Beijing+25: Looking Back and Looking Forward

The following article was published in the March 2020 issue of the International Review of Contemporary Law, the journal of the IADL.

by Jeanne Mirer

This year, 2020, marks the 25th anniversary of “Fourth World Conference on Women (FWCW) which was held in Beijing under the banner of “Action for Equality, Development and Peace”. The conference followed by two years the Vienna Conference on Human Rights in which women’s rights was a major topic, and which led to the creation of the office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights.

The participants at the Fourth World Conference issued a Declaration and a Platform for Action. The Platform for Action identified critical areas of concern for governmental attention. These areas of concern are:

  • The persistent and increasing burden of poverty on women
  • Inequalities and inadequacies in and unequal access to education and training
  • Inequalities and inadequacies in and unequal access to health care and related services
  • Violence against women
  • The effects of armed or other kinds of conflict on women, including those living under foreign occupation
  • Inequality in economic structures and policies, in all forms of productive activities and in access to resources
  • Inequality between men and women in the sharing of power and decision-making at all levels
  • Insufficient mechanisms at all levels to promote the advancement of women
  • Lack of respect for and inadequate promotion and protection of the human rights of women
  • Stereotyping of women and inequality in women’s access to and participation in all communication systems, especially in the media
  • Gender inequalities in the management of natural resources and in the safeguarding of the environment
  • Persistent discrimination against and violation of the rights of the girl child

It is time that we look back on efforts that have been made to address the areas of concern identified in the Platform for Action, which still remain as areas of concern and sources of inequality for women.

In 2000, at the five year review of the implementation of the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action the twenty third session of the General Assembly on Women considered the Platform. The committee assigned this task noted, in part, as follows:

“Four years after the Beijing Conference, governments were asked to report on their actions taken to implement the Platform for Action in the 12 critical areas of concern. As of 1 October 2000, 153 Member States and 2 observers responded to the questionnaire prepared by the Secretariat in collaboration with the five regional commissions and sent out in October 1998. This response rate of over 80% per cent is of itself, indicative of the strong worldwide commitment to the goal of gender equality. An analysis of the main trends in the implementation of the Platform as contained in these reports was carried out and submitted by The Division for the Advancement of Women to the preparatory committee at its third session in March 2000 (E/CN.6/2000/PC/2).”

“Review of the national reports show that profound changes in the status and role of women have occurred in the years since the start of the United Nations Decade for Women in 1976, some more markedly since the FWCW. Women have entered the labour force in unprecedented numbers, increasing the potential for their ability to participate in economic decision making at various levels, starting with the household. Women, individually and collectively, have been major actors in the rise of civil society throughout the world, stimulating pressure for increased awareness of the gender equality dimensions of all issues, and demanding a role in national and global decision making processes. Thus, the role of non-governmental organizations, especially women’s organizations, in putting the concerns of women and gender equality on the national and international agenda was acknowledged by many Governments.”

“Despite much progress, responses from Member States indicate that much more work needs to be done with regard to implementation of the Platform for Action. Two major areas – violence and poverty – continue to be major obstacles to gender equality worldwide. Globalization has added new dimensions to both areas, creating new challenges for the implementation of the Platform, such as trafficking in women and girls, changing nature of armed conflict, growing gap between nations and genders, the detachment of macroeconomic policy from social protection concerns.”

“Overall, the analysis of the national reports on the implementation of the Platform for Action revealed that there had been no major breakthrough with regard to equal sharing of decision making in political structures at national and international levels. In most countries of the world, representation of women remains low. Even in countries where a “critical mass” in decision-making positions within the public sector has been achieved, there are few women on boards of directors of major business corporations. There is need for more careful monitoring of progress in ensuring women’s equal participation in these positions of economic power.”

The findings that poverty and violence continue to be major obstacles to gender equality worldwide should not be surprising. Globalization with neoliberal economic policies does not end poverty. To the contrary, multinational corporations consistently seek lower and lower wage/cost countries contributing to a race to the economic bottom. Precarious work holds many workers including women workers in states of insecurity and poverty. Violence against women appears often in the context of poverty where exploitation of women through violence or threats of violence hold women back from exercising their rights. That there have been no breakthroughs with regard to equal sharing of decision making in political structures is both a cause and effect of women’s economic and physical precarity.

After the 2000 Beijing +5 review, the work of the Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) has adopted a multi-year program of work to evaluate the progress of the implementation of the Platform of Action from Beijing. ECOSOC resolution 2015/6 established methods of work for the CSW which are designed to keep the issues of gender equality fully on the agenda for the global community to mainstream gender equality across all policies and programs. The CSW is to contribute to the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. In 2020 the CSW is poised to review and evaluate how the implementation of the Beijing Platform and Program of Action have proceeded since the 23rd Session of the General Assembly in 2000 addressed the issue. The CSW is also to address the contribution to the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.

But poverty is still a major obstacle for women. For example in 2008, before the effects of the financial crisis were felt, the Center for American Progress stated in a report with respect to women in poverty as follows:

“Over half of the 37 million Americans living in poverty today are women. And women in America are further behind than women in other countries—the gap in poverty rates between men and women is wider in America than anywhere else in the Western world. Consider the following facts: Poverty rates are higher for women than men. In 2007,13.8% of females were poor compared to 11.1%t of men. Women are poorer than men in all racial and ethnic groups. Recent data shows that 26.5% of African American women are poor compared to 22.3% of African American men; 23.6% of Hispanic women are poor compared to 19.6% of Hispanic men; 10.7% of Asian women are poor compared to 9.7% of Asian men; and 11.6% ‘of white women are poor compared to 9.4% of white men.”

The percentage of those who remain in poverty has not changed much since 2008, even with the sustained economic growth in the US. Suffice it to say the burdens of economic hardship, whether poverty or other forms of “low wealth” still fall most heavily on women.

The International Association of Democratic Lawyers (IADL) has over the years struggled to uphold the goals of the UN Charter which specifically outlaws discrimination based on gender. IADL has tried to address the gender dimension in its overall programs as we has also tried to address racial and national origin discrimination. IADL has held women’s conferences and for many years sent delegations to the CSW meetings and sponsored side events. But it is time to not only look back, but to look forward to find paths to continued progress of women to find true equality in the world.

The Beijing Platform for action set out a series of tasks to overcome the inequalities women face. These tasks must be provided for by governments including providing mechanisms at all levels to promote the advancement of women; addressing the lack of respect for and inadequate promotion and protection of the human rights of women; and to end stereotyping of women.

The world needs women to lead the fight to attain these goals but it is up to all to participate. Women obtaining rights is not a zero-sum game where men lose their rights in proportion. The world needs all countries to devote their budgets to ending poverty and promoting the basic human rights of all the people to an adequate standard of living. Progress towards true equality is a constant struggle. Strength lies in organization. Organizations like the IADL need to become more proactive and mobilize our many affiliates around the world to implement to Platform of Action. It is up to all of us.

Jeanne Mirer is the President of the International Association of Democratic Lawyers, the President of the International Commission for Labor Rights and a member of the Executive Committee of the National Lawyers Guild She is is a founding partner in the Law Firm of Mirer, Mazzocchi & Julien PLLC, in New York City. She specializes in labor and employment law and has handled numerous class actions and multi-party actions for victims of discrimination and wage theft.