Twenty-five years ago, the United Nations hosted the largest gathering of women (and more than a few good men) in its 50-year history. Some 17,000 participants — among them, official government delegates, representatives of accredited nongovernmental organizations, international civil servants and members of the press — registered for the Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing. Another 30,000 global activists, including 8,000 from the United States, met in Huairou, a district some 40 miles away, to mount an impassioned parallel forum.
Women came together united by common bonds of disadvantage in a world of male privilege, but also divided by significant distinctions of race, class, religion, culture and geography. I, for one, will never forget the thrill of being part of that joyous, colorful assemblage. Women in vibrant African batik, stunning Indian saris, elegant caftans and handwoven textiles stood side by side with those of us in the drab, structured, European-style suits so popular back then. The clothes were indicative of a larger reality — the universality of feminism and its vitality among women in the Global South.
Then-US First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton, confidently attired in a stylish pink jacket and skirt, brought the crowd to its feet with her rousing opening speech. She argued the issue of women’s rights as a moral imperative, characterizing everyday forms of oppression and violence against women, long protected by local custom, as behaviors demanding universal legal remedy. And she also made her case on instrumental grounds, framing equality and opportunity for women as necessary conditions to advance prosperity and security among nations; she framed it not as a “soft” foreign policy issue but as an essential one, a breakthrough notion at the time.
Adapting a central tenet of the global women’s movement — actually first heard a few years earlier among grass-roots women’s groups in the Philippines — Clinton memorably said, “Women’s rights are human rights, once and for all,” a paradigm she helped transform into a global mantra.
Benazir Bhutto, then serving as prime minister of Pakistan, echoed the sentiment. Quoting from the Quran, she characterized respect for women’s rights as principles inherent to Islamic scripture and lived experience. She dismissed contrary interpretations from fundamentalists as “social taboos spun by the traditions of a patriarchal society.” Later the victim of an assassination, she may well have sacrificed her life for these views.
Days of intense deliberations followed these provocative plenary speeches. A new generation of professionals, schooled in the art of diplomacy but sensitive to the concerns of the grassroots activists who accompanied them to Beijing, filled conference rooms and traversed corridors, hammering out the details of a Platform for Action that would shape aspirations for the 21st century.
With determination and savvy, they managed to achieve consensus among the 189 UN member countries on an unusually optimistic blueprint for change. Some critics dismiss Beijing, along with prior UN assemblies addressing women’s rights, as lacking focus and practical strategies for implementation. I would argue that these conferences, the outcome documents they produced and the civil society mobilization they inspired have raised awareness, changed norms, altered behaviors, fostered activism, expanded legal protections and improved conditions around the world in countless ways. However slow progress may be — however intense the backlash every step of the way — no amount of resistance or repression has been able to reverse this momentum.
So where do we stand today?
There have been widely acknowledged gains in several of the critical areas Beijing prioritized:
• Norms have certainly changed, but the actual legal status of women in most countries has also improved. State obligation to protect women in the home and workplace was a relatively new concept in 1995. Sexual harassment as an enforceable provision of state criminal and civil law did not exist in the US until the 1980s, for example. And we took no legislative action to marshal federal resources to address violence against women until 1994. Today, a majority of countries have criminalized violence against women at home and at work, and many have also trained police and social welfare professionals and funded shelters. The International Labor Organization has adopted legal protections for transnational domestic workers and for women working in factories that are engaged in global trade. Compliance remains a challenge, of course, but is becoming a greater priority, as many countries condition new trade agreements upon enforcement of these provisions, and as private businesses come under increased pressure from an emboldened, global #MeToo movement, ever vigilant today as the Covid-19 pandemic poses new obstacles.
• The gender gap in education between boys and girls has closed at the primary-school level, with an estimated 39 million more girls in school. Families still living in extreme poverty, or in the many countries disrupted by conflict today, remain hardest to reach. And significant economic gains for women may be achievable only once they also reach parity in secondary schools, colleges and universities, but even there, trends are moving in the right direction.
• Women’s health and well-being have improved. Maternal deaths have been drastically reduced, as public health professionals recognize the value of saving the lives of women and babies by investing in measures that increase access to obstetrical interventions in breech births and other emergency situations. Expanded access to modern methods of contraception has empowered women to plan and space pregnancies, which also makes them safer. Breaking long-established taboos against providing sex education and birth control to unmarried women and to adolescents has significantly improved health outcomes as well. Sadly, bold pledges to fund family planning have never been fully met, and unmet need for reliable services still extends to millions of women. In thrall to social conservatives, the Trump administration has instead reduced US aid for development assistance generally, including family planning. Foreign governments and private philanthropy have stepped in to offset these losses, but this temporary fix is not sustainable in the long term.
• Women’s political representation has increased, if haltingly. The global average for representation of women in national legislatures reached a record 24.9 percent at the start of 2020, up from negligible numbers a generation ago. Southern countries, including Rwanda, Cuba, Bolivia, Mexico and the United Arab Emirates, have joined pioneers like Sweden, Finland and France in surpassing or reaching near gender parity in their parliaments. In 2018, the US, although still slightly below the global average in Inter-Parliamentary Union rankings, saw more than 100 women join Congress. In politics as elsewhere, however, women have done better at local levels of decision-making. Recent data from 133 countries show that women hold 36 percent of all seats in city, town and village councils, and increasing numbers of women serve as mayors or in comparable offices. It is, to be sure, tougher at the top. Only 21 countries currently have women as national executives.
