Holding up half the sky: not for ourselves alone

As the UN Commission on the Status of Women meets to review the implementation of the radical Beijing Platform for Action ’95, Kavita Ramdas reflects on the excitement felt by women then – and the sobering reality of the struggle today for women’s human rights.

Kavita Ramdas
24 February 2010
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This weekend I spent an evening watching the evocative Ken Burns Documentary, Not for Ourselves Alone about the lives of Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton. Although I knew the broad outlines of this revolutionary friendship between two American women in the early 19th century and their joint efforts at advancing the struggle for universal suffrage, it was fascinating to watch it through the eyes of my viewing companions – my daughter and three of her close friends, sixteen-year-olds, who have grown up in a post 9/11 America.

The images of women from that era were greeted with exclamations of, “why is she is wearing a head scarf?”, while the narrator’s reminder that at that time women were considered the private property of their husbands, and were not supposed to get “too educated,” elicited, “wow, that’s like Afghanistan, right?” These girls, all of them talented athletes as well as good students, could hardly believe that there could have been a time where this was the plight of the women in the United States.

As the film spoke of the historic gathering in Seneca Falls, NY, at which the delegates voted on a bill of women’s rights, the girls asked one another, “can you imagine being there? Wouldn’t it be wild?” Soon after that they drifted off to sleep. It had been a long day. I stayed on the couch – their questions had brought back vivid images from my one and only trip to China in 1995… not quite 150 years ago, but 15, almost a lifetime for my daughter.

I actually was at an event as amazing as this, I thought to myself, recalling that immense gathering of over 30,000 women from countries around the world. And, together, we did craft for the women of the world, a manifesto not unlike what Susan and Elizabeth pulled together in 1857. Our document is called "the Beijing Platform for Action.”

The Huairou/Beijing Experience

Looking back now, there are so many memories. It was a meeting that women from the United States attended with the full support and encouragement of their government. Bill Clinton was the President of the United States, and his wife, Hillary, was a passionate and outspoken supporter of women’s rights. She intended to be at the meeting.

In the world of foundation philanthropy – my professional milieu – there was much discussion about how the US delegation would be formed and how representative it would be of all aspects of women’s advocacy groups as well as how diverse it would seek to be in terms of representing a wide range of class, race, and sexual identity. Younger professionals like myself, who saw ourselves as activists rather than as “professional philanthropists” were advocating for a strong representation of grassroots and community based women to be included in both the government as well as non-government delegations. I was particularly delighted that a group of black women from the South Side of Chicago who had been working on the AIDS epidemic in their communities were able to attend the conference. My participation in the conference was as a member of the Ms. Foundation for Women delegation. I was nervous. I was a young mother with a 20 month old baby girl. This trip would be almost 2 weeks away from her and my husband, the stay-at-home parent in our relationship. I had never done that before.

My younger sister, Sagari, who lived and worked as a veterinarian in poor rural communities in Southern India, was worrying about the same thing. She had been urged to go to represent rural women’s struggles in the arenas of agriculture and sustainable livestock development. Her son, Nirvan, was just a few months older than Mira, our daughter. We talked to each other on the phone worried about whether we were doing the right thing. Our husbands, both of whom were very supportive of our choices as working women, urged us to go. They reminded us that the cause of women’s rights and liberation was a revolution that would ultimately bring a better world for our sons and our daughters. And, they gently poked fun at us for not trusting them with their own kids – “hey, aren’t you supposed to believe in shared responsibility?”

On this matter, they got lots of support from our mother, who had set us on the path to being feminist activists as we grew up in India. Mama was attending the Beijing Conference in her own capacity as a formal member of the Indian Government delegation that included both government officials and non-governmental activists with a long history of activism for women’s rights. I was not a US citizen, although I lived and worked in the US. I was a citizen of India, as were my mother and sister. It was the first time that the three of us had attended an international meeting in which each of us came in our own professional capacities. That felt momentous to the two of us daughters, but I know my mother was equally pleased. I can still recall the laughter and tears and squeals of delight as we found one another in the hotel in Huairou, the site of the non-governmental parallel meetings to the formal UN Conference being hosted in Beijing. Remember, we were new to the internet and no one had cell phones then – I don’t even remember how we were so good at coordinating everything!

