Challenging ourselves at Beijing +15

Sunila Abeysekera lists the achievements of Beijing’95, and argues now that the priority for women’s movements worldwide should be to build a cohesive platform for action to confront and combat the common challenges as we move forward from the CSW Beijing +15.

Women UN limited logo and linkAt the forthcoming sessions of the Commission on the Status of Women, we will commemorate 15 years after Beijing. In so doing, I fear that many of us will forget a trajectory that leads us back to before Beijing and the Fourth World Conference on Women, to Nairobi in 1985 and Mexico in 1975. We will thus assess the past and our achievements only in part. And this I think is problematic not only because it may mean that we forget or downplay some key achievements and challenges, but also because it may mean that a new generation of women activists inherit a partial history of our global movements for transformation.

I am in no way challenging or questioning the significance of the 1995 Beijing Conference. The Beijing Platform for Action constitutes the primary policy framework that shapes the programmes of governments and international and national agencies mandated with the advancement and empowerment of women. It also establishes norms and standards relating to women’s rights and entitlements that provide women’s organizations and networks with the basis for their lobbying and advocacy at national and international levels. The Beijing Conference was also a forum where many representatives from women’s organizations were a part of the official delegations to the Conference, creating strong synergies between state and civil society aspirations for women. This is reflected in some of the language around women’s human rights in the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action.

The NGO Forum of the Beijing Conference also constituted the single largest gathering of women from around the world. My own memories of the Fourth World Conference on Women are shaped far more by the experiences of the NGO Forum at Huairou. The mere fact that over 30,000 women activists came together there is in itself phenomenal. The numbers ensured representation of diversity in a manner that the world probably has never witnessed since. It was a space for many cross-cultural and cross-sectoral encounters. For the first time women of all colours, races, ethnicities marched together demanding equal rights for lesbians, challenging the notion that sexuality related issues were only valid for ‘white’ or ‘western’ women. A demonstration for economic justice brought together women from the world’s richest and poorest countries, united in their understanding that patriarchy and capitalism walked hand in hand. The debates were powerful, often contentious and sometimes even confrontational. There were security issues. Representatives/agents of governments came into the tents in pursuit of women dissidents. The Chinese government’s scrutiny was often invasive and narrow-minded. The food available at the NGO Forum site often ran out. Everyone has tales to tell about looking for food outside the Forum site in small family run restaurants where nobody spoke English. But it was the spirit of camaraderie that prevailed, and this spirit continues to infuse and enthuse the women who return to the CSW year after year as the governments of the world review implementation of the commitments made in Beijing.

15 years since the Beijing Conference, remembering and reviewing the debates and discussions about women’s empowerment that took place in Beijing and in Huairou allows us to reflect on our achievements and on the challenges that continue to exist.

Listing the achievements is relatively easy. In almost every country today there are a range of institutional mechanisms and legal frameworks that set out to shape laws, policies and programmes that aim to advance women’s equal status and protect women’s rights. At the regional and international level too there are many more structures and institutions that have as their objective the protection and promotion of women’s equality. During the Beijing Conference, there was a strong debate and contestation of the terms ‘equity’ and ‘equality’. Some imagined the terms to be synonymous, others felt that the use of ‘equity’ instead of ‘equality’ was more strategic when negotiating with governments. Many feminists held fast to the idea that ‘equity’ allowed states to focus on formal and quantitative equality for women while shying away from guarantees of substantive and qualitative equality for women, which called on them to challenge and confront social and cultural norms that discriminate against women. Today, fifteen years later, the distinction between equity and equality is well understood and recognized and equality remains the primary aspiration in fighting against discrimination.

Beijing also calls on us to remember and reflect on the debates on the definition of gender which remain a fundamental challenge in the 21st century. In the preparatory process for the Beijing Conference, there was resistance from some states to the use of the term ‘gender’ in the outcome document, based on their understanding that this somehow would open the doors to the inclusion of concerns of persons who were challenging the stereotypes of male/female, masculine/feminine.  In the end the Beijing Declaration referenced gender with a footnote leading to Annex 4.

Today, gender has become a far more acceptable term in many areas of state and international policy and programming and many women’s rights activists have expressed their concerns regarding the over-arching use of ‘gender’ to be synonymous with ‘women’. Terms such as ‘gender violence’, ‘gender mainstreaming’ and ‘gender budgeting’ are often used without considering the intersection between sex/biology and gender/social construction. It is in this context that feminist analysts argue that it is imperative to return to the conceptual framework that represented ‘gender’ as referring to the social construction of masculinity and femininity as separate from and different from the biological difference of male and female. Expanding that understanding to include contemporary concerns that for example articulate ‘gender identity’ and ‘gender expression’ as including a range of masculinities and femininities, challenge the binaries of previous conceptualization on this theme.

The issue of abortion was highly contested in Beijing and remains highly contested today. In fact the backlash against groups and individuals who support the right of women to make autonomous decisions regarding a termination of their pregnancy free of violence, coercion and discrimination is worse today in many ways than it was in 1995. While it is true that the combining of reproductive rights and sexual rights led to some conceptual confusion and contradictions in defining strategic directions within the women’s movement, by the early 2000s there was an emerging consensus on the need to separate the issues as well as a formulation of a multiplicity of rights relating to sexuality. Contestation of consideration of sexuality related rights in contemporary international and national fora, including within the UN arenas, mandated with the promotion and protection of human rights continues, with strong voices on both sides of the argument leading to on-going expansion of norms and standards on this theme as well as attempts to nullify these norms and standards.

However, from my point of view the primary challenge faced by women’s movements worldwide as they celebrate the 15th anniversary of the Beijing Conference and congregate in New York to observe the deliberations of the state present at the CSW is the depoliticisation of the processes in both the formal and informal arenas. In the formal arena, the preparatory processes for the Beijing +15 at the regional and global level have been dissatisfying in terms of the inclusion of concerns of women’s groups and activists into the final B+15 meeting of the CSW. The decision not to have an outcome document was announced at the last stages and left no space for any intervention from civil society groups. The form and shape of the political declaration that will emerge from the CSW is yet unclear.

At the level of intervention from women’s groups in the process too I find that there is no mechanism for building consensus around the key challenges and demands of women from around the world, irrespective of their class, race or any other status, to combat the challenges of discrimination and violence they confront on a daily basis. Thus the Beijing+15 evoked a range of responses representing diverse regional and sectoral concerns, but lacked a comprehensive or cohesive response based on the common and shared challenges facing women because of the combined forces of globalization, all forms of fundamentalism and extremism, war and conflict, natural disaster, identity based politics, climate change and consistent and persistent damage to the world’s environment. These are themes that are commonly discussed within various sectoral and regional gatherings organized by women’s movements and often in collaboration with other groups and movements working in diverse sectors. Yet there are barriers and obstacles to the evolution of a shared and collective response that are created by a range of external and internal factors from donor motivation to political and conceptual divisions at national and international levels. Moving beyond these narrow divisions to build a cohesive platform for action for women’s movements worldwide to confront and combat the common challenges should be our priority as we move forward from Beijing +15.        

About the author
Sunila Abeysekera is a Sri Lankan feminist and human rights defender. She has been active on women's issues since the 1970s and is involved in many women's organizations and networks nationally and globally. She is a founder member of the women and media collective in Sri Lanka, a member of the board of the urgent action fund for wonen's human rights,  part of the coordinating group of the feminist dialogue process at the world social forum and of the women human rights defenders international coalition. She has written and published on women's human rights and particular on the situation of women's rights in conflict situations.