Debating a 5th World Conference on Women: defiance or defeatism ?

The past four World Conferences on Women have galvanized activism and strengthened women's movement building. Now is the time to assess and rethink the decision not to convene a 5th global gathering of women.

Anne Marie Goetz Joanne Sandler
15 February 2015

An exchange took place last week on Twitter about whether we had more to lose or gain from holding a 5th World Conference on Women. The conversation was sponsored by the international NGO, Gender at Work , and can be seen under the hashtag: #5thwcw. The discussion was triggered by an article that we wrote taht was published on openDemocracy in January, called ‘Women’s rights have no country’.

We argued against a dominant position that it is too risky to hold another UN conference on women because the forces of conservative backlash are currently so significant that women risk losing the normative gains made at the Beijing conference 20 years ago. This caution is evident in the meek approach of the upcoming UN Commission on the Status of Women discussed in an article by Lyric Thompson this week, where there will be no attempt to enrich and deepen the achievements of Beijing. Our point was that transnationalism has always been a crucial resource for feminists at national, regional and international levels. We argued that the mounting backlash against women's rights was all the more reason to find grounds for solidarity, build effective networks, and demonstrate a capability to work across borders to defend women’s rights.

The Twitter discussion was an initial and fairly random foray into a global public debate - that we argue must be held - on the viability and value of holding another UN conference. There were over 1400 tweets and almost 200 individual contributors - a good start, but nothing to compare with the Twitter hysteria engendered by Emma Watson outing herself as a feminist.  Still, some interesting points came up: a conviction that young people must be engaged more effectively in the struggle for gender equality; anxiety about intensifying conservative backlash; skepticism about the capacity of states to defend women’s rights, about the likelihood that the most excluded women and girls will participate, about the value of norm development in addressing the unfinished agenda of women’s rights, about the capacity of technology to enable a deepening of the women’s’ rights process,.

One of the most frequently cited pre-occupations was the challenge of creating an inclusive process. From Day 1 of the 5-day Tweet-a-thon there was an over-focus on the conference itself, rather than an insistence on a process of national, regional and global organizing that engages millions in organizing and building a collective vision and agenda.

It is a process, not just an event

In the 140 characters that Twitter allows, it’s hard to capture much nuance in a discussion about what kind of process and conference might advance women’s rights. For those who were involved in the process leading up to, during and following the Beijing conference and its parallel NGO Forum in 1995, it may be apparent that it is not simply a conference of elites talking to elites. It is a unique opportunity for transnational mobilization over a period of years.

But it has been more than a generation since the last one. Many of the “twitterati” on our discussion had no frame of reference for a process that could generate change at local, national, regional and global levels.

We stressed, in response, that the value of these processes is not just in the event itself, but the mobilization and lobbying leading up to it.  It affords women’s groups opportunities to develop constituency strength and leverage so as to drive a home-grown progressive agenda.  This process builds the size and strength of women’s movements.  Analyses of the past four international women’s conferences show that preparation for these, as well as follow up processes, generate momentum and funding for women’s organizations.   

One tweet was blunt: “So now there’s a debate about having another ‘Beijing’ to see about the next 20 years for women’s rights. I'm not convinced. At all.”  This was followed by tweets expressing skepticism about the UN’s capacity to generate meaningful changes in attitudes and actions from member states, and invoking Gayatri Spivak’s reflection on “’Women’ as ‘theatre’” at the 1995 Beijing conference.   An extract is worth citing: ‘We are witnessing the proliferation of feminist apparatchiks who identify conference organizing with activism as such [….] They often assume that altogether salutary debate in the conference will have necessary consequences in the lifeworld of oppressed and super-exploited women.”


The critique of the world of femocrats, and the drive to find consensus language for international agreements is fair enough.  But neither Beijing nor the preceding conferences were just about the negotiated outcome document.  These international convenings galvanized activism, strengthened women’s mobilizations and movement-building (especially in the countries where the world conferences were held) and provided a reference point against which national progress on women’s rights was measured.  It may be true that we have reached the limits of what can be achieved with regard to norm-advancement in international forums.  But we surely have much more to achieve through international networking, alliance-building, and joint action.

