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Beijing 1995 – when women’s rights became human rights

The WAVE Network is not the only organisation to celebrate its 25th anniversary this year! Many women NGOs were created and mobilised shortly after the Fourth United Nations World Conference on Women in Beijing in September 1995. The conference offered the momentum for women non-profits such as the WAVE Network to soar and promote women´s rights in their respective regions. From then on, women were not only more aware of their rights, but they were given the opportunity and the favourable environment to exercise them. 

The Fourth UN World Conference on Women marked an unprecedented jump forward for the advancement and promotion of women´s rights. It gathered 30,000 activists from all walks of life and 17,000 participants including 189 government representatives. By the end of two weeks of heated political discussions, the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action was launched and became “the most progressive blueprint ever for advancing women´s rights” (UN Women).  

Previous UN meetings on women were held in 1975 Mexico City (USA), 1980 Copenhagen, 1985 Nairobi. The particularity of the 1995 UN conference was that the concept of human rights had not yet been applied to women – which fundamentally changed the application of international law to women´s rights as human rights.  

“If there is one message that echoes forth from this conference, it is that human rights are women’s rights… And women’s rights are human rights.” (Hillary Rodham Clinton).  

After reviewing the implementation of the Nairobi Forward Looking Strategies for the Advancement of Women, the Beijing Platform for Action outlined a specific framework of 12 commitments to guarantee women´s freedoms, the ability to live free from violence, get a proper education and earn equal pay. With this in mind, it was important to focus on poverty alleviation (1), parity in access to education (2), unequal access to health care (3), violence against women (4), conflict related situations (5), oppressive economic structures (6), promoting the advancement and decision making capacity of women (7, 8), the protection of human rights (9), end to constraining stereotypes around women in media (10), curbing gender inequalities in relation to the environment (11), and lastly tackling violations concerning the rights of girl children (12). Those 12 commitments were aligned with the 2015 Sustainable Development Goals. 

The Beijing Conference was the catalyst for `seeing the world through a gender lens,` which galvanized NGO and governmental action and resulted in some important policy trends with considerable impact on women’s lives. While it could certainly do more, the United Nations has continued to be a central leader for women’s empowerment, with vigorous NGO advocacy continuously raising the stakes” (Tarr-Whelan, 2010).  

What has been done and what can be improved? 

The general progress for women´s rights after the Beijing Declaration has been characterised as slow, uneven and limited across the world 

Clear efforts were made to dissolve discriminating laws and replace them with legal tools promoting gender equality along with significant gains for girls attending primary and secondary school, increase in participation in the labour market and access to birth control. For example, women outnumbered men in education and training at the tertiary level in most member states of the Beijing Declaration (Debusscher, 2015).  

There is a persistent gap between norms and implementation due to institutional barriers and resources which strongly affect health outcomes, and discriminatory social norms. For example, in 2012 women were at higher risk of poverty compared to men in over half of EU member states (Debusscher, 2015). Women are more likely to remain economically inactive due to care responsibilities, working part time or fixed term contracts. Progress has also been very slow for women experiencing intersecting discriminations (minority women, disabled women, elderly women, LGBT+ individuals) (Debusscher, 2015). In addition to this, economic crisis and the rise of severe backlash from conservative right leaning parties have hampered growth. The normative standards of the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action served as a basis for the development of the status of women and their conditions of life but there is room for much improvement in regards to putting the law into action 

In retrospect, WAVE has followed a similar path. While the current political climate has ushered new challenges to the protection and promotion of women’s rights, WAVE has proven to be resilient to patriarchal adversity. It grew from being a small informal working group to one of the most influential European-wide feminist networks of NGOs in the field. The network now gathers 152 member organisations located in 46 European countries and reaches over 4,000 women´s organisations. WAVE has had many successes in the last decade, from providing shelter and support to advocating for reproductive rights and policies of equality. WAVE members have made enormous strides in the promotion of feminist values and the advancement of women’s wellbeing across Europe.  

As it was said during the WAVE Conference in Estonia, turning 25 means that WAVE has gained the maturity and experience to finally rise as a powerful movement.   

Written by Claire Davis, WAVE Intern 

Sources 

Bureau of International Information Programs, and United States Department of State. “Global Women’s Issues: Women in the World Today, Extended Version.” Global Womens Issues Women in the World Today Extended Version, Bureau of International Information Programs, United States Department of State, 1 Jan. 2012, opentextbc.ca/womenintheworld/front-matter/beijing-declaration-and-platform-for-action-fourth-conference-on-women/.  

Bunch, Charlotte, and Susana Fried. “Beijing ’95: Moving Women’s Human Rights from Margin to Center.” Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society, vol. 22, no. 1, 1996, pp. 200–204., doi:10.1086/495143.  

Dawson, Ruth P. “When Women Gather: The NGO Forum of the Fourth World Conference on Women, Beijing 1995.” International Journal of Politics, Culture, and Society, vol. 10, no. 1, 1996, pp. 7–27. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/20019871. 

Debusscher, Petra. “Evaluation of the Beijing Platform for Action +20 and the Opportunities for Achieving Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women in the Post-2015 Development Agenda.” Committee on Women’s Rights and Gender Equality, 2015.  

Summary of the Fourth World Conference on Women: 4-15 September 1995International Institute for Sustainable Development. 14(21), 1995.http://enb.iisd.org/download/pdf/enb1421e.pdf  

Tarr-Whelan, Linda. “The Impact of the Beijing Platform for Action: 1995 to 2010.” American Bar Association, 2010. www.americanbar.org/groups/crsj/publications/human_rights_magazine_home/human_rights_vol37_2010/summer2010/the_impact_of_the_beijing_platform_for_action/ 

“The Beijing Platform for Action: Inspiration Then and Now.” UN Women | The Beijing Platform for Action Turns 20, beijing20.unwomen.org/en/about. 

“Beijing Declaration and Platform of Action, adopted at the Fourth World Conference on Women” United Nations, 1995. https://www.refworld.org/docid/3dde04324.html