Challenges and Choices

At the conference, politics were already affecting what could and could not happen. After offering to host the conference, the Chinese government was suddenly afraid about what the presence of so many women from around the world might set off in their country. Indeed, for many of us who attended Beijing, the events of Tiananmen Square were still fresh in our memories. And, Chinese women were very present, both at the official UN and government gatherings, and also at the NGO meetings. Thousands of young women students were our hosts and guides during the time of the conference. But, almost to ensure that we would not be too visible in the capital, the Chinese government moved the site of the NGO meetings to Huairou, a small provincial town outside of Beijing. The facilities were extremely modest – most of us lived in some version of student hostels; bathrooms were not always easy to navigate; and women with disabilities who attended the conference found themselves unable to negotiate most spaces since meetings and conference sessions were held in multi-story buildings without lifts or ramps for wheelchairs.

Undaunted, women began re-structuring the place – drab concrete hallways were transformed by brightly coloured saris and African fabrics hung on the walls. Makeshift tents sprung up like mushrooms offering women who could not meet inside a 3rd floor meeting room a chance to attend the session of their choice. Marches on every topic from the plight of the indigenous peoples of Australia and Peru, to the right to religious choice to lesbian rights filled the muddy grounds of the campus. I found the Global Fund for Women tent offering workshops on fundraising for women’s rights groups from around the world.

There were sit ins and sing-alongs, there were serious academic discussions on the meaning of feminism and there were all-night dancing and drinking sessions in which women exchanged personal stories of pain and suffering and resistance, rebellion and triumph. There were women everywhere you looked – old, young, nursing mothers and grandmothers, dykes in motorcycle leather and Nigerian market women with gorgeous bubus and bright headdresses, Iranian women covered from head to toe in black, and Iranian expats from Paris in mini-skirts and very high heels. It was like a global female Woodstock – complete with mud, because it rained almost non-stop for two weeks. Chinese women grinned and explained the weather by saying that the Yin/Yang balance was off because of the strong presence of so many women in one place!

Yet, for all the emotions, there was a sense of serious intent in all our work. It was clear to us as we listened to the testimonies of women survivors of violence, rape, war and multiple forms of harmful cultural practices – from female genital cutting to early marriage to dowry murders and so-called honor killings, that the women of the world needed a clear and unambiguous charter for how to move beyond the blatant gender discrimination and apartheid that seemed manifest in almost every culture, tradition, nation and religion. Women stayed up late into the night working on language, negotiating with their colleagues on government delegations pushing for greater inclusion and greater clarity about women’s rights as the basis for any agreement. And when, at the very end of our two weeks together, we had the chance (after hours of standing and singing in the pouring rain!) to listen to Hillary Clinton say loudly and clearly that “women’s rights are human rights”, even those of us who saw the US as an imperialist power, gave ourselves permission to dream that the future would be different for our daughters and our sons and for all women around the world - those who would bear those children and those who chose never to bear children. As Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony might have put it, we were clear that it was not for ourselves alone that we worked so hard to develop a document that we believed was true to the spirit and toil of so many diverse voices and could still pass as an official UN document.

So where are we today?

As I write this, I look back to the 10th anniversary of the Beijing conference in 2005. Those were dark days for the women’s rights movement in the United States and, by extension, simply by virtue of the disproportionate power and influence the US now wields as sole superpower, for women around the globe. The Bush administration had rolled back all but the most basic reproductive freedoms and rights for women, it had imposed the global gag rule, and it had fiercely opposed any ratification by the Senate of the famous UN treaty on the rights of women CEDAW. My words in an op-ed I wrote at the time are fighting words, “I’m returning because women around the world will never give up. I’m returning because women (and their children) are the disproportionate victims of war, yet have proved to be outstanding negotiators for peace when given the opportunity. I’m returning because it is women who understand that the best way to prevent trafficking is to build sustainable local economies while educating the community about the rights of women and girls.”