De-link or re-think?

A number of contributors expressed deep reservations about an international process convened and negotiated by states or governments. That feminists have reached this point of such profound skepticism about the willingness and capacity of governments to engage constructively in building women’s rights is itself an important and disturbing development.  It speaks to the extent to which states have either refused to or been rendered incapable of advancing significant social change agendas in an era of economic globalization, where international corporations call the shots on labour rights, environmental protection standards, and social protection.

Said one tweet: “states r out of touch with their people, especially women - this is why a #5thwcw cannot b run by govs”. 

Another said: “should we delink global gathering of women (and all the positives that would come from that) from negotiated text by govts?”

A response to this was: “Not de-link, but re-think. Traditional barter in UN process not as useful anymore. How do we move agenda in new ways?”

This is the crucial question. There is a growing impression that governments have no intention whatever of implementing the lofty goals to which they aspire, International agreements on gender equality are pressed into perverse service in providing venal administrations with a gloss of legitimacy.  A significant number of contributions stressed the need to avoid the reductive process of bargaining over the lowest common denominator of mutually acceptable standards on gender equality and women’s rights.  As one tweeter noted: “but isn't a global resolution the epitome of compromise? Is it possible it will be radical?”  The answers are of course ‘yes’ and ‘no’, underscoring the feeling that perhaps it is best to leave governments right out of it.

On the other hand, what would be the point of an international meeting if it did not demand action of governments to accelerate progress in guaranteeing women’s rights?  De-linking a fifth world conference on women from government decision-making would provide for a valuable celebration of activism and innovation, but it would not oblige governments to confront the size and determination of global feminist networks.

We do need to re-think the role of governments in these types of meetings - perhaps starting with how delegations are constituted so as to ensure that there is more space for the voice of women’s and feminist organizations.  Perhaps the objective of an international conference would not be an encyclopedia of intent, but rather a focused, time-bound implementation plan with targets that can be measured and monitored – linked to the gender goal and specific indicators and targets under the Sustainable Development Goals that will emerge this year from the UN General Assembly.

Young people: what do they want?

Twitter handles do not come with revelations about the age of the tweeter, but participants had the impression that about half of tweeters in this conversation were under 35.  From this category of tweeters came an appreciation of the value of international caucusing: “I was 13 when #Beijing happened so I'd quite like a #5thwcw - would be such a highlight for new generations of activists!”

Other tweets suggested that there are substantive reasons to engage youth in re-thinking feminism: “The idea of who's a feminist and what it means has changed radically since 1995. That's another reason that we need a #5thwcw”.  Another tweeter noted the need to give voice to new perspectives: “Fight for #genderequality & #womensrights won't be won by waiting & hoping enough has been done, or by ignoring new/unheard voices.” And this same tweeter commented on the defeatism inherent in not calling for a fifth world conference: “Failure to have a #5thwcw is an acceptance that there is nothing more to address, no other vital contributions/perspectives to be heard.”

While many contributors to the tweetchat made lists of the ‘unfinished business’ in women’s’ rights that need international attention, those connecting to a ‘youth’ perspective raised these substantive issues most insistently:  LGBTI issues, the role of technology in enabling stronger global networking, issues of faith, fundamentalism, sexual and reproductive rights.

Conservative backlash

One tweeter noted of fundamentalist religious groups: “they are 100 years behind lived realities of people but backlash is huge #5thwcw would support setting new norm”.  Several tweeters had a back and forth on the role of the Vatican/Holy See in these international meetings, noting the depressing return of the Vatican’s hostility to what it calls ‘gender ideology’, attacking the idea of the social construction of gender in schools in Italy, and most recently, in the proposed outcome document for the upcoming Commission on the Status of Women.  We are back to having to negotiate square brackets off of the word ‘gender’, which does make a parody of international negotiations on women’s rights.

One contributor reminded us not to make light of the serious demonization of feminist activists in a conservative environment: “If you think bold women are trolled on @twitter ? You should see governments troll women activists at these global conferences.”

