Beijing+25: Weaving Together Commitments to Women's Rights

Sharon Bhagwan Rolls
Posted October 13, 2019 from Fiji

A Look Back

It was 1994. Almost 25 years ago. The Pacific Platform for Action (PPA) had been adopted with 13 critical areas of concern.

I was then a much younger woman, a member of the Fiji YWCA, tasked to join an NGO working group reviewing the draft Beijing Platform for Action. My key reference point was a publication by the International Women’s Tribune Centre explaining the Nairobi Forward Looking Strategies adopted at the United Nations Third World Conference on Women, copies of advocacy documents from the World YWCA.  I was provided a single document. It was my key reference point to what will become the key global policy document on gender equality and women’s rights.

We were each assigned a critical area of concern. I was assigned Section J, Women and the Media, the Declaration and was also asked to cast the eyes as a young woman on the document text. 

By September 1995, when the Beijing Platform for Action (BPfA) was adopted at the United Nations Fourth World Conference on Women, it was a well read, extremely marked up and rather tattered if not treasured document.

1994 to 1995 was a period of intense preparations through a variety of processes. 

There were regular meetings reviewing the various sections after work as most of us had other ‘day jobs’ to attend to.

There were Pacific preparatory meetings organised with the wider Pacific women’s rights advocates and activists, including from governments.

As we combed through the document, line by line, I was beginning to understand the nuances of formulations.

At the Asia Pacific meeting in Jakarta, I recall my realisation of the politics of regional agreements within the Pacific and within the Asia Pacific caucus as well as broader global alliances.

We worked to find consensus, while standing firm on our demands as civil society and women’s rights activists when engaging with governments and inter-governmental organisations.

Much, in fact most of this happened without the benefit of the internet.

We relied on fax machines (even telex information!) and what is today referred to as snail mail.

I could not email allies across the world to check on language, to send alerts on difficult positions, to seek support and solidarity but it was evident from the 1995 NGO forum of the Fourth World Conference on Women with theme “Looking at the World Through Women’s Eyes” that despite the information and communication gaps at the time, women were able to organise and mobilise to bring to the global stage the collective vision of women’s movements worldwide. These efforts were pivotal to advancing the most progressive outcomes adopted by the conference

Today

Online communication means coalitions of diverse women’s rights activists and feminists can provide their input on zero drafts of ministerial declarations while tweeting commentary on processes and updating online communities on processes.

Bridging the gap online coordination means connecting activists from different time zones.

This is how several us are collaborating and contributing to several different working groups and committees established for Beijing+25.

While I am still a strong believer in the value of meeting in-person, getting up early for a 6am online call or wading through emails and updates, is how many of us are ensuring 2020 is not only about a celebration of the “silver lining” of the outcomes of the 1995 Conference but also a stronger advancement towards the achievement of women’s rights:

In 2020, the global community will mark the twenty-fifth anniversary of the Fourth World Conference on Women and adoption of the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action (1995). A five-year milestone will be reached towards achieving the Sustainable Development Goals of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. 2020 is therefore a pivotal year for the accelerated realization of gender equality and the empowerment of all women and girls, everywhere.

The sixty-fourth session of the Commission on the Status of Women is planned to take place at the United Nations Headquarters in New York from 9 to 20 March 2020. Representatives of Member States, UN entities, and ECOSOC-accredited non-governmental organizations (NGOs)from all regions of the world are invited to attend the session. The main focus of the session will be on the review and appraisal of the implementation of the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action and the outcomes of the 23rd special session of the General Assembly. The review will include an assessment of current challenges that affect the implementation of the Platform for Action and the achievement of gender equality and the empowerment of women and its contribution towards the full realization of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.

Accountability to Women’s Rights:

The BPfA is global policy document on gender equality which remains relevant today says Soon-Young Yoon, Chair of the Board, Women's Environment and Development Organization (WEDO) and the immediate past-chair of the NGO Committee on the Status of Women (NGOCSW):

“The BPfA took almost 2 years of consultation with feminist and women’s organizations, governments, and other stakeholders to prepare. It was signed by 189 countries and endorsed by the UN General Assembly. It remains today the gold standard of policy documents on gender equality and women’s empowerment. Its provisions covering the 12 critical areas of concern are a roadmap for national and local implementation. Its recommendations are specific to governments, but also to actions by civil society, the media, private sector and local authorities. At the same time, it is important to remember that it is a policy guide which should be implemented within the legally binding framework of women’s human rights such as the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women and other human rights instruments”

