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Women's rights have no country

There is no blueprint for holding fast against the arguments used to dismiss women's humanity, or defending our hard won human rights. It's time to meet, to brainstorm and try new formats.

At the 2012 Forum of the Association of Women’s Rights for Development (AWID) in Istanbul, there were heated discussions about whether to lobby for a Fifth World Conference on Women in 2015. The majority of older generation feminists taking part expressed reluctance. A young Turkish feminist took the floor and challenged us, essentially saying: “It’s fine for those of you who had the chance to go to Beijing and Nairobi to decline this opportunity. But what about my generation? We never had the chance to mobilize the way that you did. We need this!”

The 1995 Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing – including the official governmental meeting and its parallel NGO Forum – is widely hailed as a watershed. We both attended the NGO Forum, held in Huairou, a town an hour north of Beijing.  In a deeply muddy field, covered in makeshift tents to ward off the insistent rain, with hundreds of yards of garlands made of discarded plastic water bottles festooning the few hastily erected buildings in which the concrete had barely dried, 40,000 women from civil society around the world converged to make history.  And they did.  In spite of being accommodated at such a great distance from the official event, women from NGOs and networks joined their allies on official delegations to make sure that the final Platform for Action fought off attacks from the Vatican, from Iran and from a host of others who lobbied to diminish commitments to women’s equality and freedoms. We left with a sense of purpose and a roadmap to gender equality: the Beijing Platform for Action.

1995 Beijing, Women in Black demonstration. Credit: Anne Walker

In 2012 the UN briefly debated a proposal to hold a Fifth World Conference on Women, as a twenty- year follow up to the 1995 Beijing Conference. It would have been held in 2015, forty years after the UN’s First World Conference on Women held in Mexico City. 

Turkey and Qatar both offered to host. The Secretary General asked UN member states what they thought - should there be a follow-up to the Platform for Action agreed at Beijing?  It has become relatively routine to hold these international meetings to review and then advance achievements in a range of human rights or environmental protection areas. For instance, the 2012 UN Conference on Sustainable Development was a 20 year follow up on the 1992 Rio Earth Summit.

Many experienced women’s rights advocates breathed a sigh of relief when UN Member States failed to pass a resolution in favour of holding a Fifth World Conference and, instead, recommended that 2015 should focus on (yet) another review of Beijing commitments. Beijing +20 follows other five-year reviews which have, at best, been lackluster, and could not replace the galvanizing force and visibility of a UN World Conference. The cautions against advocating for a new World Conference were made on the following grounds:

It is far too dangerous now to re-open international agreements on women’s rights. Powerful governments and non-state actors today actively obstruct efforts to advance neglected areas of women's rights such as sexual and reproductive freedoms, and for this reason there was no 20th anniversary conference to advance the agreements made at the Cairo International Conference on Population and Development.  The power of these reactionary forces in an international forum is considerable; they could seriously reverse progress made at Beijing.

So many of the commitments in the Beijing Platform have yet to be implemented - for instance the commitment to increase the proportion of seats held by women in governments to a minimum of 30%, or to put an end to female genital mutilation, or to cut military expenditures. An international conference will be a distraction. Let’s just focus on national and local-level implementation.

  • Money! Women’s organizations are starving for money as it is. An international meeting is expensive and unnecessary in the age of ‘Skype’ and other electronic meeting venues.

So there will be no Fifth World Conference on Women in 2015.

This decision could be exceptionally damaging in terms of its potential impact on international and domestic women’s movements. But it is not irreversible. There can be one in 2020. Or whenever the women of the world want it to happen. 

We agree with those who highlight the real threat of losing ground on women’s rights. But let us think beyond the usual approach to these global inter-governmental meetings. The time has come to try a different format. We do not have a blueprint to hand, but there are options worth exploring. The Fifth Conference could focus on innovation in implementation, and could generate pledges for significant national investments in gender equality.  It could focus on the growing frequency and ferocity of attacks on women human rights defenders, and on effective strategies and commitments to end such attacks. The Fifth Conference could focus on a much deeper exchange between civil society and governments than has ever happened before. Its agenda and priorities could evolve from a bottom-up, inclusive process that engages millions of women and men.

