Officially, the United Nations conference is being called Beijing and Beyond. But a worldwide NGO review entitled Beijing Betrayed concludes that “governments have failed to turn the platform into action”.
The report says that despite well-meaning statements, “many women in all regions are actually worse off than they were 10 years ago”.
Since Beijing, reflects Joan Ross Frankson of the Women’s Environment Development Organisation (Wedo), which coordinated the report, “we’ve been ‘good women’. Governments made promises, so we waited ... Now we have to start making demands again. This conference is about how we restrengthen ourselves.”
The Wedo report echoes concerns in a report issued by the Committee on the Status of Women, Ten Years After Beijing: Still More Promises than Progress, also based on assessments made by NGOs globally. This reports “little change and even some backlash against the expansion of women’s rights”.
Nowhere is this more evident than in New York, where the Bush administration has threatened to be the only dissenting voice in a declaration that reaffirms the commitments made at the Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing 10 years ago.
The United States wants to insert a clause in the declaration specifying that the document does not create any new rights, and that it does not include the right to abortion.
Ellen Sauerbrey, US ambassador to the UN’s Commission on the Status of Women (CSW), said the move had been taken to pre-empt attempts by “very activist NGOs in the US who are seeking to take the original language of the Beijing Declaration and put new meaning on it”.
NGOs, meanwhile, have decried the downgrading of the conference to an extension of the annual CSW meeting instead of a global conference, for fear that even the fragile gains on sexual and reproductive rights made against resistance by the Vatican and Muslim countries a decade ago may be lost.
“We agreed that we would not reopen the debates,” said Dorcas Coker-Appiah, the Ghanian chairperson of Women in Law and Development in Africa. “Now it is as though the US is trying to come in through the back door and take us back.”
On the positive side, the UN assessment, based on reports by the 189 member countries that signed up to the Beijing Platform for Action, says that in some regions there have been gains in education, poverty reduction, women’s health, social and legal status and participation in public life.
Governments, the report says, “increasingly address matters previously considered private, such as violence against women in all its forms. Trafficking is acknowledged as a major global concern.”
But according to the More Promises than Progress report, “there is a large gap between gender-sensitive laws, policies and machineries, and their implementation on the ground”.
Two sets of figures quoted in the reports throw this into perspective. One is that the average representation of women in world parliaments has gone up to 15% from 11% in the 10 years.
The other is statistics from the Wedo report, compiled by a Swedish research institute, that show that with $105-billion — about one-ninth of global military spending — shelter and clean water could be provided for all those needing them; starvation, malnutrition, nuclear weapons, landmines and illiteracy could be eliminated.
At the NGO forum, several speakers maintained that gender mainstreaming had, as one speaker claimed, “been misconstrued to mean that more resources should be spent on getting men on board”.
Others cited the rise of fundamentalism, market liberalisation, natural disasters and HIV/Aids as global phenomena that have been added to the agenda since Beijing, taking women in many countries, especially those in the south, one step backwards.
According to the Wedo report, while violence against women may have gained greater visibility, “few measures have been taken to address the root causes of violence or challenge the entrenched cultural norms that permit rape and domestic violence to be viewed as a private family matter”. The report also expresses concern about the rise of sexual abuse as a weapon of war.
While trafficking of women and children into “bonded sweatshops, labour, forced marriage, forced prostitution and domestic servitude has become a larger global concern”, there is little indication, according to the Wedo report, that “governments are making significant efforts to combat these crimes or to protect the human rights of women affected by them”.
African NGOs are spearheading an initiative to get the CSW to appoint a special rapporteur on laws that discriminate against women.
According to acting Wildaf executive director Gladys Mutukwa, this is the only way to ensure that governments who sign up to international commitments while running dual legal systems that discriminate against women can be put under the spotlight.
Colleen Lowe Morna is executive director of Genderlinks