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UN Leaders Call for a Global Review of Women’s Rights


women's conference
The UN is planning a world conference on women in 2015, on the 20th anniversary of the momentous Beijing summit, though it faces many hurdles. Women on the last day of Ramadan in Cotabato City, Philippines, above. TANYA BINDRA

In an unusual joint call for action, Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and the president of the General Assembly, Nassir Abdulaziz Al-Nasser of Qatar, are asking United Nations members to convene a world conference on women in 2015, the 20th anniversary of the path-breaking meeting in Beijing that broadly defined women’s rights and proposed actions to further them.

A formal resolution to start planning for the conference could be introduced in the General Assembly in the next few weeks. It is bound to provoke heated discussion.

The year 2015 may seem a long way off, but UN procedures demand years of preparation. An early choice of a site for such a huge official gathering (and its parallel nongovernmental activities) must be made. Then come the hard jobs of fund-raising, scheduling preparatory meetings and agreeing on an agenda. The rights that were agreed on at international women’s conferences in 1975, 1980, 1985 and 1995, as well as a global human rights conference in Vienna in 1993 and the International Conference on Population and Development in Cairo in 1994, are being eroded or threatened in countries as diverse as Egypt, Afghanistan, parts of Eastern Europe and the United States.

Some influential UN officials and women’s groups have been wary of opening the international floor to a backlash against women’s rights, particularly the reproductive rights enshrined in the Cairo conference, which include access to contraception and safe abortion where it is legal. The Vatican delegation (which as the Holy See can take part in UN meetings by virtue of possessing territory) fought hard against such proposals but lost the battle in Cairo. Since then, the Vatican has intensified its opposition, often with conservative Islamic nations, some American evangelical Protestants and governments around the world where male dominance is a fixture of culture and law.

Keep the status quo or push ahead?

Paula Donovan, a co-director with the Canadian diplomat Stephen Lewis of AIDS-Free World, a nongovernmental organization that supports women’s rights, says that she has been asking herself whether “we’re better off maintaining the status quo than giving voice to the anti-women sentiments that seem to be pitched at deafening levels at the moment wherever one turns.”

That challenge must be met, Donovan wrote in an e-mail, saying that the 1995 Beijing Platform for Action to safeguard and expand women’s rights cannot be taken for granted.

“It seems to me that many governments would leap at the chance to replace 1995’s consensus with one designed to drive women’s rights back a half-century,” she wrote. “But that’s the most compelling reason for women to unite and press forward. We can’t stop mid-revolution and hope that if we move stealthily, we’ll inch toward gender equality without attracting the attention of those men who work constantly to maintain their power over women.”

Big UN conferences are essentially meetings of governments, and women still lead few of those, leaving them outside the closed doors when final decisions are made by official delegations.

“Twenty years later,” Donovan wrote, “men still claim more than four of every five parliamentary seats worldwide; they didn’t step aside as they promised they would. And so, in the absence of the more gender-balanced governments women were promised in 1995, it seems only fair that an alternate arrangement would have to be designed to give women a fair say in the final outcome of a 2015 conference. Male-dominated governments can’t be given veto power over the consensus on women’s rights once again. A fifth World Conference for Women would have to have the kind of decision-making structure that was envisioned, but never delivered at past conferences.”

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Qatar, defying expectations

Thoraya Ahmed Obaid, who was executive director of the UN Population Fund, UNFPA, in 2001-2010, adds that given the calls to hold 20th-anniversary sessions for both the 1994 Cairo population conference and the Beijing conference, “It would be interesting to see how the negotiations on these two conferences will go, especially within context of the increasing extremism in all religions, a wave that I expect has not yet reached its crescendo and that will continue over the coming few years.”

Obaid, the first Saudi to hold such a high UN position, now chairs the board of the Women’s Learning Partnership, a nongovernment organization in Washington that works with women in Islamic societies to instill political and organizational skills. She continues to follow UN discourse closely.

“The discussions in the intergovernmental processes at the United Nations today are higher pitched than a couple of years ago, with different arguments being utilized against the principles of women rights than what were used previously,” she wrote in an e-mail. “The issues of women are very sensitive from both religious and cultural points of view, and negotiations would be very difficult. I fear that the international community might not win what it sets as goals — going beyond what member states adopted in [Cairo] and Beijing. But I still have faith in the intergovernmental negotiations that eventually find solutions at the zero hour.”

