The "best time to be born female": the worst to be a feminist advocate

Twenty years after the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action - a pivotal moment in the women’s human rights movement - governments are arguably less able to serve as torch-bearers than celebrities, philanthropists and popular icons.

Lyric Thompson
11 March 2015

There are more participants than ever before - nearly 9000 - at this year's UN Commission on the Status of Women.  It’s a big year for CSW, in theory. It's the 20th anniversary of the Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing, and a global progress review against the goals set out in that pivotal outcome document, the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action.

There has already been much said about the disappointing dearth of real debate on this important anniversary - this year’s CSW Declaration a far cry from Beijing’s, having been “pre-negotiated” before the thousands of feminist activists arrived in New York to begin advocacy on said outcomes.

Ostensibly, this was to protect space to draft truly progressive language that, it was thought, would not be possible in the hustle of CSW. But the bland document the community has inherited leaves much room for improvement. Indeed, as Zohra Moosa describes in yesterday's article on openDemocracy 50.50, it has been decried as such by nearly 1,000 organizations around the world.

Anne Marie Goetz and Joanne Sandler wrote recently of the many reasons we have no Fifth World Conference on Women this anniversary, many of them the same motivations, theoretically, for the pre-negotiated political declaration this year at the CSW. It is striking that 20 years after such a pivotal moment in the women’s rights movement, governments are arguably less able to serve as torch-bearers than celebrities, philanthropists and popular icons.

Take actress Emma Watson’s “He for She” speech at the UN, which sparked more of a debate online and in the media than last week’s major conference on men and masculinities. Yesterday actress America Ferrara, Secretary Hillary Rodham Clinton and philanthropist Melinda Gates launched their own review of progress since Beijing, known as the No Ceilings project, which some might argue had more substance than the CSW political declaration.

According to the progress report produced by the Clinton-Gates collaboration, “There has never been a better time to be born female.” This claim rests on the all but elimination of the gender gap in primary education, the decline in maternal mortality of 42% in the last twenty years, and more states are adopting equal rights provisions and eliminating discriminatory laws than ever before.

“Progress is possible,” was a similarly upbeat and frequent refrain of the star-studded presentation that featured current and former heads of state, CEOs and remarks by Malala via skype from her classroom, yet it seemed to be largely undercut by the peppering of statistics that contradicted that sentiment:

  • - One in three women suffers violence in her lifetime;
  • - Women’s workforce participation has actually decreased from a high of 57  percent to a currently-stagnated rate of 55 percent;
  • - The notion of equal pay still a dream;
  • - Only 5 percent of CEOs of Fortune 500 companies are women;
  • - Just eight percent of peace negotiators are women, and half of peace agreements fail in the first five years; 
  • - Child marriage remains one of the most significant barriers to girls’ participation in the social, economic and political spheres.

These numbers and figures make it clear there is more work to be done - as the #NotThere yet hashtag reminded participants. Yet there were a few things missing from the discussion, perhaps not altogether surprising for a philanthropist who has taken flack from the right for taking a leadership role on family planning and a former Secretary who is a presumed candidate for the highest political office in the land

With all the talk of maternal mortality and child marriage, there was no mention of the millions of lives at risk due to unsafe abortion.

Sexual and reproductive health and rights received a mention, but there was no mention of sexuality and gender identity, which is a considerable omission in the era of the criminalization of homosexuality, corrective rape of lesbians, and similar discriminatory policies and practices endured on account of gender around the world today.

These issues do merit a mention in the companion policy agenda, “The Full Participation Plan,” that was launched on the Clinton Foundation website only. It’s a bit hard to locate, hosted on a separate platform altogether than remainder of the noceilings.org resources, but there, amongst the five guiding principles and ten policy priorities, one finds a few things of interest. Firstly, a clear call for universal access to sexual and reproductive health and rights - something the US Government never formally embraced, even under Clinton’s leadership, and is therefore all the more poignant here. The modifier “safe abortion where legal,” is a disappointment, but the universal SRHR banner is nonetheless a strong statement. Other policy priorities include ending child marriage, FGM, and gender-based violence; promoting women’s leadership in conflict resolution and peacebuilding, and empowering women in environmental stewardship and climate change response. These can be interpreted as Clinton’s personal agenda, released in time to influence the post-2015 negotiations this summer

Shuffling back across Manhattan to the UN from the considerably more glamorous Times Square report launch a strange thought presented itself: On the East side, a pre-negotiated political declaration is the anniversary present received by thousands of feminist activists who have come to advocate for policy change on their issues. On the West, an expansive progress review that has no official political outcome. It may be the best time to be born female, but it’s the worst to be a feminist advocate: one’s chance to spur progress is more rhetorical than political, delivered through the hundreds of side events organized by governments, civil society and celebrities, very much on the sidelines of the policy-making process.

Arriving back on 1st Avenue, I picked up my official UN grounds pass, only to realize it was the end of the official work day, with officials closing up shop.

I left, badge in hand, wondering if I would have any reason to go inside the UN complex at all this year.



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