By Rajat Khosla, Senait Fisseha, Katja Iversen, Sapana Pradhan Malla, and Sofia Gruskin | The BMJ | 8 March 2020
“If there is one message that echoes forth from this conference, let it be that human rights are women’s rights and women’s rights are human rights once and for all.”
These words are as poignant today as they were 25 years ago when the governments of the world, by consensus, adopted the Beijing Declaration and Platform of Action (The Platform of Action). Building on work from a series of global conferences going back as far as 1975, the Beijing Conference on Women in 1995 was a watershed moment and rallying call for advancing the equality, health and wellbeing of girls and women.
As we celebrate the 25th anniversary of this landmark declaration we must ask ourselves—are we any closer to reaching the goals set in Beijing? Is the world a better place for girls and women than it was in 1995? Where have we fallen short, and why?
The road to Beijing was far from easy, but the thousands who attended were driven by common concerns for equality, development, and peace. Governments bound themselves to “take effective action against violations of these rights and freedoms” and establish national mechanisms to monitor progress. Since its adoption, the Platform of Action has been reaffirmed and elaborated in many intergovernmental forums.
The realisation of the commitments made in Beijing, however, has been ad hoc at best, with continued and increasingly fundamental gaps to the realisation of girls’ and women’s rights and gender equality around the world. We see this play out not only through overt discrimination, but in the tacit acceptance of intimate and structural violence against women at all levels and in all places.
The Journey So Far
Despite monumental gains for many individual women the world over, we still have work to do to translate Beijing’s commitments into widespread systematic, structural, and transformative change. Some progress has been achieved on women’s political representation, economic participation, and health outcomes. Period poverty, sexual harassment, and other phrases are now part of the popular lexicon. Yet, larger structural barriers to women’s equality and human rights remain entrenched in many societies. Three major trends emerge when we reflect on the past 25 years.
Enormous challenges remain, from rising and intersecting forms of inequalities to deep-rooted power imbalances and harmful gender norms. Sexual and reproductive health conditions continue to represent one of the leading causes of disease for women and girls. Violence against women and girls remains the most frequent human rights abuse worldwide.
The advances that have occurred for girls and women rights have often been threatened by social and political regression. Macro-level politics and increasingly hostile ruling ideologies are profoundly impacting women’s ability to express their voices and claim their rights, with direct bearing on the capacity and willingness of duty bearers to meet their legal and political obligations.
More positively, one of the biggest achievements of the last 25 years has been the plethora of individuals, groups, coalitions, movements working on girls and women’s rights holding the line and continuing the fight for their rights in often the most difficult of settings. Without them, the positive change we see would not have happened at all.
The need for global common cause on gender equality, and on girls’ and women’s rights and health everywhere is greater now than ever before. And while much of the Beijing agenda is unfinished business, the blueprint is there.
The Road Ahead
In 2020, a truly transformative agenda on gender equality and girls’ and women’s rights is needed. But for that to happen real commitment from every sector in every society is needed to effect change.
This means investing in girls and women and resourcing and supporting collective action. It has been shown that the most effective way to protect and advance girls’ and women’s rights and health worldwide is to directly invest in the women’s movement, including those organizations who seek to shift power and transform social, legal, and political systems of patriarchal oppression.
We also need to protect our frontline defenders. There is continued and growing backlash against women’s rights and gender equality. Women’s human rights defenders are being assaulted, subjected to sexual violence, tortured and even killed. Women’s bodies and sexual and reproductive rights in particular are a battleground. Defending women’s rights should not be a deadly undertaking. We must demand and ensure a system of protection for women’s human rights defenders everywhere, and push back against the pushback to advancing gender equality.
Twenty five years ago governments of the world committed to establishing or strengthening mechanisms at all levels for accountability to the world’s girls and women. This has not happened. From the clinics to the court rooms, governments must deliver on the promise to ensure accountability for women’s health and rights, and civil society must be supported in their efforts to ensure this happens.
We cannot and must not sit back and allow injustice and inequality to thrive. We must stay critically conscious and vigilant to power and power imbalances, call them out, and challenge them.
We need to harness the power of the present and mark the anniversary of Beijing, by committing to Generation Equality and the action accelerators that will drive progress over the next ten years. This requires concerted action including to promote and protect women’s bodily autonomy and sexual and reproductive health and rights.
We need to listen to the voices of girls and women marching the streets and demanding their rights and demanding change. As Arundhati Roy once stated, "Another world is not only possible, she is on her way. On a quiet day, I can hear her breathing."
She is indeed on her way but we need to clear her path to speed the journey.
Rajat Khosla is Human Rights Adviser for the Human Reproduction Programme at the WHO.
Senait Fisseha is Professor of Obstetrics & Gynecology at the University of Michigan and Chief Adviser to the Director General of the WHO.
Katja Iversen President/CEO of Women Deliver.
Sapana Pradhan Malla is a Judge at the Supreme Court of Nepal.
Sofia Gruskin is Professor and Director, Institute on Inequalities in Global Health, University of Southern California.