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A retrospective: 15 years later, Beijing’s mandate yet unfinished

Fifteen years ago in Beijing, then-First Lady Hillary Clinton made an instantly iconic cry for women’s rights: “Women’s rights are human rights and human rights are women’s rights.” On that day, those words evoked a seven minute standing ovation; they have inspired more than a decade of homage to this one
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Yet these were not the only words uttered in that important speech; nor indeed, I posit, were they the most important. Clinton also pointed to a number of statistics that characterized the status of women at that time, 70% of the world’s poor are women among them. Fifteen years later, as the 54th CSW  opens to review progress in implementing the benchmarks to equality that were set out at that conference, we are haunted by the fact that despite 15 years of conventions, resolutions and conferences, this statistic is unchanged. Our work is far from over.

In her speech, Clinton identified the most critical issues for women’s equality as access to education, health care, jobs and credit; the chance to enjoy basic legal and human rights; and full participation in the political life of our countries. Listening to her words these many years later, we could well be hearing that speech for the first time today. A brief retrospective:

15 years ago, Clinton explained that when women are healthy and educated, their families will flourish. If they are free from violence and have a chance to work and earn as full and equal partners in society, their families will flourish and as a result entire nations will flourish. Today, we have even more evidence that shows that investing in women lowers poverty rates, since women reinvest a much higher portion in their families and communities, spreading wealth beyond themselves.

15 years ago, Clinton opined that women are the primary caretakers for most of the world’s children and elderly, but much of the work they do is not valued. Today, women perform 66 percent of the world’s work and produce 50 percent of the food but they only earn 10 percent of the income and own 1 percent of the property.

15 years ago, Clinton pointed to the tragedy that women were dying from diseases that could have been prevented or treated, and watched as their children succumbed to malnutrition caused by poverty and economic deprivation. Today, an estimated 536,000 women die needlessly from pregnancy and childbirth complications such as hemorrhage and sepsis annually.

15 years ago, Clinton decried the fact that women were being denied the right to go to school by their own fathers and brothers. Today, many young girls are denied schooling because family responsibilities such as water fetching and firewood collection take precedence, or there are insufficient funds to send all children to school and boy children are thought of as a better investment.

15 years ago, Clinton explained that women were being raped as an instrument of armed conflict. Today, about 70% of casualties in recent conflicts have been women and children.

15 years ago, Clinton indicated that women and children made up a large majority of the world’s refugees; today UNCHR estimates that 75-80% of the world’s refugees are women and children. 

15 years ago, Clinton asserted that when women are excluded from the political process, they become even more vulnerable to abuse. Today, legal barriers to entry into politics and government for women have been removed, but women still account for only one out of every six national parliamentarians in the world. Additionally, women’s lack of experience, education and training prevents them from entering political and decision-making processes.

These statistics spell the tragedy of our time. In the intervening years since Beijing, we have written some of the best international accords imaginable to close the gap between women and men globally.  Out of Beijing, we have a Platform for Action.  Five years later, a set of eight internationally agreed-upon development goals to achieve, among other things, gender equality.  Ten years after that, today the stage is set for a new U.N. “super agency” for women, with a budget five times that of UNIFEM. As we ready ourselves for this week of review, analysis and agenda-setting for the future, let us do as Deputy-Secretary General Asha-Rose Mtengeti Migiro suggested in her opening remarks at this morning’s high-level plenary before the U.N. General Assembly: “We need to move from commitment to action.”  The future for women, girls, and indeed the world hangs in the balance.

 

About the author

Lyric Thompson is co-chair of Girls Not Brides, USA, and Director of Policy and Advocacy at the International Center for Research on Women


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