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The distance travelled: Beijing, Hillary, and women's rights

Hillary Rodham Clinton will need to listen to the voices of women working at grassroots on the frontline, and be prepared to use her power, should she win, to defend the human rights defenders.

This article was first published by openDemocracy in April 2015

Hillary Clinton, before the 2015 premiere of "Makers: Once and for All", chronicling the lead up to U.N. Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing. Credit: Julie Jacobson / PA Images

So Hillary is running again. And the campaign against her has also taken off, with her gender and her record on women’s rights part of the story. How far will Clinton go this time in positioning herself as a champion of women?

On the morning of Hillary Clinton’s low key announcement that she is running for President for the second time, potential Republican rival Senator Rand Paul weighed in with a CNN interview, managing to patronise her as a woman in the same breath as saying it would be wrong to patronise her. He said it would be ‘sexist’ to suggest that Clinton deserves not to be treated aggressively in the political fight ‘because she’s only a woman’.

Clinton herself avoided a gender-based strategy in her 2008 bid for the Democratic nomination but this time, she is building it into her campaign. An ‘America’s Grandmother’ theme has emerged to improve Clinton’s appeal to voters and the campaign is prioritising women and young people, emphasising the chance to make history by putting the first woman President in the White House and leading on policies such as equal pay and paid leave as part of her broader programme on improving the incomes of workers and reducing inequality.

In the years since her earlier Presidential bid failed and Clinton became the world’s most powerful diplomat as Obama’s Secretary of State, she felt able to be more vocal on gender. She launched the Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review initiative, making the empowerment of women one of the objectives of US diplomatic missions abroad. The Clinton Foundation, which Hillary runs with husband Bill Clinton and daughter Chelsea, recently launched the ‘No Ceilings’ project, an initiative to inspire and advance the full participation of women and girls around the world, and in a recent television interview marking twenty years since the UN World Conference on Women in Beijing she said: ‘In the 21st century, the biggest piece of unfinished business is the full rights of women and girls and that’s what we should be focused on.’ 

The Fourth World Conference on Women held in Beijing in 1995, attended by more 30,000 activists, was a landmark breakthrough for women’s rights, and Clinton’s part in it cannot be underestimated. She was First Lady, not an elected official, but nevertheless her speech proclaiming ‘women’s rights are human rights and human rights are women’s rights’ was electrifying, not just for what she said but for the fact that there was someone with real influence in the White House prepared to say it.

The speech put the moral and legal force of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in the service of women. Running for the nomination and possibly being a candidate, and even elected President next year, once again places Clinton, and progress on women’s rights, in a historic position at a time when real political will could make all the difference.

Since Beijing, while the UN itself has devoted more attention to the status and conditions of women and some progress has been made, there have also been alarming developments. Violence against women has become an undeniable and widespread universal reality, and speaking out against it no longer a taboo, as it once was.  Everything from rape as a weapon of war to sex trafficking to female genital mutilation (FGM) are far better understood, acknowledged and addressed in public discourse and policy.

But even in the midst of progress at this level, the tide of violence has continued to rise and a special brand of violence has come to the fore: violence against women and girls who defend human rights such as Malala Yousafzai - now a Noble Peace laureate - and Salwa Bugaighis, a Libyan lawyer who played a key part in the Arab Spring and who was murdered in her own home last year as Libya descended into jihadist conflict. 

The challenge is no longer simply to promote women’s rights themselves. There is an additional struggle: to fight the backlash and protect the women who defend all human rights. Whether it is because of the rise of religious fundamentalism, the spread of criminal networks, the land grabs of corporations or the inertia, resistance or weakness of governments, women who promote human rights have very little protection from the powers and forces they challenge, and as a result their own lives are often at risk. Even when not in mortal danger, such women are regularly and extensively targeted around the world through judicial harassment, travel bans, threats, smears and detention as evidence gathered by the Association for Women’s Rights in Development shows.

A new front has opened up: the defence of women human rights defenders which is to be the subject of the Nobel Women’s Initiative’s biennial conference in the Netherlands April 24-26.

As with so much in the political sphere, the struggle for progress at the highest levels hinges on language and ideas. As a new concept, ‘human rights defenders’ first gained currency in a UN resolution in 1998, then in 2013, the General Assembly adopted a resolution specifically on protecting women human rights defenders. The resolution was a breakthrough but was a hotly contested matter with difficult negotiations about the final wording on several flanks. The resolution expressed the UN’s ‘grave concern’ about the risks and violations that women human rights defenders faced. But initial drafts contained contentious references to issues including matters of sexual and reproductive health, reproductive rights and sexuality that were later dropped in the final text. Key points that would have strengthened the text were excluded as a result of opposition voiced by a number of states from Africa, Asia and the Vatican.  

When the resolution was adopted four global rights organisations issued a statement saying: ‘It is deeply regrettable that this last minute consensus came at the expense of a crucial paragraph containing language calling on states to condemn all forms of violence against women and women human rights defenders, and to refrain from invoking any customs, tradition or religious consideration to avoid obligations related to the elimination of violence against women.’

The focus now is on implementation. Nicole Bjerler of Amnesty International’s UN Office in New York said: ‘The resolution urges states to put in place gender-specific laws and policies for the protection of women human rights defenders and to ensure that defenders themselves are involved in the design and implementation of these measures,’ adding that ‘effective implementation of such measures by states will be key to enabling women human rights defenders to carry out their important and legitimate work.’

This week's Nobel Women’s Initiative conference is designed to move from international resolution to action, building support for women human rights defenders and developing strategies for real progress on the ground through looking in detail at case studies from different regions around the world.  Topics include digital and internet security, funding, media training, climate change and the protection of natural resources and the environment, and the monitoring and documenting of specific threats against women.

The conference is an essential move in keeping up the pressure to make governments and other agencies take action, not just make resolutions. The issue could so easily slip off the agenda otherwise. The Nobel Women's Initiative have pointed out that recent studies, echoed by findings of the UN Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights Defenders, demonstrate that women environmental activists and women protecting land against mining and other resource developments are often facing the highest level of risk, and that 'to date, governments are doing very little to address their specific needs.'

 At the recent meeting of the UN Commission on the Status of Women, a Political Declaration was issued that failed to include a reference to women human rights defenders. Lydia Alpizar, Executive Director of the Association of Women’s Rights in Development, did not let it pass unremarked in her speech. 'A vital prerequisite for the continuity of the achievements and the future progress of our work is the integrated protection and prevention of violence against women human rights defenders in all our diversity,’ she said. ‘It is a shame that all language on defenders was removed from the Political Declaration.'

Alpizar added: ‘This is the moment; there are important opportunities before us. This is the moment when we must have all resources needed - the political commitment and the action - to achieve real transformations.’

With Hillary Clinton declaring her candidacy for the Democratic nomination on a gender-inflected programme, the distance travelled from Beijing is considerable. The possibility of having a woman with power in the White House who at least has a track record in women’s rights, and who could yet have the political commitment, is a historic opportunity.

The Nobel Women’s Initiative is providing the route through for the voices of women at the grass roots and in the frontline to be raised and amplified. Hillary Clinton will need to do more than campaign, but to listen to them and be prepared to use her power, should she win, to defend the human rights defenders.

 Marion Bowman will be reporting for 50.50 from the Nobel Women’s Initiative conference on the defence of women human rights defenders, 24-26 April. Read more articles by participants and speakers attending conference.  Read previous years' coverage.


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