On the other hand, a lone voice expressed the need to answer back to conservativism and  extremism:

#5thwcw is needed to put Islamic feminism on the map of global feminist movements. Key in fighting radicalism and integrating Muslim women”

It is this spirit of defiance that we would like to highlight.  Feminist movements have not in the past caved to conservativism – and as a general principle, a reluctance to confront the tide of conservative backlash might be facilitating its current high-speed flow.  In advance of the UN Commission on the Status of Women a cluster of 11 countries have signaled their intention to subordinate women’s rights to the family. For the record, they are called the ‘Friends of the Family’ and include: Belarus, Egypt, Indonesia, Iran, Kuwait, Libya, Malaysia, Nigeria, Pakistan, Qatar, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, Turkmenistan, Yemen, Zimbabwe, with the Holy See no doubt as a silent partner.  Hardly the most egalitarian or democratic cluster of states.  Their intentions to act on a global scale as a ‘spoiler’ on women’s rights is despicable, but it is something that can be protested with international mobilisation.

Elitism and exclusion

Issues of exclusion, bias, elitism were raised in a number of ways - in terms of the role of men and sexual minorities in the international feminist process, but most directly in relation to the sense that international gatherings are the prerogatives of the privileged few. This criticism must be addressed directly via proposals for an inclusive planning and participation process that reaches to all possible levels of societies around the world. 

Some of the tweets suggested the need to establish some non-negotiable starting points:  e.g.: the bare minimum conditions that must be met to agree to have a process and conference. At the least they include: i) no back-tracking on what has already been agreed; ii) full partnership of women's organizations/movements and networks; iii) commitment to an inclusive process with a focus on the most excluded voices.

Ironies and urgencies

“You do not have to be a woman to be a women rights activist. But you need a #5thWCW to press the point home and to remind the world :).” This tweet highlighted the need to impress upon a global audience the size and determination of - and a new diversity within - national, regional and international feminist constituencies.

Our tweet-a-thon did not lead to any conclusions on the issue that we believe must be answered if we are to move forward: how to design a process and conference that is not a “re-do” of Beijing, how to change the form and tenor of global negotiations in a way that builds on and respects feminist values and principles, and that amplifies the voices and leadership of women on all of the issues that determine the fate of our countries and our planet.

The tweet-a-thon strengthened our belief that the conversation must continue in different venues: at the CSW, at national levels, in different thematic networks, and other spaces. We hope that some of the larger women’s rights networks - from AWID to the World YWCA and new networks at global, regional and national level - will continue to pursue this question. And we would love to see UN Women or other organizations put out a call for innovative ideas for a truly 21st century process and convening that will generate a renewed, refreshed and resounding agenda for women’s rights and gender justice.

There is an ironic historical echo to be heard in discussions about a global conference on women’s’ rights.  A hundred years ago the world’s then most extensively networked women’s association, the International Women’s Suffrage Alliance, had been planning its annual Congress for Berlin in the summer of 1915 but had cancelled it because of the outbreak of hostilities in Europe.  The Dutch physician Aletta Jacobs appealed for an alternative convening in a neutral country, proposing Holland.  She urged: “In these dreadful times in which so much hate has been spread among different nations, the women have to show that we at least retain our solidarity and that we are able to maintain our mutual friendship” (Jus Suffragii, December 1914: 200).  The IWSA membership of 26 suffragist societies elected however not to hold their congress at all, reflecting a serious rift in the membership between an internationalist pacifism and decisions to support specific nationalist war efforts. The Scotswoman Chrystal Macmillan forged on, arguing that individual women could meet and build proposals for global governance and peace in Europe. Late in April 1915, 1,200 women met in an International Women’s Congress in The Hague and developed a manifesto for international cooperation and conflict prevention whose terms are just as relevant today as thenAfter the Congress two delegations of the newly-formed Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom travelled the capitals of Europe urging peace.

One delegate apparently had said, according to the scholar Helen Kay : ‘I hope that the resolutions passed by this international congress be not only words, words, words, but that they be translated into actions’.  One hundred and thirty-nine characters.  A perfect tweet, and a good reflection of the concern of many of the participants in last week’s tweet-a-thon.

The author would like to  thank Gender at Work's Executive Director, Aruna Rao, and Anindita Sengupta, Communications Strategist, for the idea and platform for holding the #5thwcw tweet chat.

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