The potential of the Beijing declaration and the platform for action

By Janis Alton

Can the subjugation of women be reversed? Can the global entrenchment of attitudes, policies, and structures of preference for males be abolished? International cooperation toward these goals has begun, but can we yet say that it has begun in earnest? The Fourth World Conference on Women held in Beijing China from September 4-15, 1995 could be the engine for this change--with a lot of pushing from below. In the previous issue of Peace, Bruna Nota, Ian Russell, and several other participants recounted their experiences in the huge non-governmental conference that preceded the official one. Here I want to review the accomplishments of the governmentally-sponsored meeting.

The final document of the conference was called the Beijing Declaration and the Platform for Action. The 189 governments and observers adopted it by consensus, though about 40 countries expressed reservations in writing and orally on specific provisions, mostly dealing with health. The 362-paragraph text recommends actions on 12 critical areas of concern considered to be the most pressing issues for the advancement of women throughout the world. These include poverty, economic structures, power-sharing, institutional mechanisms, human rights, media, environment, and the girl-child. The Platform for Action, though far from perfect, created fresh hopes for women's progress. See the achievements listedon the previous page by the Women in Environment and Development Organization.

But Will It Hold Up?

But will this be translated into national policies around the world? Looking over our shoulder at previous efforts to improve the status of women globally, the record of achievement is ragged and vulnerable to narrow political understanding and male-established priorities.

The International Year of Women in 1975 signaled an awakening of the international community to the inequities affecting the lives of women around the world. The Year culminated in a declaration that a special UN Decade on Women was warranted and the First World Conference on Women, in Mexico City. Its concluding document and those of the Second and Third World Conferences on Women, held during the decade in Copenhagen (1980) and Nairobi (1985) rang with promises of equality, development, and peace, particularly the Forward Looking Strategies for the Advancement of Women to the Year 2000 of the Nairobi Conference. Crafted at the height of the rivalry of the Cold War, it contains unexpectedly strong commitments to which all governments agreed. But in 1990, a time of review by the U.N.'s Status of Women Commission, many governments failed even to submit progress reports.

Lately there has been an unprecedented and rapid succession of other U.N. conferences opening more windows on the truth of global gender apartheid, beginning with the Conference on the Rights of the Child in 1990. The Rio Conference on Sustainable Development (1992) acknowledged the conditions of much of women's work; the Vienna Conference on Human Rights (1993) pioneered women's rights as human rights, and equated human rights as the right to development. The Cairo Conference on Population (1994) showed sustainable development as the empowerment of women. The Copenhagen Social Summit tackled problems of poverty and development.

The Beijing Conference consolidates gains won by women at all these previous U.N. conferences and clearly links the empowerment of women to economic, social, and political betterment. There seems no doubt about its potential for substantial positive change in the lives of women of all ages and girls, particularly with the added force of whole sections committing governments for the first time to financial and in institutional arrangements. Some 90 governments, including Canada, in their opening speeches made various commitments to specific actions they are prepared to take. Implementation plans are expected of each U.N. member government by the end of 1996.

There is no doubt that NGOs will not only be monitoring the process but finding ways to keep governments accountable. The presence of extraordinary numbers of NGOs at every preparatory step on the road to Beijing, their insistence and influence in drafting recommendations, many taken up verbatim by governments, indicate that NGOs, particular women NGOs, are determined to push forward the joint efforts of Beijing.

To move these statements of consensus into action, it is crucial to organize at every level, from the community up to the international. Here's how:

How To Move Forward

Get a free copy of the Platform for Action through Status of Women Canada (SWC), 360 Albert Street, Ottawa K1A 1C3. Phone 613/995-78335. Fax: 613/957-3359.

Request briefing papers on women through the Department of Public Information, United Nations, Room S-1005, New York, N.Y. 10017. Phone: 212/963-6555. Fax 212/963-4556.

Become active with any of the Canadian NGO lead groups who are seeking ways to ensure implementation of a specific critical area of concern. Voice of Women (VOW), the lead group for peace, can provide group contact Voice of Women, 736 Bathurst Street, Toronto M5S2R4. 416/537-9343. Fax 416/531-6214.

Obtain a Canadian NGO popular version of the Platform for Action to be ready on March 8, 1996 (International Women's Day). The distribution source is to be confirmed, but SWC should know closer to that date.

As Gertrude Mongella, the Secretary-General of the Fourth World Conference on Women, said at the opening session in the Great Hall in Beijing,

A revolution has begun. There is no going back. There will be no unraveling of commitments--neither today's nor last year's, and certainly not this decade's commitments. This revolution is too just, too important, and certainly too long.

What Was Really Won at Beijing?

Real advances were made in the agreement to measure and value unwaged work, recognition of women's sexual rights, equal right to inheritance, rape (in military conflicts) as a war crime, individual rights of children and adolescents, the importance of women's full participation in environmental degradation, the harmful effects of toxic dumping, the nuclear industry, and health impacts of the movement of hazardous wastes. The attention on girls, the disabled, indigenous peoples, the media, and international financial institutions, the first open debate on the rights of lesbians represent breakthroughs.

What was won at Beijing also includes calls for reducing poverty, increasing educational and economic opportunities for women of all ages and girls. It is a pro-family and pro-motheragenda. It calls for employers to help balance work and family responsibilities through child care provision and creating other flexible policies to encourage greater male responsibility for family and homes.

It urges better health care services, especially preventive health care, including breast cancer. It reaffirms the importance of reproductive and sexual rights, and opposes any form of coercion. It high-lights the needs and rights of refugee and immigrant women. It even mandates that governments provide services to illegal immigrants. It promotes the human rights of all women. It mandates governments to reduce military spending, stop nuclear testing, and to ban the exportand use of land mines.

It calls on corporations to follow the rules and abide by national laws and international agreements and environmental resources in the economy, including housing, inheritance rights, credit without collateral, and land reform. It calls for specific actions to ensure that women participate equally in decision-making at all levels and asks governments to use affirmative action and other creative mechanisms to make this goal a reality. It states unequivocally that ´the participation and leadership of the half o humanity that is female is essential' in the search for peace, security, and people-centered sustainable development.

Women in Environment and Development Organization.

Peace Magazine Jan-Feb 1996

Peace Magazine Jan-Feb 1996, page 26. Some rights reserved.

Search for other articles by Janis Alton here

Peace Magazine homepage