Twenty five years ago, in 1995, thousands of women gathered in China to attend the NGO Forum on Women and the UN’s Fourth World Conference on Women. It was a challenge for women to get visas, but over 30,000 women from 200 countries were in attendance—and the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action, an agenda for women’s rights and empowerment, was created. At that historic convening, 68 countries made commitments to recognizing women’s rights as human rights.
Last year, UN Women Executive Director Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, together with Nobel Prize Laureates Nadia Murad and Denis Mukwege, presented the report of the G7 Gender Equality Advisory Council to world leaders in Biarritz at the G7 Summit in France. UN Women also convened activist and political leaders in New York City last September for an event called “Gender Equality: from the Biarritz Partnership to the Beijing+25 Generation Equality Forum.”
“I am honored to be with the women of the world who will provide leadership for this important and historic event,” then-UN Women Executive Director Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka told the crowd in New York. “Without a strong feminist movement, no country has a chance for a meaningful equality.”
There are 2.5 billion women and girls on this planet who are impacted by discriminating laws and lack any legal protection. In many countries, as much of 75 percent of the rights of women and girls are not protected in law. “We need all stakeholders to work together,” Mlambo-Ngcuka urged. “We need the whole world to agree and adopt a plan for massive change that we can implement together in our places of work, in our schools, in our government, in our homes and in our communities.”
Sweden’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, Anne Linde, explained how systemic bias puts women at risk—economically, socially and even physically. In 104 countries, there are laws preventing women from carrying out certain jobs. When it comes to a car crash, there is a 47 percent higher risk of women being severely hurt, because the car crash dummy is made with a male body. In 45 economies, there are no laws protecting women against violence in their own home.
“When some countries say that women should dress differently, behave differently, live differently—our response is let women and girls decide for themselves,” Linde observed. “Women choose their own lives and the world will be a better place. How do we do it?”
Of course, she knows the answer to her own question: “by making sure that women get a seat at the table; by supporting women’s organization by proving that female participation in labor market increases economic growth; by fighting child marriage, female genital mutilation and the use of sexual violence as a weapon; by refusing to let anybody else decide what we do with our bodies and with our lives.”
These conversations will continue this year at the Generation Equality Forum, a global gathering in Mexico City this May that will continue and culminate in Paris, France, in July, at another convening by UN Women co-chaired by France and Mexico to mark the 25th anniversary of the Beijing conference. The hosts for the 2020 Generation Equality meeting—Mexican Minister of Foreign Affairs, Marcelo Ebrard, and French Minister of State Jean-Baptiste Lemoyne—spoke up in September about the urgency of seeing women’s rights as an integral part of all policy around social equity.
“There cannot be social change without equality of gender,” Ebrard declared. “If we do not reach that, there will be no progress.” He added, enthusiastically: “I am a feminist, and we are waiting for you in Mexico.”
“We need concrete actions and coalitions,” Lemoyne specified, “to move women’s rights forward.” Other leaders there took the instruction—and laid out those concrete actions.
Chief Prime Minister of Ireland Simon Coveney hopes to advance women’s rights by allowing them to pull up more seats at every table—especially those where peace agreements are made. “Inclusion is an essential part of achieving sustainable development and building long term lasting peace and security,” Coveney said. “Without the involvement of women, peace processes don’t work. Girl’s education is critical to achieving to gender equality and balanced social cohesion.”
Spain’s Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs Fernando Martín Valenzuela is also focused on making all resources available to support women and children in order to work towards real participation and towards peace and towards the SDG 2030. “We live in a world where we can all achieve our dreams,” he said. “We need to work to close gaps in gender equality, make sure we have laws against discrimination and work for gender justice.”
Melinda Gates also spoke to the crowd, explaining “how absolutely fundamental gender equality is to every single piece of the work” the Gates Foundation does. Gates is committed to putting resources and “real money” towards making progress towards gender equity.—noting that the World Economic Forum predicts it will take 208 years to achieve gender equality in the U.S., and that she refuses to wait.
“I have always hoped to see gender equality in my lifetime,” she explained, “but I demand that I see to see it in my daughter’s lifetimes. I am not satisfied to sit here and say it will be my granddaughter’s granddaughter’s granddaughter’s lifetime before we will have gender equality in this country.”
Nearly one decade before Beijing, in 1986, I went to Washington, D.C., for the Women’s Rights March from my college campus in Philadelphia. We chanted: “What do we want? Women’s Rights! When do we want them? Now!” We demanded: “Keep your laws off our bodies.”
At that UN convening in September, we held up signs that said: “Generation Equality,” “We Demand Justice for All,” “We Demand Access to Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights” and “We Demand Freedom from Violence and Discrimination.”
It was hard to wonder if anything had actually changed—but the “Gender Equality” meeting in New York City left me feeling inspired that real progress would soon be evident around the world, and that the reverberations of Beijing were shaking things up for women and girls right now.
What comes next is up to all of us.