Twenty-four years ago, the United Nations Fourth World Conference on Women, held in Beijing, yielded a bold declaration from 189 countries calling for improving the rights of women across the globe. Now, plans to mark the 25th anniversary of Beijing are forging ahead, as organizers decide on themes of conferences taking place in 2020 while managing pushback against women’s rights that may arise from a range of governments.
France and Mexico are planning to co-host a two-part Beijing+25 conference in 2020, scheduled to occur in Mexico City in April and Paris in July.
Those events will be preceded at the UN by the annual women’s rights conference, held in March, where implementation of the 1995 Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action will be reviewed. The 25th commemoration will be formally marked months later, in September 2020, by the UN General Assembly in New York.
France, unsure of its focus for the Paris conference, is outsourcing the question. On June 6, Marlène Schiappa, the French secretary of gender equality, together with Asa Regner, the deputy executive director of UN Women and a Swede, launched a survey of “feminist organizations” to help decide what will be on the Beijing+25 conference agenda.
“It can be about climate change or artificial intelligence, we are open,” Schiappa said at a media briefing at the French mission to the UN in New York.
The goal of the joint conference is not to revisit the declaration adopted in Beijing — which could generate more backlash than progress — but to “celebrate this 25th anniversary in a political climate with a lot of support for gender equality,” Regner said. She added: “We also know that there’s a lot of political resistance against women’s and girls’ rights.”
To address this resistance and help mend recent and continuing damage to the cause of gender equality in UN and other forums worldwide, the organizers want to work not only with countries but also with nongovernmental organizations.
Other international organizations and governments are meanwhile proposing initiatives to finance aid for women’s reproductive health rights as the American government strikes funding for such programs.
The United States, Russia, some Arab nations and a few European countries tried unsuccessfully to remove women’s sexual and reproductive health language from the conclusions issued by the UN’s Commission on the Status of Women, or CSW, in March. A month later, the US threatened to veto a UN Security Council draft resolution focused on ways to end sexual violence in conflict, unless similar reproductive health language was deleted from the document.
Dropping that wording dealt a blow that suggests how risky it will be to draft a new Beijing Declaration at the 2020 meetings — hence the word “celebrate” as opposed to the words “push for change.”
“We had the opportunity to say it during the CSW,” Schiappa said, “but we’ve had no choice but to deplore Poland, the US and Hungary for their huge backlash against women’s rights.”
Still, one goal of the 2020 French-Mexican meetings is to gather as many feminist voices as possible, Schiappa said. Flor de Lis Vásquez, representing the Mexican mission to the UN at the conference in Mexico, said, “We want the discussion to be from the North to the South, and from the South to the North.”
The Trump administration has virtually ended financial aid to women’s reproductive health programs internationally, reinstating a global gag rule that slashes all funding for any overseas organization that performs abortions or even offers counseling on the matter. In response, some US Congressional representatives are recently striving to overturn Trump’s policies.
But if the US government now shuns the label “feminist” or anything related to women’s sexual and reproductive health rights globally, some American advocacy groups are turning up the heat.
The New York-based International Rescue Committee launched a “feminist humanitarian aid policy” on June 10, backed by former US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright. The policy addresses the “funding gap for gender-based violence programs in humanitarian contexts,” said Sarah Rutherford, the communications manager for the Georgetown Institute for Women, Peace and Security, which hosted the event announcing the initiative.
“With so few resources currently addressing women and girls’ needs in crisis settings, this new feminist approach to humanitarian aid is sorely needed,” Rutherford added.
The data on gender-based violence programs, according to a new report from the International Rescue Committee and Voice, reveal that such services account for just 0.12 percent of the $41.5 billion allocated for humanitarian funding from 2016-2018, or less than $2 in such services for each survivor, on average, in crisis and conflict settings.
The Canadian government has also stepped into the enormous void left by the Trump policies on financing women’s health programs in the developing world. In early June, Canada announced a $330 million pledge to women’s organizations both in Canada and abroad. A second announcement promised to increase Canada’s international funding of women’s health to $1.4 billion by 2023, with half of the amount allotted to supporting safe abortion access and access to other reproductive health services.
France recently announced that it would follow the examples of Canada and Sweden by adopting a feminist foreign policy. The policies of Canada and Sweden, however, have struggled to be fully transformative in a world where some governments are rolling back women’s rights or are afraid to utter the word “feminist” in their agendas.
Yet a new bright spot for women’s rights advocates was notable in Spain, where more women were elected to Parliament than ever before. And in South Africa, half of all President Cyril Ramaphosa’s new Cabinet are women.
Schiappa also said she was bringing a feminist agenda to this year’s G7 summit, taking place August 24-26, in Biarritz, France. At the top of the lineup is “fighting inequality of opportunity, promoting in particular gender equality, access to education and high-quality health services.” Breaking with tradition, other countries, notably from Africa, will be invited to participate in the Biarritz gathering, along with members of civil society.
As for the French survey canvassing women around the world on what should be included in the Beijing+25 conference, it is available now only in French, English and Spanish, though Schiappa told PassBlue that she intended to make more translations available.
During this year’s CSW conference, UN Secretary-General António Guterres asked countries to “push back against the pushback” on women’s rights. Feminists can now suggest how by clicking here. (Note: the deadline for participation has not yet been set.)
We welcome your comments on this article. What are your thoughts?
Stéphanie Fillion is a New York-based reporter specializing in foreign affairs and human rights who has been writing for PassBlue regularly for a year, including co-producing UN-Scripted, a new podcast series on global affairs through a UN lens. She has a master’s degree in journalism, politics and global affairs from Columbia University and a B.A. in political science from McGill University. Fillion was awarded a European Union in Canada Young Journalists fellowship in 2015 and was an editorial fellow for La Stampa in 2017. She speaks French, English and Italian.