Anne Marie Goetz
Clinical Professor, Center for Global Affairs, School of Professional Studies, New York University. She has written on gender mainstreaming, gender and conflict, and on gender in UN policies (including the UN’s World Conferences on Women).
A range of thinkers in academia, multilateral policy-making, and civil society were asked this question after an event on this issue held on September 24th at the Center for Global Affairs, co-sponsored by the International Journal, Gender & Development. Short (around 400 word each) responses from these experts follow this explanatory note.
What is behind this question
There is a substantial unfinished agenda on women’s rights. Gender equality around the world is far from being achieved, and worse: there is an explicitly misogynist dynamic to the illiberal current that is weakening democracies around the world.
Some of the biggest advances sine 1975 in governmental commitments to advance women’s rights have been achieved at international conferences on women. There have been four so far; the last was in Beijing in 1995, where the outcome document, the Declaration and Platform for Action, was widely welcomed by feminists as, according to UN Women: “the most progressive blueprint ever for advancing women’s rights”. The parallel NGO Forum proved to be the largest international encounter of women’s groups to that point in history. It was generative: new organizations, networks and movements were founded there, demonstrating to a global the size and determination of feminist civil society.
The Platform for Action will be 25 years old in 2020. It needs updating. It did not, for instance, develop an analysis of globalized capitalism and did not propose structural changes in the economic domain to reduce gender, race, and other inequalities. It pre-dated social media, online violence, and the #MeToo phenomenon. It did not go far enough on reproductive rights, sexual orientation, and gender identity. It did not anticipate the threat to planetary integrity of the climate change crisis. Forged at the height of the optimistic post-Cold War moment, it did not imagine the democratic reversals of recent years.
Does it matter? Regional and multilateral institutions have moved past the Platform for Action. While the Millennium Development Goals of 2002 were a setback in limiting gender equality to parity in primary education, the 2015 Sustainable Development Goals have a powerful gender goal. Regional bodies have gone well beyond this, for instance the EU’s Istanbul Convention on violence against women recognizes the fluidity of gender and sexual orientation. Eight Security Council resolutions on gender issues in conflict situations have changed the practice of peacekeeping and peacebuilding to an extent unimaginable in 1995.
Is it a bad time? Or is that the best reason to do it?
In 2012 the former UN Secretary-General Ban ki Moon asked the General Assembly if it wanted to hold a ‘Beijing plus 20’ conference in 2015. While a few member states were strongly supportive, the consensus went against the proposal. The reason? A darkening international environment for women’s rights; a threat of an erosion, not improvement on, the Platform for Action. There are disturbing portents in the annual meetings of the Commission on the Status of Women, where a small but growing and vocal alliance of Member States with conservative and often religiously-directed civil society groups are increasingly open about their intentions to dismantle aspects of the international consensus on women’s rights, particularly anything seen to be inspired by what was labelled and vilified as a ‘gender ideology’ that suggests that biological sex is socially interpreted, not immutable. Since then it has become apparent that there is a deep groundswell of anti-feminism amongst populations in advanced industrial nations, where the reaction to the austerity following the 2008 crisis and to the 2014 migration crisis is to blame women and minorities for constrained opportunities.
Re-centering women’s rights? Or throwing them off-course?
Could a global conference ‘re -center’ women’s rights? The point of a UN-convened meeting is to engage Member States. Would women’s rights be hijacked by reactionary forces? It can happen. On the other hand, the spotlight of mutual global scrutiny can spur UN Member States to compete to demonstrate their progressive credentials and avoid the pariah status of rights abusers.
Most of the contributions in this collection note that if there is to be another global conference on women, women’s rights and gender equality cannot be held hostage to illiberal intentions of some Member States. The normative agenda cannot be up for debate. Instead, a global gathering could be used to advance the other functions of such meetings – to strengthen networks, to generate funds for serious implementation of long-ago made commitments, to improve accountability.
But does this work need a global convening? Some of the experts below are emphatically positive, suggesting that at no other time in history has it been more important to defend gender equality and demonstrate solidarity against the swelling authoritarian wave. Others just as emphatically warn of potentially devastating consequences.