There has been progress, but there are also very serious pushbacks:

“The hard, quantifiable evidence for progress is found in many indicators such as reduced maternal mortality, greater equality in education rates for girls, and alignment of national laws to end discrimination and violence against women and girls. But there is also a structural change in how the international women’s movement works—we are heading for centers of power in economic, political and cultural spheres. I think our presence and voice is now everywhere and stronger than ever before. That strength might explain why power structures are also threatened”

And according to Melissa Upreti, the Senior Director, Program and Global Advocacy of the Centre for Women's Global Leadership as we head towards Beijing+25 we must be aware of the increasing rollback on the women’s rights agenda:

“The pushback is increasing. Even the concept of gender is being challenged and, in some counties, systematically erased in policy documents and academia.”

We all agree we cannot afford to lose the recognition of and commitments to women’s rights:

“One of the key developments since the Vienna World Conference on Human Rights in 1993, where women’s rights were recognized as human rights and which formed the backdrop for the Beijing World Conference on Women in 1995, is the strengthening as well as creation of new women’s human rights mechanisms – the CEDAW Committee which pre-dates Beijing and has become much stronger and the establishment of Special Procedure Mechanisms by the Human Rights Council (previously known as the Commission on Human Rights) such as the Special Rapporteur on Violence Against Women and the Working Group on Discrimination Against Women and Girls. All of these mechanisms, have contributed significantly to the establishment, development and clarification of human rights standards pertaining to women and the systematic engagement of these mechanisms with civil society and feminist advocates has made this possible" explains Upreti

“It is holding on to the gains such as how the gender framework has helped to open new freedoms of identity and acceptance of different personal freedoms. That is good news for a more democratic, inclusive society” stresses Soon-Young

This is one of the reasons that women’s rights coalitions and collaborations are leveraging the opportunities to use online communication and platforms to bring together our collective experiences, demands and expertise to ensure we have an honest and accountable appraisal of progress on the BPfA, our blueprint to achieve women’s empowerment and gender equality and chart an agenda of concrete action to realize gender equality before 2030, as part of the groundbreaking, multigenerational campaign, “Generation Equality: Realizing women’s rights for an equal future.

One of these is the Advisory Group on the Generation Equality Forum. This is a group whose special role is to advise UN Women and the governments of Mexico and France organize the Generation Equality Forums for Beijing + 25 to be held in May and July in 2020 which will take stock of progress:  

“These committee members are important voices for all women and are to act as vehicles for women in all countries, at all levels, to express their hopes and demands for Beijing + 25. Some were selected by UN Women, but many were selected by civil society’ explains Soon-Young.

It is one of the inclusive and diverse structures for civil society engagement in the governance of the Generation Equality Forum. 

At the end of August, the 21-members of Advisory Group to the Core Group (Advisory Group) were chosen to serve as the representative of civil society’s priorities for the Generation Equality Forum by guaranteeing participation on a co-equal basis of civil society with the other members of the Core Group.

A 5-person selection committee had the unenviable task of selecting the 21 members of the Civil Society Advisory Group. 

And this is how it happened:

Civil Society Advisory Group was selected through a civil society-led process that was completely independent if the UN and was open to all organizations working on gender equality and women’s human rights. Volunteers, representing diverse regions and backgrounds, comprised the selection committee, which screened more than 136 applications. The application deadline was extended several times to allow for as many organizations as possible to submit their bids. The selection committee’s explanation of their process and the care that was put into that process in order to ensure diverse representation from both the global north and south is attached.  All of the representatives on this Civil Society Advisory Group have a demonstrated commitment to women's rights and a feminist agenda which is also respectful of diversity of opinion and have linkages with constituencies at the local, regional and global levels.

The Civil Society Advisory Group is committed to ensuring that diverse women’s rights and feminist organizations can engage meaningfully in this process.

The Advisory Group will champion civil society’s vision, inputs and expected outcomes of the Beijing+25 process by channelling information & opportunities from the Core Group.

The Advisory Group represents the diverse global women’s rights movement by consulting with the Advisory Working Group regularly. (Meet the members here: https://apngocsw.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/09/Advisory_Group_Photos_Bi...).

The anniversary of Beijing is an opportunity for us to set an ambitious, forward-looking and inclusive agenda to accelerate progress on women’s rights and take decisive action to end gender inequality.