In the workplace, women have seen few gains, and that’s simply heartbreaking. Women’s formal labor force participation has stagnated at a global rate of about 48 percent, and numerous countries that were once doing much better have witnessed declines in recent years, including the US.
A recent analysis by Rachel Vogelstein of the Council on Foreign Relations cites three sets of barriers to economic progress for women. The first is legal. More than 100 countries still restrict women from many high-paying occupations like construction or mining. Seventy-five countries, many with large rural populations, still deny women the right to own property, even though they perform most of the agricultural work. And women entrepreneurs have a harder time accessing credit and sustaining small retail businesses, although innovation in banking by cell phone could help close gaps in this sector.
The second barrier, however, is structural. Women are vastly overrepresented in jobs outside the formal, taxable economic sector, as well as in low-wage factory jobs that provide them with fewer benefits and protections. And this segregation is unlikely to change without substantial gains in secondary schooling and higher education.
The Chilean delegation at the Fourth World Conference on Women, 1995, drew approximately 17,000 participants, including government delegates, representatives of nongovernmental organizations, international civil servants and media. The UN is holding a 25th commemoration virtually on Oct. 1, 2020.
At the same time, state and local government workplaces that disproportionately employ women as office workers and in health care have declined dramatically in the past three decades as a result, I believe, of neoliberal, macroeconomic policies that starved the public sectors of many developing countries in the misguided notion that only unfettered capitalism would foster economic growth. Instead we have seen stagnant wages and vastly widening inequalities.
And finally, much of the problem is cultural. In most countries, women remain constrained by the obligation to balance paid work with 75 percent of the burden of unpaid housework, child care and elder care. A recent study shows that more than a third of men in China and Korea (and nearly that many women) still wish that women could stay at home all the time. In many Middle Eastern countries, even as the number of women earning college degrees has exceeded men, prevailing mores have kept married women out of the workforce, just as they often did until the 1970s in the US, where this is again becoming a problem.
Although both parents work in nearly two-thirds of married-couple families with kids, more women are leaving the labor market so they can manage family responsibilities during the Covid-19 pandemic. The US does not even rank in the top 10 countries of the world as measured by the Council on Foreign Relations’ Women’s Workplace Equality Index.
Transformative advances require concerted effort. Since 2010, the UN Human Rights Council has sponsored a group of five diverse and independent experts to work with countries to end legal discrimination. The UN’s Sustainable Development Goals — a framework adopted in 2015 to better organize investments across its many agencies — now requires gender impact analysis, just as Beijing proposed. And the institution’s work on women’s rights has been consolidated in a new agency, UN Women. Hopefully, progress will accelerate as a result.
Recent research demonstrates conclusively that women’s work drives economic growth. Studies from once-blinkered institutions like the World Bank, the World Economic Forum and the McKinsey Global Institute estimate that bringing women to parity with men in workforce participation and earnings would translate into trillions of dollars and expand global gross domestic product by more than 25 percent. Concrete evidence from India, Japan and many other countries long unfriendly to women shows that gender-sensitive taxation, expansion of social welfare and infrastructure investment make a real difference. With the issue now gaining mainstream attention from international financial institutions and national treasuries as well as the private sector, the arguments first sounded by feminist activists in UN forums are finally gaining greater traction.
Data to support policy innovation is abundant. What is harder to marshal is political will. Crises unforeseen when bold verbal commitments to women’s equality were made in the 1990s have sapped energy and diminished resources. Conflicts in the Middle East and elsewhere have spawned large refugee populations. Pandemics like HIV-AIDS and Covid-19 have wrought further havoc. Extreme weather resulting from a warming climate has caused costly environmental damage and increased displacement.
An unsettled world has unleashed political reaction and the rise of authoritarian regimes unfriendly to women in many countries, most dramatically, perhaps, here at home in the US. International alliances have been severed, funding for foreign aid has been eroded and essential programs cut. But worse, one could argue, is the fundamental intellectual challenge the Trump administration has posed to the human rights and development architecture that US leadership has nurtured at the UN for many years.
In a jaw-dropping report issued in July, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo challenged the expansive definition of rights across civil, political, social and economic sectors that was inscribed in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948. And he argued against the fundamental principle that these rights are indivisible. In a flagrant threat to women and gender nonconforming individuals, he insisted that rights claims have become excessive and must be contained, and he defended the administration’s earlier decision to leave the Human Rights Council on these and other grounds.
Ideas matter. They drive progress, inspire concrete change and lift the human spirit. They are among the UN’s most precious legacy, nowhere perhaps more significantly than in advancing women’s rights.
Seventy-five years ago in the dark shadow of World War II, the United Nations was born out of the improbable idea that sovereign nations might come together to shape a new world order secured morally and legally by human rights instruments and safeguarded by an impressive and unprecedented array of new development and humanitarian institutions.
At the time of its founding, just 30 of the 51 original member states guaranteed women the right to vote. Diplomacy was still essentially a man’s game. Only four women gathered among the 160 public delegates to the UN’s first meeting in San Francisco in 1945. But with support from a robust community of civil society activists, they inscribed women’s rights into the charter of the organization and affirmed in its preamble “faith in fundamental human rights, in the dignity of the human person, in the equal rights of men and women and of nations large and small.”
The journey since has been long and often grueling, but as the UN celebrates its 75th anniversary this year and marks 25 years since Beijing, gender equality occupies an ever-more secure position at the center of its agenda. This stunning accomplishment results from the dogged determination and agency of women from every country in the world. Our job as Americans in this critical moment is to go out and vote to defend it!
This essay originally appeared in Ms.
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