March 2006: Empty Promises, Dashed Hopes

10 years after Beijing conference, women are still waiting
March 1, 2006

In the plenary session of the Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing more than 10 years ago, this proclamation was made by the Tanzanian chairperson, Gertrude Mongella: “A revolution has begun! There is no turning back!”

All the delegates from around the world, including me, rose in a tumultuous standing ovation.

But today our euphoria has given way to disillusionment.

Some 189 states signed the Beijing Action Platform, a comprehensive document calling for equality between men and women. It was hailed as a watershed in the struggle for gender justice.

Hillary Clinton’s stirring declaration that “women’s rights are human rights” resonated with government representatives. For the first time, the right to sexual self-determination was written into an international document as a fundamental right.

Beijing broke the taboo surrounding topics such as domestic violence. Today, rape during wartime is classified as a crime against humanity, a crime whose perpetrators can be prosecuted in the International Court of Justice.

The Action Platform introduced the concept of “gender” into international politics and enshrined “gender mainstreaming” as a strategic approach. Governments, international institutions, and non-governmental organizations were called upon to integrate and promote a “gender perspective” in their programs and policies, and to ensure that, “before decisions are taken, an analysis is made of the effects on women and men.”

Beijing exploded the myth that political and economic decisions were gender-neutral. All areas—from the environment to social and economic policy, and including foreign policy—should be examined for their gender-specific repercussions, and women should be involved in these decision-making processes. Of central importance was also the demand that women must have equal access to—and the same decision-making powers over—natural resources.

“Take Beijing home” was the charge that governments and NGOs took away from China: international obligations became homework. Throughout the world, women got down to work, became involved in NGOs and grassroots movements, developed forward-looking projects, and challenged their governments to implement the Beijing decisions.

Five years after Beijing, the United Nations held a Special General Assembly session for an initial review of the progress made. In its assessment, it remarked that the political will to implement the decisions was largely lacking. Disenchanted NGOs learned that nothing was certain: neither the implementation of the Action Platform nor the rights written into it.

Government representatives at the UN promised to make up for their inaction, but, five years later, further progress still has not been made. The Women’s Environment and Development Organization (WEDO) recently examined the situation in 150 countries, and titled its report “Beijing Betrayed.” (See Across the world, governments had at best adopted a piecemeal approach to implementing the Action Platform, said WEDO Director June Zeitlin at a conference in mid-November in Bern. “In that way, the economic, social, and political transformation that inspired the promises and the vision of Beijing could not be attained.

Noeleen Heyzer, Director of the UN Development Fund for Women (UNIFEM), concluded: “There is progress, but it is too slow.”

There has in fact been some progress in some countries, mainly in legislation and education, but not nearly enough to keep women around the world from remaining the primary victims of poverty, violence, HIV/AIDS, and other negative global trends.

The World Trade Organization (WTO) began its work in the same year that women’s rights and the principle of gender equality were being “globalized” in Beijing. The WTO gave fresh impetus to neoliberal economic and trade policy—an upsurge, in retrospect, against which the Beijing obligations stood little chance. When public services such as health and education are privatized, when the welfare state is dismantled, when natural resources such as water and forests come under the dictates of market forces, the main victims are women. This is particularly evident in the case of drinkable water. Once it is privatized, the prices rise to levels the poor cannot afford. Women are again compelled to walk miles to fill their buckets, often with water that is contaminated.

Of central concern to most women in the countries of the South is preserving the social, cultural, and natural foundations of their livelihood. Their local economic infrastructure is being destroyed by the privatization of community goods, and their knowledge and experience in the protective and sustainable use of their vital resources is being devalued. Privatization and commercialization of resources means curtailing civil society participation, democratic decision-making rights, and control. This means eliminating the essential prerequisites for gender justice.

At the “Beijing+10” meeting last year, women regarded the mere reaffirmation of the 1995 Action Platform as a triumph. Led by the United States, conservative governments were openly hostile to the human rights for women that had been written into the Beijing document. Still, a full-scale reversal was averted. In a brief declaration, the Beijing Action Platform was again described as the most significant instrument for realizing gender justice and women’s rights, and governments were called upon to implement it fully.

But women’s issues are again slipping on the scale of priorities at the United Nations. For the “Beijing+10” stocktaking, the UN no longer convened a Special General Assembly session. The assessment was made in late February during the annual session of the UN Commission on the Status of Women. In the framework of impending UN reforms, there is even open discussion of the possible dissolution of the Development Fund for Women. A separate women’s organization is superfluous, it was felt, since gender mainstreaming allegedly already exists.

Thus the “strategic success” is backfiring and is being misused to undo what little women have accomplished in the first post-Beijing decade.

(Rosmarie Bar works and writes for Alliance Sud, a Swiss-based coalition of development agencies.)