This year was intended to be a celebratory time for women: the 25th anniversary of the momentous Beijing conference on women’s rights and how to advance them. It isn’t working out that way, however, as a global health crisis and disagreements among advocates for women rewrite the script.
The 2020 session of the Commission on the Status of Women, intended to focus on a Beijing+25 theme, was cut from almost two weeks to one day, under United Nations restrictions imposed on government delegations to help contain exposure to the new coronavirus. Now the fate of the follow-up nongovernmental Generation Equality Forum sessions is uncertain.
The viability of the first Forum, scheduled for Mexico City on May 7-8, is being questioned as cancellations of many other, unrelated events are reaching into May, a signal of global concern. The second Forum is to be held in Paris on July 7-10. Mexico and France are allied with UN Women in sponsoring the yearlong series of events commemorating the 1995 Fourth World International Conference on Women.
“Nothing is guaranteed,” Mavic Cabrera Balleza, the chief executive officer of the Global Network of Women Peacebuilders, said in an interview with PassBlue. “There’s a likelihood that the Mexico meeting will not happen. Even Paris might not happen.” As of March 16, no decision on changing those dates had been made by the civil society organizers of the Forum, which is being convened by UN Women.
Suggestions that “virtual” Forum sessions could be held across the universe of cyberspace, a tactic the UN is using more often, won’t work in these civil society gatherings in which grass-roots participation should be protected, Cabrera Balleza said.
“I’m not confident right now that there will be a meaningful alternative,” she added. “Everyone is turning into virtual conferencing, but we work a lot on the ground in local communities affected by conflict. Many of them don’t have 24-hour electricity, let alone the Internet. There’s a digital divide — a big digital divide — between the developed and least developed countries, so that already excludes a big number of people.”
The divide doubles, she said, when the only cellphone available in a local group is controlled by men in the family or community — even if the Global Network of Women Peacebuilders is paying for airtime.
Cabrera Balleza, who was in China for the 1995 Beijing conference and has worked closely with the UN on other large international gatherings, had disagreed early on with the formation of NGO Gender Equality Forum sessions — before the effects of health concerns and severe travel bans took effect. She opposes the tightly defined, “orchestrated” structure and agenda of the sessions, as adopted by layers of advisers and a central core group led by Lopa Banerjee, the chief of UN Women’s civil society section.
The prepackaged program is based on six themes and coalitions for action — gender-based violence, economic justice and rights, bodily autonomy and sexual and reproductive health and rights, feminist action for climate justice, technology and innovation for gender equality and feminist movements and leadership. That leaves little to no space for women and youth in conflict and peace-building.
Field officers representing UN Women worldwide, who often confront conflict and care about issues of women in war and peace, were not consulted on the program endorsed by the agency. They did not learn about it until they were assembled at a retreat after the fact, some of them told Cabrera Balleza.
Scores of women’s peace movements at the grass-roots level as well as some high-ranking former UN officials and outside experts have written or endorsed open letters supporting a singular voice and coalition on peace and security within the Forum.
On March 9, Cabrera Balleza met with Ana Maria Menéndez, a senior policy adviser to UN Secretary-General António Guterres, who has repeatedly spoken about the need to expand women’s roles in peace and security work. Menéndez said she would raise the issue with UN Women, Cabrera Balleza told PassBlue.
“I think that one of the strengths in Beijing was that it allowed for self-organizing and inclusivity and freedom to invite all those we wanted to invite, not being told how we should do it,” she said. “It respected and celebrated the diversity of the women’s movement.” She said that other concerns were a lack of transparency about funding and the integral role in the Forum assigned to the private sector and philanthropic foundations.
UN Women did not reply to a request from PassBlue to interview relevant Forum partners in the agency. But Shannon Kowalski, the director of advocacy and policy at the International Women’s Health Coalition, which is the leading civil society partner of UN Women on Beijing+25, said in a statement to PassBlue through her spokeswoman that the women’s movement is eager to make progress on the issue.
“A working group has been established to examine the issue of women, peace, and security, and how it can best be addressed through the Generation Equality Forums,” Kowalski said. “The Civil Society Advisory Group supports a standalone Action Coalition.”
On sex work, the controversy endures
Beyond the UN system, other initiatives are emerging to enhance the general discussion of how to progress from Beijing+25. At least one, the “Feminist declaration on the occasion of the twenty-fifth anniversary of the Fourth World Conference on Women,” rekindled a controversy over the decriminalization of the sex industry.
The 16-page declaration, introduced on March 9, ranges across a myriad of political, economic and social topics grouped into 12 areas of particular concern. They describe — in the view of the drafters from the global Women’s Rights Caucus — where the world has gone badly awry and what to do about it. The women, peace and security agenda is included in a comprehensive section of the declaration, linked to disarmament and other national security policies.
Another section of the declaration caught the attention of Taina Bien-Aimé, the executive director of the Coalition Against Trafficking in Women. It appears to end criminalization of all actors and activities in the lucrative international sex industry. In part, it recommends that authorities “Fully decriminalize sex work (including sex workers, their clients and third parties) as a necessary step to ensure that sex workers can claim their labor rights, recognizing that criminalization creates barriers to the realization of their rights, access to public services and social protection, and promotes discrimination and marginalization; [and]
- End conflation of trafficking and sex work and anti-trafficking measures that further stigmatize, criminalize, and isolate sex workers and migrant workers, and instead promote a worker-centered and human rights-based approaches to trafficking;”
Because the declaration appeared in the context of the Beijing+25 anniversary, Bien-Aimé recently asked UN Women, to which the declaration had been sent by some people involved in the Generation Equality Forum, whether the agency was involved in its messages. She was told it was not and that it was not welcomed by some agency staff.
Last autumn, Bien-Aimé was among the leaders opposing the increasing demand that the UN system back a growing campaign to decriminalize prostitution and change the terminology around it. Prostitution would become sex work, a form of labor; prostitutes were sex workers, and so on. The language was less important to many people than the effect on the lives of women in the developing world, where trafficking of girls and women is often sex slavery marked by extreme violence and persistent abuse. This was, in a sense, a North-South issue.
Bien-Aimé and others in her coalition had become convinced that the impetus in the UN to obscure the reality among poor women who were often sold or driven by extreme poverty and had not chosen sex work freely, was coming from UN Women.
Then in late October, Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, the executive director of UN Women, defused the debate somewhat when she declared that the agency was neutral on the issue. Now it appears to Bien Aimé that the issue could return in the Generation Equality Forum.
Olga Persson is the secretary general of Unizon, a Swedish association of 140 women’s shelters and empowerment centers. In a message to PassBlue, she said: “No feminist worth her or his salt would ever support the decriminalization of the sex trade or recognize prostitution as a form of labor. These groups, claiming to be feminist, are urging governments to allow male paid sexual access to the bodies of the most vulnerable women in the world for the profit of an exploitative multi-billion-dollar sex trade. The sex trade ruins the lives of individual women and children, it tells the lie that women’s bodies are commodities for men and it’s in itself the total opposite to equality between women and men.
The notion that sexual exploitation is a choice, and the aim to decriminalize the exploiter, the buyer, destroys the spirit of the Beijing Platform for Action. Feminism is about equality and dignity, not promoting the commercial sexual exploitation of women who demand education, economic empowerment and a life free from violence and discrimination.”
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.