UN conference points to meagre gains for women

UN conference points to meagre gains for women

Date: March 2, 2010
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While the past fifteen years has seen some gains for women in education and political decision-making, women’s sexual and reproductive rights are under threat; violence has increased and the financial crisis is threatening limited economic gains. This is the clear message emerging from non-governmental organisations and the report of the United Nations Secretary General to the Beijing+15 review that got underway in New York on Monday.

The fifteen-year review is being held during the 54th Commission in the Status of Women, focusing on implementation progress of the Beijing Platform for Action, a cornerstone of gender and women’s rights activism around the world. So far, the results are proving to be mixed

One issue that those attending are not as clear on is governments’ decision to issue a declaration at the close of the review, rather than the expected outcome document. Activists are divided on what this means. Some say the historic Beijing meeting is being dumbed down; others say it’s safer not to open up debates that could risk fragile gains made fifteen years ago on such touchy issues as sexual and reproductive rights.

Gertrude Mongella, former Secretary General of the UN Fourth World Conference on Women, remembers the birth of the BPfA. “Women from all over the world came together in a clarion call which stated women’s issues are global and universal. The Platform for Action is a powerful agenda with carefully developed strategies for the empowerment of women,” explains Mongella.

Mongella, who was also the head of Pan African Parliamentary Union, adds that new challenges continue to emerge. “We cannot allow the Beijing spirit to die in the face of emerging challenges like the economic meltdown, climate change and violence against women, which is increasing. We need to continuously use frameworks within the platform to hold our governments accountable and make sure they ratify and domesticate all international conventions and instruments they have signed.

According to the Secretary General’s report tabled at the opening of the review, access to education increased globally for girls at all levels, particularly in primary education. However, illiteracy remains a key issue for women, who account for nearly two thirds of 776 million illiterate adults in the world.

The proportion of women in parliament increased from 11.3% in 1995 to 18.8% in November 2009, but the increase is unevenly distributed across regions. While several countries in Latin America, Africa and Asia are adopting special measures for increasing women’s political participation, NGO caucuses from Europe and North America decried the resistance to such measures in their countries.

The UN Secretary General’s report notes that health gains have been “uneven” and there are “considerable challenges to achieving sexual and reproductive health for women.” While violence against women has become a political priority, reflected in more comprehensive legal, policy and institutional frameworks, there has been a rise in the reported number of cases since 2005, with certain groups of women such as indigenous, young and rural women most severely affected, the report says.

With 186 signatories, the Convention for the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) is the second most ratified international human rights instrument. Yet it is also the instrument with the highest number of reservations, prompting a network in the Middle
East called Equality without Reservations to campaign for its full adoption by all member states. The United States under President Barrack Obama remains glaringly absent from the list of signatories.

“We live in a climate of intense religious and other kinds of fundamentalism,” noted US women’s rights activist Cynthia Rothschild who presented the North American caucus report at the Global NGO Forum preceding the conference. “Cutting through the tightly knit web of the religious right wing poses a major challenge to the advancement of women’s rights.”

While there has been progress in reducing absolute poverty, female unemployment has increased as a result of the financial crisis, with an average global gender wage gap of 17%. Speaking at the NGO Forum, Executive Director of the Centre for Global Leadership Radhika Balakrishnan said the crisis had been “manufactured” by greedy financial institutions and reflected a “failure on the part of the state to protect its citizens: we need to take back the state.”

The Beijing+15 Review coincides with the ten year review of the Millennium Development Goals to be achieved by 2015. Warning bells are already going out that these goals, which include the attainment of gender equality, are lagging behind. Developing countries are up in arms because the rich nations have reneged on 80% of the financial aid pledges made for achieving the MDG’s citing the financial crisis as the main obstacle.

For some, the importance of these reviews underscores the need for the debated outcome document. “We have gone from Beijing itself in 1995, to a special session of the General Assembly in 2000, to a review and appraisal report in 2005, to a political declaration in 2010,” observed Margaret Gallagher, an internationally renowned gender and media activist. “It’s pretty depressing – all the effort that went into the Beijing+15 regional preparatory meetings, the questionnaires and reports, the online discussions: just to end up with a political declaration.”

What governments need understand, added a South African delegate, is that “the documents that come out of these meetings are weapons that women use to fight for their rights. What is the point of coming to New York just to affirm that we have been here?”

However, not everyone agrees. Vivian Pender, the Chair of the NGO Commission on the Status of Women, says the political declaration is stronger than an outcome document. “With the political declaration, governments will accept they have made mistakes and reaffirm their willingness to work on them,” she says, adding, “but the outcome document will detail nicely what has happened, the challenges encountered, and make recommendations which might not have political support.”

Martha Rugena from Women Rights Advancement group in Uganda says she would have wished to have both the political declaration and outcome document issued at this important session.

The last time an outcome document was produced was during the Beijing+5 review session in 2000, when the Twenty-third Special Session of the General Assembly produced a document that addressed what had been achieved since the 1995 Beijing Platform of Action, the challenges and obstacles that existed and how they were going to be addressed.

Colleen Lowe Morna is executive director of Gender Links; Jane Godia and Arthur Okwemba are journalists with the African Women and Child Feature Service. This article is part of the GL Opinion and Commentary Service, produced during Beijing +15.


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