It's 15 years since Beijing. Almost half my life time ago. At the time of the 4th world conference, I was still quite young. I felt aware of sexism, but I didn’t have the vocabulary to describe what I felt, or the analysis to explain to others what I thought wasn’t right.
This began to change just a year later once I was in high school, navigating my way through adolescence and all the trauma and adventure that come with that period as a young woman. I can’t say it was entirely fun; my high school, though more liberal than some, was quite anti-woman in its own way. To this day, I think of my own personal relationship with high school being quite tightly bound to my emergence as an ever-more vocal feminist and activist.
I honestly can’t remember a time when I didn't think of myself as a feminist. I don’t think I even had a ‘click moment’. But I do remember being conscious of my opinions about sexism and feminism becoming firmer and more pronounced as I passed through my six years in secondary school. I joined the Women's Issues club at the school as soon as I found out it existed and helped put on school assemblies about feminism. I talked about rape and abortion in class discussions. I wrote about the history of the Canadian feminist suffrage movement for my very first essay.
Through it all I remember feeling convinced of the importance of what I was exploring, but also alienated from many (most?) of the girls at school as a result. While my friends were becoming highly body and sexuality conscious – whether boy-oriented or coming out – I was getting madder and madder. I couldn't entirely relate to wanting to pretty-up. I wore combat boots and army trousers from second hand shops: a caricature of teenage feminist angst.
15 years since Beijing and it seems that life is still hard if you’re a girl. For those going to my old high school, popular culture is probably even more oppressive than it was when I was there. Where we had problematic magazine images and music videos to contend with, my younger ‘sisters’ will be subject to even more sexualized versions of these plus all that is sexist on the internet such as mainstream sites like Facebook allegedly treating violence against women as a joke.
For young women going or not going to secondary schools in other places and countries, there will be similar problems, plus some others that are likely not common to my old neighbourhood in Toronto. School girls are still facing violence including rape, HIV and AIDS, gangs, sexual exploitation, abduction and trafficking, genital mutilation, forced marriage and forced pregnancy all over the world, to name just some of the challenges.
On the eve of the 54th session of the UN Commission on the Status of Women (CSW), which will be taking a 15 year review and appraisal of the Beijing Platform for Action, I find myself getting ready to be a bit mad. How can it be that 15 years after one of the most impressive negotiations and calls to action on women’s rights ever conducted, school is still one of the most dangerous places to be a girl? And what do our governments have to say about it? Stay tuned as I, Jane and our guest writers blog daily from the CSW in New York over the next two weeks on ‘the progress on and challenges of advancing women's human rights’.