Beijing+25, dubbed the ‘Generation Equality Forum, is expected to be a global gathering for gender equality, convened by UN Women and co-chaired by France and Mexico, with the leadership and partnership of civil society. The Forum will lay the foundations in Mexico City, Mexico, on 7-8 May 2020 and culminate in Paris, France, on 7-10 July 2020.

Rolling Up our Sleeves

In August this year a group of feminist activists from diverse regions and social movements gathered in Mexico City to strategize towards Beijing+25. They discussed the unique political opportunity presented by Beijing+25 to address critical structural and systemic obstacles to realizing gender justice and women’s human rights. They formulated Women Radically Transforming a World in Crisis (http://bit.ly/B25) a collective framework for resisting neoliberal capitalism and climate change: the critical, structural obstacles to gender justice and women’s human

Yoon and Upreti have also collaborated to develop the Feminist and Women’s Movement Action Plan for Beijing+25 (FWMAP):

“One of the main goals of the FWMAP is to create a process to connect different struggles, constituencies and areas of work” explains Upreti

It is an opportunity to bring together the collective voices emerging from the international feminist and women’s movement need a forum to focus our energy and take advantage of opportunities during Beijing + 25 and ensuring the celebration of Beijing + 25 must have a concrete outcome with clear demands including increasing the funding figure of monies given to feminist and women’s NGOs explains Soon-Young: 

“We need to leverage the power of global consensus and new alliances. We can use the Beijing Platform for Action, CEDAW and the SDGS along with other international treaties, human rights mechanisms and international commitments (e.g., International Conference on Population and Development Programme of Action, New Urban Agenda of Habitat UNSC Resolution 1325 and related resolutions, and the Paris Climate Accord), to promote accountability and achieve a gender-equitable and sustainable world. Many of the provisions found in these UN instruments and recommendations issued by international legal authorities address the leading the existential threats and crises of our times: financial crises, armed conflicts, crises of democracies, climate change and natural disasters AND they were signed by the majority of UN Members States. 

“Another existential threat that needs to be tackled is increased racism” adds Upreti

Soon-Young Yoon and Melissa Upreti envisage the development of the action plan to be open, welcoming, inclusive of the wide diversity of the feminist and women’s movements, creative, action-oriented, brave and safe:

“Most importantly, we must use the power of existing political commitments and legally binding obligations and avoid “reinventing the wheel.” This requires a) study of the relevant legal guarantees of rights and state obligations as well as the recommendations and commitments made; b) critique of actions not taken; c) prioritizing actions; and, d) engagement with international women’s human rights mechanisms. These will include actions at national, regional (and sub-regional) and global levels and they should be accompanied by measurable results and indicators that are time-bound:  two years, five years, and ten years”.

It will begin with a kick-off virtual conference which women and girls are invited to join. These will be followed by working in 6 thematic groups that cover issues ranging from environment and political participation to economic and peace and security:

  1. Inclusive development, share prosperity and decent work (Critical areas of concern include Women and poverty, Women and the economy, The girl child, and Women and health + CEDAW and other human rights+ SDG targets)
  2. Poverty eradication, social protection and social services (Critical areas of concern include Women and poverty, Education and training of women, Women and the Economy, Human rights of Women, the girl child, and Women and health + CEDAW + SDG targets)
  3. Freedom from violence, stigma and stereotypes (Critical Areas of concern include Violence against women, Human rights of Women, the girl child, and Women and health + CEDAW + SDG targets)
  4. Participation, accountability and gender-responsive institutions (Critical areas of concern include Women in power and decision-making, Women and the Media, Institutional mechanisms for the advance of women, Human rights of Women, the girl child, and Women and health + CEDAW + SDG targets)
  5. Peaceful and inclusive society (Critical areas of concern include Women and armed conflict, Human rights of Women, the girl child, and Women and health + CEDAW + SDG targets)
  6. Environmental conservation, protection and rehabilitation (Critical Areas of concern include Women and the environment, Human rights of Women, the girl child, and Women and health + CEDAW + SDG

Going Forward, Getting Involved: Take Action!

“We want accountability and are aiming to change not only laws and policies but systems. We want to create a process through which we can explore much needed paradigm shifts while being very clear about our demands, which will be anchored in human rights standards, so that their legitimacy cannot be questioned” says Upreti who like me is adamant that local realities must inform and shape this global process.