If you would like to contribute your own thoughts on this debate, please contact Anne Marie Goetz: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Kristen Aston Cruzata works in global parliamentary advocacy and has experience in U.S. politics, foreign relations, reproductive health, and the UN system. From 2014-2016 she worked with the She4SG campaign to get a woman selected UN Secretary-General.
I was born in 1988, only seven years before Beijing. I was too young to register the importance of the event or remember it personally. As I turn 30 this year and see my peers elected to congress, start to run companies, and embark on world-changing endeavors, it may be our time for a World Conference as well.
Since the time of “Women’s rights are human rights,” the feminist landscape of the world has changed. Nadia Murad has won a Nobel Peace Prize for her heroic work and sharing her story of sexual violence in conflict. Tarana Burke has started a global conversation about sexual harassment and assault around two simple words; Me Too. The Prime Ministers of both Canada and Ethiopia have a put in place gender-balanced cabinets.
These advances are not to be ignored but celebrated and built upon. Possibly at a 5th World Conference on Women.
However, as women have gained access and representation in all fields, what will the goals be at this conference? Will young women, women of color, and LGBTQI women have a real voice in building upon, not watering down, the Platform for Action? Who will be the women global leaders there to guide us through the process?
Unfortunately, I can’t resoundingly say yes or no to a World Conference on Women. As a young woman I would love to have our voices heard and a chance to make progress on the work done by our mothers, but I fear that the global climate may not be right for a such a coordinated push for the advancement of women.
In 2020 I will be 32. It’s time for the sound bites to evolve and the global dialogue around feminism to change. If it were to happen, we would need a global conference on women that reflects my work force. Diverse in its delegates, representative in its content, and motivating in its message. The work is far from done.
Sylvia Hordosch (Policy Adviser, Inter-governmental Support Division/UN Women, previously Division for the Advancement of Women and Office of the Special Adviser on Gender Issues)
*This piece reflects my personal views only
This is a question that leads to many more: What would be the purpose of a 5th World Conference on Women? (What does “on women” actually mean in the 21st century?) What would be discussed? Who would attend? Who wants a conference?
There are people who think that the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action is outdated, and, no doubt, it has its gaps. Interestingly, there are also those who seem to have just recently discovered its paragraph 190 and go on about numbers and gender parity (such as the SG and some of his followers) rather than focus on gender analysis, gender-responsive budgeting, gender statistics, etc. We can’t look at the Platform in isolation. We need to look at normative developments in a more comprehensive way, including the resolutions adopted by the Security Council on women, peace and security, the agreed conclusions of CSW, the 2030 Agenda, the Addis Ababa Action Agenda, the soon to be adopted Global Compact for Migration, and the discussions around the Rio Conventions.
What would we discuss at a World Conference on Women? Obviously all the 12 critical areas on the Beijing Platform, plus climate change, humanitarian issues, macroeconomic policies, TNCs, stereotypes, populism, our post-binary understanding of gender and women, and and and. What would we not discuss?
Who wants a UN conference on women? Have we practiced feminist principles of inclusiveness and consultations in more languages than English? Do we really want an intergovernmental conference which reinforces the idea that women’s rights, voice, autonomy are to be discussed in separate spaces?
There is a difference between a global UN conference which requires a decision by the General Assembly to hold a conference, the willingness by governments to fund it, and which has to result in a negotiated outcome, and a global meeting of gender equality activists from all regions which, ideally, can reenergize networks, lead to new mobilization, strengthen solidarity across many potential barriers and disagreements.
Rather than focusing a lot of energy and resources on preparing a world conference on women, I would rather follow the lead of those feminist activists who are deeply involved in the process leading to a legally-binding instrument on transnational corporations and human rights, who work on climate financing, economic justice, conflict resolution and much more. Let’s make sure that gender equality advocates participate in all ongoing processes – AND find venues outside the UN to mobilize, strengthen our strategies and actions – and keep our sanity!
By the way, I believe that what we really need is a major movement to mobilize urgent action on climate change.
Professor Meertens (retired) has taught and researched at Javeriana University, Bogotá, Colombia. She formerly worked in the Gender Studies School at the National University and for UNHCR and UNIFEM in Colombia. She has published on gender and conflict, historical memory, forced displacement, and access to land. Her most recent publication is in the Oxford Handbook of Gender and Conflict (2018).
