Global women’s rights movements have seen meaningful progress since the UN Fourth World Conference on Women in 1995. Legal gender discrimination has drastically declined over the past decade thanks to 274 legislative reforms around the world. More young women are pursuing secondary education outside of the home, and the maternal mortality rate dropped by 38 percent between 2000 and 2017.
However, with the COVID-19 pandemic disrupting global economies, women are facing historic unemployment gaps and high levels of gender-based violence—making goals discussed at the 1995 conference in Beijing equally relevant in 2020, with years of positive progress at risk of being overriden.
Former Secretaries of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and Madeleine Albright reflected on the continuing impact of their work in Beijing in a recent webinar marking the conference’s 25th anniversary. Ambassador Melanne Verveer led the discussion, titled “Beijing +25: Commemorating a Watershed Moment for Women’s Rights” and hosted by the Georgetown Institute for Women, Peace and Security.
The Sept. 10 conference accompanied a new report on women’s progress—released by Georgetown and the Rockefeller Foundation on the same day—which details barriers to gender equity, especially the COVID-19 pandemic. The report refers to 2020 as “a watershed moment for women” just as the Beijing conference was in 1995.
“Whether the pandemic, mass unemployment, or climate change, the burdens of today’s world weigh disproportionately on women, widening the gender gap in low wages, poor health outcomes, barriers to education, and surges in domestic violence, displacement and conflict,” Clinton wrote in the report.
In the U.S., the gender unemployment gap has drastically widened since COVID-19 struck the economy. Women of color face particularly high unemployment rates, with Latinas at 19 percent and Black women at 17 percent. Especially in developing countries, lockdown orders have further burdened women with domestic responsibilities and have led to an increase in domestic violence.
“I’m disappointed that we haven’t gone even further in 25 years. I’m worried about the pushback and the backlash that we see from authoritarian leaders in particular who are trying to turn the clock back,” Clinton stated in the webinar. “But that just energizes me more to speak out, to work with others, and to defend those who are on the front lines.”
Despite barriers, educational opportunity has improved greatly. In Morocco, girls’ enrollment in primary school increased from 55 percent to 97 percent over the past quarter-century. However, the shift was not reflected in women’s representation in the labor force, particularly in the MENA region.
“We are all on the same page in terms of understanding that the job is not done, and that we have to keep reaching out to various organizations that we are a part of in order to make things happen,” Albright said in the webinar. “Nothing happens automatically. There can be a lot of good ideas, like Beijing, and then they have to be really followed out … I think we can see that we can all be proud of Beijing, and many of us have tried to carry on, but it requires deliberate action.”
The report recommends targeting change in five specific areas, including defying gender norms, prioritizing inclusion, and taking advantage of technology. Clinton, however, stressed the role of women’s empowerment in ensuring that laws translate to real change:
“More important to me now is enabling women to have the power to claim their rights,” Clinton said. “One of the things we saw after Beijing was lots of laws being changed, but the culture—the social and religious pressure—didn’t result in the kind of claiming of rights that women deserve.”
Chairperson for the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission Shaharzad Akbar agreed that “as we work on transferring laws to practice, a greater awareness towards local realities and local leadership could benefit the cause of women’s rights everywhere.”
The seven-pillar strategy outlined by the Georgetown Institute for Women, Peace and Security includes supporting women and youth initiatives in their local communities, recognizing intersectionality, engaging those in positions of power, and expanding access to data on women’s rights.
Even though gender equality has improved in many ways since 1995, the pandemic poses a threat to further progress. Drawing on the perseverance and commitment of Beijing conference attendees such as Clinton and Albright is crucial as women look towards the next 25 years of striving for equality.
“In these difficult times, real leadership comes in. And the example of such people—of such leadership—is the locomotive to push events further,” former president of Lithuania Dalia Grybauskaitė said in the report. “I think we need to use these leadership examples for encouraging women to take leadership roles.”