Claim, embrace and use the Beijing Platform for Action just as I did almost 25 years ago.

This is an opportunity to learn, to engage and to contribute to mapping a way forward, starting with your community.

There are many ways to do so but one first step is discovering the UN documents and treaties. With the benefit of the internet you can find, learn more about and analyze how these commitments have worked (or not) in your community.

Mobilize with young women. Mobilize with Older Women. Inter-Generational gatherings can be the best way to discuss the progress made since your government adopted the Beijing Platform for Action in 1995.

Develop an action plan to share back to the FWMAP Working Group, take your recommendations to local authorities, mayors, governors, and your representatives to UN meetings. You can write a short document; you can record your feedback with your smart phone:

“Then, we can present our Demands during UN meetings like the regional reviews in October – November 2019, CSW 64 and at the Generation Equality Forums. We want these meetings to help Deliver on promises made, help fund our action plan, and change policies and laws we need to achieve gender equality, sustainable development and peace” says Soon-Young

Then we mobilize and move forward together – for Equality, Development and Peace.

How to find out more:

About the Beijing Platform for Action: https://www.un.org/press/en/1995/19951208.ga9030.html

Visit: www.ngocsw.org and https://www.unwomen.org/en/csw/csw64-2020

Check out Global Feminist Journeys, www.globafeministjourneys.com a one of a kind digital timeline that chronicles the journey to Vienna including Beijing and beyond.

Comments 16

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maeann
Oct 14
Oct 14

Hi Sharon,

I hope that your demand for UN Meetings will be heard, resources will come so you can implement your project. Kudos to your GOAL.

Sharon Bhagwan Rolls

Thank you ! It's a collective goal for many of us across the world!

Anita Shrestha
Oct 14
Oct 14

Hi Sharon
Thank you for sharing this nice project. Best of luck for success

Jill Langhus
Oct 14
Oct 14

Hi Sharon,

How are you? Thanks for sharing this comprehensive update on what the current goals and set backs are. Are you planning on attending these upcoming conferences next year? I definitely agree about increased racism being a real problem as well as the rapid increase of climate change. It's amazing thinking about the time before email and the internet. The reach and impact that we can make now has definitely been accelerated.

Hope you're doing well, and having a great day!

Sharon Bhagwan Rolls

Hi Jill my attendance at the meeting will depend on funding. Cheers !

Jill Langhus
Oct 16
Oct 16

Hi Sharon,

I see. Good luck, and please keep us posted:-)

Hello, Sharon,

I hope you will be able to attend the conferences you mentioned above. You already have a message to share on these platforms. Thank you for being the voice of women in grand meetings like this!

Lisbeth
Oct 15
Oct 15

Dear Sharon,
Yes it is my honest sincere prayer that you get to attend the above program. My best wishes
Warm regards

Beth Lacey
Oct 16
Oct 16

Very great work

Stella Paul
Oct 17
Oct 17

Dear Sharon
Reading your posts was like cruising through the contemporary history of women's rights. In a few paras, you brought us a true summary of the long and arduous struggle, the complexities, the progress and the roadblocks that need to be pushed away... I don't think I have read another article that captures so much in so few words! I know I am going to come back to read this again and again!
I have been covering the struggle of inclusion of women's rights in the UNFCCC's climate change agreements in recent years and your article reminded me of that. Though painfully slow, progress is happening there as well. We just need to dig our feet in deeper. Best wishes, Sharon! Love, Stella

Sharon Bhagwan Rolls

Thank you Stella !

ANJ ANA
Oct 20
Oct 20

Dear Sharon,
Thank you so much for the very important and comprehensive writing on the historical progress on BPFA and its commitments on advancing women's right. I wish you a very best for your representation in the twenty-fifth anniversary of the Fourth World Conference on Women and CSW.
Hope to hear more updates.
Best regards,
anjana

Sharon Bhagwan Rolls

Thank you but it's not just about my participation- the feature encourages more women especially at local level to engage with the Beijing+25 process and beyond !

Mojisola Adewumi
Oct 25
Oct 25

Hi Sharon,
Keep up with tbis great work

Regards
Adewumi Mojisola

bijingsi78
Nov 04
Nov 04

Sharon u have paved the way for a better world for women.Thank u for the giant steps may u continue to inspire women

lizzymark
Nov 06
Nov 06

We pray for resources and that you gain the reach you Desire.