I think a 5th world conference is too costly, too high level and too universal. Today there are so many political, informative and diversified spaces to make our voices heard and forward our struggles. I´ll explain myself a little bit more.
- Too costly in comparison with the outreach and dissemination of its results. Despite being inspired by a bottom-up philosophy, the organization of a world conference is a very vertical process, in which many women start to participate, but in the end only a relatively small elite group (of all the women in the world) are able to join the face-to-face encounter. In the past, the outcomes of such a high-level conference were very important to influence states and international organizations, but today we have rather solid institutions and structures to advance women´s rights in place. Moreover, the cyberspace provides endless possibilities to disseminate, create platforms, launch specific campaigns and exchange information. UN Women is very active in these spaces and it can surely be improved and extended to reach more groups.
- Too high level and too universal, in comparison with the specific needs and quests for recognition that women at the grass roots level advocate for. Today we see in many parts of the world a revival of anti-feminist ideas, of traditional family values and repudiation of a so-called gender-ideology by wide-spread and powerful conservative (religious and non-religious) movements. These movements are prompted by fear and ignorance and they spread at grassroots level. Thus, together with the strengthening of national and international institutions that advocate for and protect women´s rights, we should also strengthen women and their organizations at the grass roots level to fight for rights in their immediate environment: family, community and the workplace. I still think the struggle for gender justice starts at this level.
- Therefore, I stand for a world-wide horizontal approach. Face -to-face contact is very important for many women and might be more effective than the big conferences. Networks of small
groups that organize local encounters world -wide, focusing on specific issues or rights, exchanging experiences and practicing solidarity. For instance, Colombian and Guatemalan indigenous and peasant women exchanged their experiences of armed conflict, sexual violence and access to justice, which strengthened their capacity for resistance at grass roots level. At the same time, the outcomes of all these low-level encounters may be bundled and disseminated by social networks and other information media at a global scale.
Professor of History; International Comparative Studies; and Gender, Sexuality, and Feminist Studies at Duke University. Professor Olcott’s most recent book is: International Women’s Year: The Greatest Consciousness-Raising Event in History (Oxford University Press, 2017), which examines the 1975 UN International Women’s Year and conference in Mexico City.
The decision to hold a fifth world conference on women turns on whether human and material resources might be better expended on more dispersed efforts. While grassroots organizations and campaigns remain indispensable, the first four conferences demonstrated the immense value of larger events. They attract resources that otherwise would not be dedicated to women’s issues. They create an organizational focal point that synchronizes the efforts of a diverse array of state and civil-society entities. And they stage unpredictable — sometimes combative but always generative — encounters among actors who otherwise would not have the opportunity to interact with another.
Since the 1995 Beijing conference, dramatic technological changes and the intensification of globalization have fostered new challenges and possibilities for finding common ground among women. Social media have created opportunities to communicate across vast social and geographic divides but also have created silos that prevent us from encountering people with different values and worldviews. Gig and platform economies have lowered the entry barrier for employment and allowed for greater flexibility but also have exacerbated economic precarity and dehumanized commercial exchanges.
The need to developing global strategies has only grown more urgent. Neoliberal economic policies have shifted welfare burdens from public agencies to individuals, families, and NGOs. Escalating violence and deepening inequalities have galvanized large-scale migrations that create particular dangers and challenges for women. These migrations will only grow larger and more frequent as environmental changes force people to move to more hospitable climates.
The combination of international norms and persistent civil-society efforts have yielded important, if incremental, changes. In Mexico, for example, the 2007 General Law of Women’s Access to a Life Free of Violence has roots in CEDAW reporting requirements and demands emerging from the Beijing conference. While significant challenges remain, the law has generated considerable research on emotional, physical, and sexual violence against women as well as public-awareness campaigns, prevention efforts, and increased enforcement of anti-violence laws.
A fifth World Conference on Women would create a space both for updating priorities to reflect developments of the past quarter century, for having exchanges that take us out of our social-media silos, and for diversifying activist networks.
Shahra Razavi, Chief of Research & Data, UN Women. She is research director of Progress of the World’s Women report. She writes about gender and development and the economy of care, for example, Gender Justice, Development and Rights (OUP, 2002 with Maxine Molyneux) and Seen, Heard and Counted: Rethinking Care in a Development Context (Blackwell, 2011).