Anwarul Chowdhury, a special senior adviser to the General Assembly president, who was instrumental in drafting the joint statement by Ban and Al-Nasser calling for a 5th international women’s conference, said that the decision to hold the meeting should be made in the assembly before its leadership changes. Assembly presidents hold office for a year, and Al-Nasser’s term ends in September

That a General Assembly president from a small Persian Gulf state, Qatar, with limited democracy should be promoting a global conference on women’s rights may strike some people as unexpected. Qatari women have the right to vote, however, and can run for office. They also have high literacy levels, on par with men.

Noel Lateef, president of the Foreign Policy Association in New York, has known Al-Nasser, a fellow at the organization, for years.

“I am not surprised that Ambassador Al-Nasser and Qatar would push for a conference on women’s rights,” he said in an e-mail, adding that this assembly president “has long championed the vital role of women in economic and social development. Qatar may be a small state, but it would be a mistake to underestimate its influence and aspirations in seeking to shape the contemporary Arab world.”

Lateef said that he was impressed on a visit to Doha, the capital, by the prevalence of banners with quotes attributed to the ruler’s wife, Sheika Moza bint Nasser, on the importance of education.

Al-Nasser has served several terms in Qatar’s UN mission, most recently as ambassador.

“As a Fellow of the Foreign Policy Association, Ambassador Al-Nasser demonstrated his personal commitment to education when he hosted a group of American high school teachers that the Foreign Policy Association brought to New York, and shared with them a trenchant analysis of international developments,” Lateef wrote.

Persuading the General Assembly

“Now the task is to get a critical mass of countries to propose a resolution in the next few weeks,” Chowdhury said in an interview. “The opposition will be there.” He added that indifference and concerns about costs of a conference among some governments could also be problems. But, he said, there is catching up to do, since a new generation of women will be reaching maturity by 2015, and they will have new tools to work with, including Security Council resolutions beginning in 2000 that demand protection of women in conflict areas and guaranteed places for them in peacemaking.

UN General Assembly president
Nassir Abdulaziz Al-Nasser, center, president of the General Assembly, with UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and Muhammad Shaaban, an under secretary-general, on Sept. 13, 2011. RICK BAJORNAS/UN PHOTO

Where the conference would be held is still being discussed, Chowdhury said, though San Francisco, the birthplace of the UN, has offered to be the host. Mostly unspoken around the UN is the political situation in the US. The administration of President Barack Obama, with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton at the forefront, has been very supportive of liberal social issues (like the rights of women and of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people) within the UN system and through American diplomacy and aid. Clinton has a history in women’s rights. In 1995, then the president’s wife without an official title, she was greeted as a rock star in Beijing.

Conservative Republican candidates in the run-up to the US presidential election in November and those already in Congress have publicly opposed many of the advances in women’s rights made at international conferences. They would not be supporters of another one.

Another question hanging over a women’s conference is the fate of UN Women and its leadership. The agency, which began operations in January 2011, is underfinanced. Its executive director, Michelle Bachelet, a former president of Chile, is thought likely to resign, perhaps this year, to return to Chilean politics. A strong leader holding the gavel is important to a large international conference.

UN officials seem prepared to move toward a conference on women but are less certain about organizing a 20th-anniversary event in 2014 for the Cairo meeting on population and development, which seems an unlikely occurrence, given the time constraints and controversies.

The Cairo conference broke new ground by affirming that women and their partners, not governments or other institutions, had the right to decide on the size of their families. Women were also recognized as a central factor in the development of poor countries and needed to make appropriate decisions about their reproductive lives to avoid or mitigate the cycle of poverty and fertility that holds back human progress in large parts of South Asia and sub-Saharan Africa.

Critics labeled the outcome of that conference “a Western feminist agenda.”

Additional resources

Paying Attention to the Hidden Strengths of Women

Unsafe Abortions Add to Global Maternal Deaths

Population Growth Threatens the Poorest


We welcome your comments on this article.  What are your thoughts?

Barbara Crossette is the senior consulting editor and writer for PassBlue and the United Nations correspondent for The Nation. She is also a member of the Council on Foreign Relations. She has also contributed to the Oxford Handbook on the United Nations.

Previously, Crossette was the UN bureau chief for The New York Times from 1994 to 2001 and previously its chief correspondent in Southeast Asia and South Asia. She is the author of “So Close to Heaven: The Vanishing Buddhist Kingdoms of the Himalayas,” “The Great Hill Stations of Asia” and a Foreign Policy Association study, “India Changes Course,” in the Foreign Policy Association’s “Great Decisions 2015.”

Crossette won the George Polk award for her coverage in India of the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi in 1991 and the 2010 Shorenstein Prize for her writing on Asia.

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