1995 Beijing NGO Forum peace demonstration. Credit: Anne Walker

There is surely more to gain than to lose in holding a Fifth World Conference on Women in 2020. At the same time, we need to negotiate conditions that will help expand, not shrink, the women’s rights agenda:

We are not proposing a re-run of Beijing. We need to re-think the way that UN world conferences are undertaken anyway. An international conference does not axiomatically have to arrive at a consensus document. There is no need to fetishize consensus. Women’s rights cannot be sacrificed to international agreement if that means lowering standards even further than they are. It should be possible, through global brainstorming, to come up with an agenda that builds awareness amongst even the most reactionary governments of the strength and determination of the global women’s rights constituency, and that raises the costs - both in the relations between states and in regional and international institutions - of domestic suppression of women’s rights.

No United Nations Women’s World Conference has yet been held in the era of social media. In 1995 at Beijing, few had access to email, let alone the kind of instant commentary and feedback available now. Social media would expose to domestic and international scrutiny the reactionary positions of some governments. Democracies would have to think twice before refusing to support terminations for pregnancies of women raped by soldiers during conflict, or the rights of same-sex couples to inheritance, or the rights of adolescents to the kind of education that can prevent HIV infection and early pregnancy. 

Young women and men have not had a chance to engage in this type of transnational feminism. This would be the chance for a new generation to take leadership. Younger feminists would have the opportunity to organize locally and connect globally and contribute to reviving women’s movements in many countries and regions.

Women from countries under conservative governments need an opportunity to be heard around the world. If a world conference were to be held in countries or regions increasingly dominated by fundamentalist religious interests, it would be an opportunity for women to express their perspectives about the use of religion or culture to excuse repression and extreme violence.

2020 will mark five years from the time that the new set of globally-agreed Sustainable Development Goals come into force. This could be an ideal moment for a World Women’s Conference, an opportunity for a diversity of women’s voices and views to assess how the first 5 years are going from our perspective, and whether progress is happening in ways women feel are most important.

For many, an international women’s conference feels like an unwarranted extravagance. Yes, these meetings can be expensive; but the cost of gender inequality is much higher, and the benefits to democracy, development, and peace of reduced gender inequality, and increasing the strength of the women’s movement, are massive. These meetings also yield resources. They provide women’s organizations with opportunities to prove their relevance and to raise funds. You can’t put a monetary value on international solidarity. And you can’t deny its importance to women’s mobilization domestically and internationally. 

At the time of Beijing +15, Sunila Abeysekera, the Sri Lankan women’s human rights champion and peace leader who died last year, pointed out in an article on openDemocracy 50.50 that there was no mechanism for joining together “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” and she encouraged that we move “beyond…narrow divisions to build a cohesive platform for action for women’s movements worldwide to confront and combat the common challenges…”  That is what a world conference on women’s rights can do that no other venue will allow: update and strengthen a common platform between women’s movements and networks in different countries and regions that creates opportunities for partnerships and agreements with, and between, governments and inter-governmental organizations.

Painting banners, 1995 Beijing NGO Forum. Credit: Anne Walker

Women’s human rights have no country. There is no champion state making sure that women’s human rights are advanced. The common ground that those committed to working for gender equality have is each other. And a great way to find each other is on the crowded fields - however muddy - of international meetings and the local, national and regional preparatory processes that lead to them.  We use this ground to marvel at the arguments used to dismiss our humanity, and then not only hold fast against these attacks, but keep pushing to make it the ‘new normal’ that yes, women are human, fully equal, and must live without fear, pain, and prescriptions as to who they should be and how they should behave.  

The starting point for any agreement to hold a Fifth World Conference on Women must be that there can be no re-opening of past agreements or looking back to question existing commitments. We all have to look forward, for there is still so much to be done.

About the authors

Anne Marie Goetz is a Clinical Professor at the Center for Global Affairs, New York University. She was formerly Chief Advisor on Peace and Security at UN Women. Follow her on twitter @amgoetz and @nyucga

Joanne Sandler is an independent consultant focusing on women’s human rights and a Senior Associate of Gender@Work, an international collaborative that strengthens organizations to build cultures of equality and social justice. Between 2001 and 2010, Joanne was Deputy Executive Director of Programmes at the UN Development Fund for Women (UNIFEM). Follow her on twitter @JoanneSandler.

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