* This piece is written in my personal capacity and does not represent the position of UN Women.
Feminism, by all accounts, has gone viral, and burst into the public consciousness! Feminist concerns whether about sexual harassment and violence, or the pay gap and under-valuation of women’s care work are everywhere. And so is the resistance to them. This leaves no doubt that a global gathering of feminists is timely and long overdue. Yet my response to the question ‘should there be a 5th world conference on women’ hinges on what we mean by a world conference.
If we mean having a space(s) (along with adequate resources) for women’s rights organizations from diverse regional settings to meet, exchange ideas, debate key political and policy issues in order to build solidarities across their differences, and ‘sidestream’ their ideas into parallel social movements, then surely the response must be a resounding yes! How else can the global women’s movement strategize on how to preserve its hard-won gains and confront the backlash that is so palpable in so many different parts of the world? This is not to be naïve or to assume that such a conference would be a harmonious affair. The global women’s movement has always had its internal debates and disagreements, whether along ideational and political projects, or intersectional lines. The grounds for divergence are likely to have intensified as the world has become an even more unequal and polarized place, at times pitting women against each other. The younger generation in turn has propelled the whole gender equality movement to rethink a binary notion of gender, taken for granted by the older generation. These younger feminists are also critical of an establishment feminism that seems too cozy with patriarchal (and carceral) states and in a ‘dangerous liaison’ with neoliberalism and corporate power. But disagreements and debates have served us well in the past and are even more needed at the current juncture.
However, like many others, I would be deeply skeptical if by a world conference we mean one that entails inter-governmental negotiations. As much as we need a 21st century women’s rights agenda that updates the Beijing Platform for Action (and is more comprehensive than the key gender elements that were successfully embedded within the SDGs) it is very hard to think that this can be achieved under current political configurations.
What was remarkable about the Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing was that it enabled feminists to forge what Gita Sen refers to as an ‘insider-outsider’ strategy, whereby women’s rights organizations engaged with each other and were able to enter the world of formal inter-governmental negotiations with great success, planting their progressive claims into the consensus documents. The dual strategy worked because the feminist justice agenda had a strong ethical human rights foundation and a persuasive evidential base that addressed key policy issues of the day. But equally crucial—and quite unlike what we have today—was the post-cold war context which had given issues of rights and democracy a major impulse and revitalized states, thereby creating a degree of openness to engage with civil society. It is hard to imagine how such insider-outsider alliances can be forged under the current political dispensation where state receptivity to feminist claims-making is at an all-time low and the risk of back-sliding through negotiations not a remote possibility.
So to round up, an emphatic yes to a global gathering of feminists to debate and strategize, but an unequivocal no to any form of inter-governmental negotiation aimed at a new and revamped Beijing Platform for Action.
Socorro Reyes is a women’s rights activist from the Philippines. She was the Chief of the Asia-Pacific and Arab States Section of UNIFEM (UN Women) from 2005-2011. She is actively involved with Feminist Solidarity Against Extrajudicial Kiilings, EveryWoman and #BabaeAko. She is Regional Gender and Governance Adviser of the Center for Legislative Development.
I have a practical take on this question. I live in the Philippines where women’s rights are under attack by a misogynistic, authoritarian government which has insulted, maligned and demeaned women. But I also live in a country where we have an abundance of gender-related laws following the Beijing Platform for Action of 1995 and other inter-governmental agreements. This includes an omnibus legislation called the Magna Carta of Women passed in 2009 which covers practically all dimensions of gender equality: the political, economic, legal, health, education, etc. But little by way of implementation is done. In fact, there is widespread impunity. No less than the President has made jokes of rape, hurled sexist, malicious statements against a sitting woman Senator, encouraged his soldiers to shoot women rebels in the vagina, forcibly kissed an overseas worker in Korea, and declared he will not appoint women in high public offices because they are weak and incompetent.
For women like us living in countries where there is a direct, sustained assault on women’s rights and where critics of government are persecuted, we need a World Conference not on Women but of Women. We want to share our stories, build solidarity networks and not necessarily negotiate inter-governmental agreements like the Beijing Platform for Action. I share the apprehension of many that in the course of negotiation, we might lose some of our hard fought gains. But the gender environment has radically changed since 2005. This Conference of Women as others said, will be a Forum to confront new issues that have cropped up since 1995, and how to support each other in facing enormous threats to our rights.
