World must ‘never relent’ until gender equality becomes reality, UN women’s commission told

Chair of the Commission on Higher Education of the Philippines, Patricia Licuanan, addresses the opening of the 59th session of the Commission on the Status of Women. UN Photo/Loey Felipe

New York, 9 March 2015 – As the Commission on the Status of Women opened its 59th session today at United Nations Headquarters in New York, delegates heard a keynote address calling for a revival of the “spirit of Beijing” to tackle problems that have persisted since the adopted in 1995 of the landmark Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action on gender equality and women’s empowerment.

Patricia Licuanan, Chair of the Commission on Higher Education of the Philippines, recalled the moment of the agreement and the “high” she felt afterwards, saying she still felt some remnants of that sensation, particularly when she considered that the Declaration “broke ground” on violence against women, which it helped transform from a private, domestic concern that could be shrouded by culture and tradition.

She made this assessment at the high-level opening of the Commission on the Status of Women, which is meeting in New York through 17 March. Global leaders and activists are expected to take stock of progress and remaining challenges for implementing this landmark Beijing Declaration. And to that end, the first half of the day-long session wrapped up with the adoption of a new A Political Declaration on actions to achieve gender equality and women’s empowerment by 2030, including through significantly increased investment to close existing wide shortfalls.

Ms. Licuanan said the most special feature of the negotiation process at Beijing was its highly participatory nature and the broad based engagement. The partnership with non-governmental organizations, while not without tension, was “unparalleled” and decision-making had been participatory and non-hierarchical, in a conference attended by more than 50,000 people.

Today, however, “old” areas of concern, like the feminization of poverty, economic participation, health, education, political participation and human rights remained high on the agenda, she said, calling for Beijing+20 to proceed aware of lessons learned from the two decades that have passed.

Such lessons, she said, include the fact that Beijing+20 takes place in a very different setting to the original conference. When ‘women and the environment’ was on the agenda in 1995, it provoked questions about the links between the two concepts but today, the links between environment, climate change, disasters and women’s connection to them is taken as read.

At the same time, much has not changed, she acknowledged, particularly on contentious issues like reproductive health and rights and sexual, both of which remained “highly controversial with little prospect of consensus.”

Other lessons included the recognition that gender equality in countries’ laws was vital but still insufficient to guarantee de facto equality, that gender mainstreaming was effective only when accompanied by strong empowerment entities, that data was an extremely powerful tool in convincing people of the validity of arguments in favour of equality, and that allies and friends could come in all shapes and sizes, with all of them valuable.

The significance of the Beijing Declaration also featured prominently in the address by Song Xiuyan, Vice-Chair of the National Working Committee on Children and Women under the State Council of China, who told delegates that the Declaration represented the international community’s “solemn commitment for equality, development and peace” and that, since it was adopted in 1995, women’s rights and interests had been put under better legal protection, women gained more opportunities to seek education and achieve employment and more attention had been given to vulnerable women groups.

“The UN and its relevant agencies have made tremendous efforts to this end,” she said, noting that the Beijing Declaration represented the “most important policy document” for women’s progress. “We should cherish the legacy of the Beijing conference.”

Nevertheless, she continued, as the 20th anniversary fast approaches, the international community must focus on the remaining difficulties and challenges regarding women’s development.

“Let us work together, hand in hand for further advancement of women’s status and for the better future of all,” said Ms. Song. “Let us continue to take actions and never relent until our common goals become a reality.”

Lydia Alpízar, the Executive Director of the Association for Women’s Rights in Development, also assessed the progress made in the 20 years since the Beijing Declaration, delivering an impassioned speech that drew loud cheers from the seats of the General Assembly.

She said it was important to acknowledge that progress made in the 20 years since Beijing was limited. An overwhelming lack of political commitment, lack of resources, the rise of religious fundamentalism and “plain old sexism and misogyny” was among factors that had hampered progress. Challenges such as inequality, exploitation, fundamentalism in all religions and threats from non-State actors like corporations, which held inordinate power over land and resources, needed tackling, she said.

Since 1995, she had seen “the criminalization of dissent,” and meaningful participation in politics by individuals had been limited and could be seen in the exclusion of civil society groups from negotiating the new Declaration. That represented “a step backward” and, as a result, the text of the declaration was weak and did not go far enough towards the transformative change needed.

She called for greater commitment on financial resources to support the work of women’s movements worldwide and the implementation of agreements on gender equality. The resources, she said, were there. They just needed to be directed towards prioritising gender equality and women’s rights. In doing so, human rights, such as sexual and reproductive rights, should not be traded-off, she urged, underlining the fact that women and girls die as a result of such discrimination.

Alaa Murabit, who spoke as a representative of Libyan women and a member of UN Women’s Global Civil Society Advisory Committee talked about the criticism she had received in the past for her impatience, particularly her impatience to achieve gender equality. She said she remained unclear as to why her attitude was seen negatively.

She pointed to her experiences of being told that she did not understand the realities of security simply because she chose not to carry a gun, and stressed that women peacebuilders like herself were “challenging the root causes of extremism” and making changes right now, walking into schools, homes and workplaces and giving communities the real tools necessary to combat extremism.

She said her generation was able to contribute a great deal to the struggle, not least because of their increased access to and understanding of modern technology. They gave “confused” youth “weapons of peace” and engaged other women in peacebuilding initiatives and empowered them.

“Women must stick together to promote safety and dignity,” she said. “The message is not new.”