Revisiting Bella Abzug’s Vision Post-Beijing, 25 Years Later

On September 12, 1995, former Congresswoman and WEDO co-chair Bella Abzug took to the podium at the Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing, China to ask:

“What will we accomplish at the week’s end when the [Beijing] Platform for Action is adopted by the world’s women and its 189 governments?”

Twenty-five years later, feminists and women’s rights organizations find themselves grappling with the legacy of Beijing—recognizing both areas of critical progress made in advancing gender equality, and the harsh reality of our present world—mired by pandemic and interlocking crises of biodiversity loss, environmental degradation and social inequality.

The promise of Beijing, so far, goes unfulfilled.

Generation Equality Forum

The Women’s Environment and Development Organization (WEDO), is one of a broad group of CSOs and feminist organizations engaging in an initiative to renew and advance the commitments made in Beijing called The Generation Equality Forum (GEF).

The Forum was launched as “a civil society-centred, global gathering for gender equality, aimed to launch a set of concrete, ambitious and transformative actions to achieve immediate and irreversible progress towards gender equality.” Six Action Coalitions have been set up, and WEDO is co-leading the Action Coalition for Feminist action on climate justice, with the knowledge that achieving climate justice is integral to any progress towards gender equality.

Following Bella’s lead, we ask ourselves, “What will we accomplish at the end of the Generation Equality Forum next year?”

Our vision: a renewed feminist agenda for a just and healthy planet. 

Our Current Reality

The climate crisis is profoundly reshaping the world and the survival of communities, ecosystems and the biosphere. The struggle for livelihoods in this context is compounded for marginalized women and people, as the impacts of climate change intersect with structural inequalities like gender-based violence and discrimination.

This is particularly acute for those living in small island states, least developed countries, the global South, as well as for Indigenous peoples, urban poor, rural and remote communities, Black people, people with disabilities, migrant communities, LGBTQI+ folks, ethnic minorities, girls and youth, the elderly and many others.

For decades if not centuries, women’s rights and feminist activists and researchers have worked to showcase, to envision and to reframe understanding and metrics in our global world order. These alternatives serve to lift up the vital knowledge of frontline communities from around the world and they follow feminist analyses of money and power, currently working to deeply embed us in an extractive economy, to move us towards regenerative economies that center health, well-being and care. 

In working to define and create actions around these alternatives for advancing feminist action for climate justice, WEDO sees three key areas to make progress in fulfilling the goals of gender justice and planetary health set out 25 years ago:

1. Divest from harm, invest in care

“Women who would transform the lives of themselves and their families with just a 5% slice of the military pie—that would be a banquet for the world’s 1.3 billion poor.”

—Bella Abzug

Bella understood fundamentally that the creation of fiscal space to invest in social protection and promote gender equality would require a divestment from harm and a reinvestment into care.

However, 25 years after Beijing, capital has been increasingly concentrated into the hands of the few at the expense of democracy, human rights and the planet.

In 2014, global military spending was almost thirteen times greater than development aid funding from OECD-DAC member countries, and in 2018 alone, the cost of global military spending was $1.8 trillion.

Beyond military spending, redirecting the entirety of fossil fuel subsidies provided in 2015—373 billion dollars—to holistic, gender-responsive, transformative solutions rooted in respect for human rights and ecosystems would prove revolutionary in addressing climate change. 

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2. Catalyze a gender-just transition

“Women will ensure that others know about the provisions agreed to and the commitments made and millions will press their governments to follow through.”

—Bella Abzug

Over the last thirty years, including the commitments made in Beijing, a vast global policy framework has evolved that recognizes and aims to address the critical linkages between gender and environmental justice. In fact, the 2015 UNFCCC Paris Agreement established that actions on climate change must “respect, promote and consider … gender equality, empowerment of women” among other human rights principles.

Through the Paris Agreement, the world has committed to a revolutionary transition towards a low-carbon society—and the time for implementation of these commitments is more urgent than ever. It requires the fulfillment of human rights and respect for gender equality to ensure that this transition is just.

We require participatory and accountable processes to develop and implement ambitious national climate policies and programs that prioritize communities’ needs, when only about one-third of countries even mentioned women or gender in their initial national climate change plans under the Paris Agreement. 

3. Protect and foster feminist leadership

“In the face of so much pain, I remain an incurable optimist.  I am fueled by the passion of the women I have been privileged to meet and work with, buoyed by their hope for peace, justice and democracy.”

—Bella Abzug

Feminists on the frontlines of crises are also at the frontline of solutions. From the traditional knowledge of indigenous women to grassroots community practices of seed-saving and agro-ecology, local and gender-just solutions are key to creating resilient societies and fighting environmental crises. Feminist activists around the world are mobilizing, innovating and showcasing how solutions that embed gender equality as a fundamental premise can and must be central to climate action. 

Unfortunately, women-led local solutions to the climate crisis are drastically underfunded within the current climate finance architecture.

In addition, women environmental and human rights defenders face ongoing, multifaceted and often state-sanctioned threats to their and their families’ lives and livelihoods, which are exacerbated by the dynamics of gender-based violence, with a twofold increase in the number of environmental defenders murdered over the last 15 years.

We must resource, invest and support women-led solutions, while safeguarding the environmental defenders who have put these solutions forth for generations. 

Fulfilling Promises

“Now as we leave Beijing, women will not stop. Never underestimate the importance of what we are doing here.  Never hesitate to tell the truth.  And never, ever give in or give up.”

—Bella Abzug

Feminists and women’s rights organizations have not stopped advocating for gender justice since Beijing, and in facing current realities, have turned toward each other to build power, speak truth and renew commitments to the promise of Beijing—to the promise of a just and healthy world. 

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Bridget Burns is the director of the Women’s Environment and Development Organization (WEDO), one of the co-leads for the Generation Equality Feminist Action for Climate Justice Action Coalition. To follow WEDO’s work, check out their website, and to follow the work of the Action Coalitions, follow UN Women’s Action Coalition page.