Yes, let’s have a Conference of (not on, not for) Women in 2020 without fear and trepidation but with courage and determination!!!
Joanne Sandler is a Senior Associate at Gender at Work and co-host of the podcast Two Old Bitches. She was Deputy Executive Director of UNIFEM (now UN Women) from 2001 to 2011 and now consults with foundations, multilateral organizations and international NGOs to support them to create more equitable, just and generative work places and programs.
To have a Fifth World Conference on Women or not? Why is that a question? The Fourth Conference in Beijing in 1995 has been a touch point for nearly 25 years. It had reverberating effects on individuals, groups, communities, and countries and generated a collective understanding of the path to women’s empowerment and gender equality.
If it was so powerful, why dither about a future conference? Let’s start planning. With eyes wide open. Yes, we are living in an age of hyper-masculinist, populist, narcissistic, ethno-nationalist leaders. There are risks of roll back or subversion. But, as Francis Kissling wondered at a debate on the subject that took place in 2012, when did we become a women’s movement that made decisions based on fear?
The forces against gender equality are stronger, but so are the allies, organizations, technologies, data, knowledge, and positive examples that feminists can bring to the mix. In 1995, we could not have imagined heads of state like President Obama and Prime Minister Trudeau or a Secretary General like Guterres calling themselves feminists. In 1995, the Security Council still saw rape as an inevitable consequence of war. Much of the progress made is being threatened. It is not time for retreat.
How can we rob future generations of the opportunity to organize, mobilize, challenge and change the deep structures that hold gender inequalities in place? The question is not if, but what and how? Let’s not replicate the Beijing process. Let’s avoid endless negotiations. Let’s have a more creative, inclusive and equitable 21st century process that moves the needle toward gender justice and puts young leaders at the forefront of planning and follow up.
UN Women needs to lead by convening women’s organizations and allies in every part of the world to figure out what and how. And to finalize a proposal by September 2019, start a year-long process that touches every country and community on this planet, and hold a conference by the end of 2020. If the Women’s March could mobilize millions in two months, the United Nations can plan a meaningful Fifth World Conference in two years. Let’s stop debating whether it’s needed, and start debating how we make a conference happen that secures a path toward gender justice for billions of people on this planet.
Laura J. Shepherd
Laura is an Australian Research Council Future Fellow and Professor of International Relations at the University of Sydney. Her primary research focus is the UN’s Women, Peace and Security agenda. Recent publications include Gender, UN Peacebuilding, and the Politics of Space (Oxford University Press, 2017). She tweets from @drljshepherd.
I was offered 300 words to answer the question of whether there should be a 5th World Conference on Women in 2020, building on the four that have already taken place in 1975, 1980, 1985, and 1995 (hosted, respectively, in Mexico City, Copenhagen, Nairobi and Beijing). But I don’t need 300 words. I need one: yes.
At the start of the UN Decade for Women, which was inaugurated by the First World Conference on Women in 1975, the UN General Assembly asked governments ‘to take measures to ensure equal and effective participation of women in political, economic, social and cultural life and in policy-making at local, national, regional and international levels, thereby increasing their role in international co-operation and in the strengthening of peace’ (A/RES/31/136). Progress across all of these domains has been slow, and in recent years we have seen the rolling back of hard-fought rights for girls, women, and LGBTQI communities across the world. Women across the world – all women – need the opportunity to come together, protest, and organise for the achievement of rights and equality in a global environment in which these are under imminent and significant threat.
In my lifetime, there has never been a more relevant political project than the project of gender equality; nor a more pressing need for a visible display of transnational solidarity; nor yet a better time at which to explore the intersections of gender with racialised power, the power of capital and class, and the operations of heterosexism and ableism that afford value and dignity to certain ways of being in the world while precluding the consideration of other ways of being in the world as worthy of such value and dignity. These are, of course, not the only intersections that matter, but these are the intersections to which a 21st century feminist project – a decentralised, cross-generational, multi-vocal, and polymath project – is particularly attuned and these are the intersections that would enliven a meeting of the 5th World Conference on Women.
Caroline Sweetman is Editor of the international journal, Gender & Development (www.genderanddevelopment.org).