This year, you’ll see me inside UN meeting rooms, but also on New York City streets — I will be joining the thousands of women’s organizations coming from around the world to say, “Stop the rollback.”

As I watched the historic inauguration of Barack Hussein Obama in January 2009, I was moved for many reasons. But, one of the most important reasons was that as a feminist activist, I was sure that the words I would be writing in 2010 about women’s rights would be different. They would outline our success, our progress, they would celebrate the boldness and courage of a new generation – of a Secretary of State who once spoke those famous words as a first lady, of a President who genuinely believes in women’s equality and freedom, and of a Congress that had the conviction and confidence to stand with women both in the United States and around the globe in contrast to the previous eight years of conservative capitulation.

One year into the Obama administration, I am far more worried than I want to admit. I am concerned about an administration that seems more intent on pleasing and appeasing its critics on the right than delivering on the promises of its campaign rhetoric. I am troubled by meetings with administration officials at which civil society organizations are urged to be more understanding and less demanding of the administration since it faces so many challenges. I am dismayed by the fact that we cannot “seize the day” and move forward an agenda to ratify the Global Women’s Rights Treaty of the UN (CEDAW), because, “we must remember that it is seen as controversial.” How does it benefit this administration to act from a place of caution and hesitation? What is there to lose? Why would the United States choose to be aligned with Iran, Somalia and Sudan, the three other countries that have failed to ratify CEDAW?

I am particularly puzzled by this state of affairs, since in many other ways, the United States, and the West in general, has been flooded with an unprecedented public “aha” on the issue of women’s rights. My graduate school colleague, Sheryl Wudunn, and her spouse, New York Times columnist Nick Kristof, have written a widely heralded bestseller called, Half the Sky, that provides eloquent testimony from women’s rights advocates around the globe and makes a strong argument for why women’s rights need to be “the cause of the 21C”. Numerous public gatherings, including the Clinton Global Initiative and the World Economic Forum at Davos, Switzerland, have featured world leaders from Michele Bachelet of Chile, to Ellen Johnson Sirleaf of Liberia to Tony Blair and Gordon Brown of the UK, calling for the full realization of Women’s Rights. The corporate world, despite the economic crisis of the past 18 months, has made a public display of its commitment to “Investing in Women.” CEOs like Lloyd Blankstein of Goldman Sachs, to Jamie Dimon of JP Morgan, and Rex Tillerson, of Exxon Mobil, seem aligned and on-message about why women and girls are the new “micro-credit”.

Yet, if one looks past the rhetoric, the reality is sobering indeed. Women and girls still make up the majority of the poor. They have paid the highest price in this recent economic downturn losing jobs, becoming more vulnerable to domestic violence as male unemployment rises, and being pushed into survival sex or victimized by traffickers as they search for ways to feed their families. Female infanticide and foeticide have increased rather than decreased in places like India and China, where growing incomes have not changed a culture of son preference, but simply enabled families to make more technologically advanced choices that perpetuate women’s inferior status. The militarization of communities and the increasing presence of small arms and weapons from low income communities in East Los Angeles and the border towns of Mexico, to the villages of the DRC, have placed women and girls at greater risk of being raped, violated and sexually assaulted.

Even in the rarified world of private philanthropy, the statistics are grim – less than 7% of total US Philanthropic Giving last year went to organizations serving women and girls and headed by women. I can speak from my own experience at the Global Fund for Women: we struggled to maintain our funding at pre-crisis levels in 2009. Our 650 grants worth $8.5 million fell far short of the over 2,500 requests we had for support from women’s groups in 170 countries. We know that although they hold up both half the sky and more than half of the solutions, we need to create a more just, equal and sustainable world, for as things stand they are barely scraping by financially.

So, we are headed back to the streets and to UN negotiating rooms this March as we mark 30 years since the passage of the Women’s Rights Treaty (CEDAW) and 15 years since Beijing. We will do this for the daughters and sons who are now teenagers, so that they can see themselves as a part of these struggles and remember that it is not for ourselves alone.

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