action adopted gender mainstreaming as a tool to promote gender equality?
Gender mainstreaming means making sure that needs and rights of both men and women are visibly considered in all policies, programmes, strategies, research and other areas. Because of longstanding hidden and obvious gender biases, policy decisions may actually increase inequality if gender-specific implications are not taken into consideration.
For example, imagine you are a girl or a young woman growing up in a rural village. A new school is built in your village, but you must walk a significant distance to get to class. This would mean that you have less time for your household responsibilities, a burden that falls on you more than on your brothers because of traditional gender roles. On your daily walk through the village, you are more likely to experience harassment or violence. When you get your periods, you may also miss school, because the school doesn’t have a separate toilet for girls and women, and you may not have the money to buy menstrual hygiene products.
"Our mothers didn’t have sanitary towels!’ Such had been the casual response of certain legislators when asked to equip schools with sanitary pads for girls as part of gender-responsive budgeting. Their response astounded me…The provision of sanitary pads at school remains one of the most surprising discoveries for policymakers when thinking about gender-responsive budgeting.” — Patricia Munabi is the Executive Director of Forum for Women in Democracy, a women’s rights organization in Uganda
The school was meant to benefit all young people, but it would benefit boys more than girls, because the lived experiences and challenges of girls and young women were not factored in.
Unless we have tools in place to address the complex gendered realities, policies and actions run the risk of widening gender gaps rather than closing them. And that’s exactly what “gender mainstreaming” offers—it is a strategy to analyze a policy or action, to ask pertinent questions and look for evidence and data that illustrate women’s and girls’ experiences – and make sure that an intervention not only meets the needs of women and men equally but also does not exacerbate gender-based inequalities and actively contributes to overcoming such inequalities.
The Beijing Platform for Action was the first global policy framework to confirm gender mainstreaming as a key strategy for realizing gender equality and elevated its significance by calling on governments and other actors to apply it to all policies and programmes.
Advancing the agenda on ending violence against women
A life free of violence. The Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing, with its massive convening of the women’s rights movement, gave the human rights of women unprecedented attention and visibility.
“Human rights are women’s rights and women’s rights are human rights”—words from the speech delivered by the First Lady of the United States of America, Hillary Rodham Clinton, at the conference became a feminist slogan for the following decades.
The Beijing Platform for Action called for the ratification of Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), adopted by the UN General Assembly in 1979, and popularly known as the “Women’s Bill of Rights” and gave momentum to the work on an Optional Protocol of CEDAW. Finalized in 1999, the Optional Protocol enabled individuals, groups of individuals and NGOs to submit complaints of violation of their individual rights protected by the Convention —a significant step for claiming justice and accountability.
"Human rights are women’s rights and women’s rights are human rights” — First Lady of the United States of America, Hillary Rodham Clinton, at the World Conference on Women in 1995. Her words became a feminist slogan for the following decades.
Anchored in human rights, the Beijing Platform for Action championed the notion that women were entitled to the full enjoyment of their rights, including their right to live free of gender-based violence.It was the first international framework that addressed violence against women in a comprehensive manner and included prevention as a key strategy and changing social norms as a specific area of work.
It had the foresight to call for specific strategies to address sexual harassment at workplace, educational institutions and other spaces—an issue that has elicited global outrage and attention in recent years through campaigns such as #MeToo, #TimesUp, #Niunamenos, #NotOneMore, #BalanceTonPorc, etc.
Following the adoption of the Beijing Platform for Action, a growing number of countries have legislated to end violence against women since 1995, but recent data shows how this violence persists: nearly one in five women have faced violence from an intimate partner in the past year; new technologies are fueling new forms of violence, such as cyber-harassment, for which policy solutions remain limited or largely absent.
Violence against women remains one of the most significant issues to be addressed in our time, and we cannot stop advocating for prevention initiatives and coordinated global action until it is eliminated.
Solidifying women’s leadership in conservation and climate action
Women protecting our planet. Expanding on key moments of environmental leadership in the 1990s, the Beijing Platform for Action solidified attention to women’s leadership in environmental issues, making clear that their full and equal participation leads to better governance and conservation outcomes.
"The fight for social justice is not separate from the fight for environmental sustainability. The most impoverished people, rural indigenous women, for example, are most impacted by natural disasters.” — Maria Alejandra (Majandra) Rodriguez Acha, youth leader, climate justice believer
The Platform for Action acknowledged the unique and important roles that women and girls play as environmental knowledge-holders, stewards, producers, caretakers, and educators. It pledged to ensure opportunities for women, including indigenous women, to participate in environmental decision-making at all levels, to reduce women’s risks from environmental hazards, and to ensure that all people have access to clean water by the year 2000, just to name a few of the commitments.
Checking-in on progress, we see that women’s participation in climate-related decision-making has increased in recent years, but it is far from parity.
Furthermore, in 2017, safe drinking water was available to only 71 per cent of the world.
The climate crisis affects those with limited access to land, resources or the means to support themselves the most.
Globally, only 14 per cent of agricultural land holders are women.
Ensuring that the realities, knowledge, and leadership of women and girls are equally shaping climate action has never been more important than today.
In the face of interlinked social, economic and environmental challenges, it is vital that we realize the Beijing Platform for Action’s commitment of creating a sustainable relationship with the environment, one that works with and for all people, women and girls included.
Unleashing the power of women’s leadership
Women are global leaders. The energy and excitement to advance women’s rights was palpable at the conference in Beijing. It gathered thousands of women from all over the world, whose voices were not commonly heard at international gatherings. The conference brought together those who had spent decades working for women’s rights and young leaders new to the movement.
The sheer scope of the event, 30,000 activists from around the world, and representatives from 189 governments, demonstrated the tremendous power of women’s leadership. It was a tremendous achievement to coalesce their diverse experiences and perspectives into the ambitious Beijing Platform for Action which carried the commitment to gender equality into the 21st century. It continues to determine strategies to achieve gender equality today.
The Beijing Platform for Action provided momentum towards adopting gender quotas in political leadership, particularly in Latin America and southern Africa, where political transitions in the 1990s provided windows of opportunity for gender equality gains. The Platform for Action also spurred initiatives to improve data on women’s political representation, such as the Inter-Parliamentary Union’s efforts to tracking the number of women in national parliaments with archives dating back to 1997.
The proportion of women in parliament has doubled since 1995, and several countries now have gender-balanced cabinets. However, commitments to gender parity for all branches and levels of government and in leadership are still extremely rare.
The Beijing Platform for Action also made achieving gender balance within the UN system a priority. Although a commitment to the equitable distribution of positions between men and women at the UN Headquarters had been made before, the Beijing Platform for Action called for women to hold 50 per cent of managerial and decision-making positions at the UN by the year 2000.
The most recent data indicates that 44.2 per cent of professional and higher-level staff are women, up from 32.6 per cent reported in 1995.
In recognition of the work that still needs to be done, the UN Secretary-General launched the system-wide strategy on gender parity in 2017 and has led by example by reaching parity in at the most senior levels of the organization. In 2019, UN Women created the Enabling Environment Guidelines and its Supplementary Guidance, providing concrete proposals and good practices for achieving gender parity at the UN.
Within the UN and beyond, the drive for realizing women’s rights encapsulated in the Beijing Platform for Action continues to inspire gender equality activism today.
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