Many feminists still feel the discussions three years ago at the plus 20 mark resulted in the right decision that there was too much to lose to revisit the Platform for Action and risk roll-backs.
But I think that’s because feminists are strategic pragmatists and they haven’t seen the levels of outcry and support and energy they need to see from UN Women and INGOs and women politicians before they know there’s much point in championing a new global event on women’s rights. And they’re fighting daily against resurgent patriarchy and risking death and violence defending human rights. God knows we need a new global event in my opinion, much has changed in three years and we’re seeing the unthinkable happening every day.
A human life span is so short when you measure it against the much longer time that it takes to make progress that is sound and secure and steady, and we now know that the messages that came out of the lead-up to Beijing – for example the DAWN network’s critique of the sexist and racist model of development-as-growth – haven’t been heeded and we are seeing the results all around. We need a Beijing because we need it to catalyse the next wave of progress for progressives! Change of the level that women and the world need takes time – and we also know the human race doesn’t seem to be very good at collective learning. It seems some lessons only last a couple of generations and the world really needs to re-learn the importance of internationalism, tolerance of difference but above all the importance of a bedrock fundamental principle of equality and rights.
An international event where people could physically meet would provide that meeting place that activists need to build a genuinely global movement against what we see happening. Now more than ever we need to encounter each other and invest in solidarity that can still only be built when you’re in a single space. Virtual is – just – virtual, when you’re thinking of the kind of action for rights and social justice we need to mount now. It couldn’t be an event of the old kind where a Platform is created through common consent – it should be one where we monitor progress on Beijing and the SDGs, where an alliance can be built between all progressives, breaking down siloes between state and ‘civil society’.
But this time we couldn’t let the agenda depoliticise after the event, we just can’t, we need to learn from what happened to ‘gender mainstreaming’. Young feminists don’t have a memory of Beijing, but everyone knows how the principles of equality and rights advanced after Cairo and Beijing – a Golden Age of progressive politics – and then went over the horizon and ended up being captured by mainstream development. We’ve got to break this cycle of activism, progress and roll-backs, surely humanity can manage that as a species??
Aili Mari Tripp
Aili Tripp is the Wangari Maathai Professor of Political Science and Gender & Women’s Studies
University of Wisconsin-Madison. She has a forthcoming book on why authoritarian regimes adopt women’s rights, which is focused on Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia. She has authored numerous award winning books, including Women and Power in Post Conflict Africa and Women and Politics in Uganda.
The year 2020 is a propitious time to hold a Fifth Women’s World Conference. Some are hesitant to move ahead with such a conference because women’s rights are under threat globally, worried that such a conference will result in a further unravelling of international women’s rights agreements.
At the same time, women are being galvanized globally in ways we have not seen in a long time as a result of the #MeToo movement, the pushback against anti-democratic assaults from Hungary to the US, and the fight to stem climate change, among many other issues. This is no time to retreat. This is a time to build on the many significant gains that have been made, to hold governments accountable to the treaties they have signed, and let detractors know that women mean business.
The 1995 Beijing conference had countless positive outcomes. In Africa, women’s legislative representation tripled between 1990 and 2010, a direct consequence of the UN Platform of Action that resulted in the introduction of quotas. In regions like the North Africa, Collectif 95 Maghreb Egalité spurred regional collaboration that resulted in landmark changes in legislation for women which are continuing to this day. Women’s rights today are being incorporated into constitutions to a degree that is unprecedented, as evident in the 2014 Tunisian constitution. These are major accomplishments that were a direct outcome of the 1995 meeting in Beijing.
Nevertheless, we are in a precarious moment globally, as human rights are under threat as never before. The world is more unstable as the US government has become more isolationist, nativist, less democratic, and uninterested in promoting human and women’s rights globally. Leaders of Hungary and Poland blatantly roll back long established women’s rights. Leaders from Kagame in Rwanda to Abdel Fatah El Sisi in Egypt even use women’s rights to paper over human rights abuses.
More than ever we need to show that women the world over are not willing to accept this as the new normal. Making a global statement is powerful. There is no other global constituency so large and with so many common demands as women and their allies. The next generation of leaders needs to be involved in this process. This is a time to act and to do so forcefully, strategically and collaboratively. The world’s women need to see that we are not alone.