The Fourth World Conference on Women and its Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action was hailed as a historic landmark by women’s rights advocates.
As the United Nations (UN) General Assembly convened a high-level meeting on the 25th anniversary of the conference last week, it’s a good time to reflect—especially given that the UN Commission on the Status of Women was suspended this year due to COVID-19.
The Beijing Platform for Action lays out twelve critical areas in the advancement of women’s rights—here are four where implementation remains particularly relevant.
Women and Health
Women’s access to health care, including sexual and reproductive health care services, in humanitarian settings has seen advances in robust guidance and institutional capacities. Alarmingly, patriarchal powers are mobilizing to turn back the clock on these advances, including by using COVID-19 as an excuse to restrict sexual and reproductive health services.
But women and girls in emergencies don’t stop having reproductive health needs, and lack of access to this care remains a leading cause of death and disease among displaced women and girls. The Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action, thanks to persistent advocacy by women’s groups and displaced women themselves, explicitly recognized the rights of refugees and internally displaced persons to reproductive health.
UN Member States honoring the anniversary this year should use this moment to reflect and ensure that information and sexual and reproductive services are widely available and that their national policies align with international law.
Human Rights of Women
While women face a myriad of human rights violations rooted in inequality, there is one that receives little attention, which, if addressed, would have a significant impact in preventing statelessness globally and advancing women’s equal citizenship.
Currently, 25 countries still deny women the ability to pass their nationality to their children on an equal basis with men. Roughly 50 countries deny women equal rights with men in their ability to acquire, change, or retain their nationality. Gender discrimination in nationality laws results in wide-ranging human rights abuse and statelessness, and violates international law.
Following a meeting on women’s nationality rights organized by the Global Campaign for Equal Nationality Rights, an initiative working to support states and civil society to realize a world where all nationality rights uphold women’s and men’s equal citizenship, and the Arab League, the groundbreaking Arab Declaration on Belonging and Identity was adopted in 2017. The declaration calls on all Arab League members to eliminate gender discrimination in their nationality laws, and is an important step toward this goal.
Other regional intergovernmental bodies have made similar commitments. In the spirit of the Beijing Declaration, all states with gender-discriminatory nationality laws should use this anniversary to take stock of progress on their commitments.
Women and Armed Conflict
The UN Security Council has recognized the disproportionate impact of conflict and crises on women and girls in its women, peace, and security (WPS) agenda.
While there are now 10 resolutions on WPS, these have rarely led to universal implementation, especially when it comes to participation in peace processes, including of women with disabilities. For example, in Yemen, according to peace activist Muna Luqman, “Women’s role in peacebuilding continues to be ridiculed, and women who are the real peacemakers, continue to be excluded in the ceasefire and peace process.”
The Security Council’s failure to resolve conflict, in large part due to its permanent members prioritizing their own national interests over holding abusers accountable, is especially prevalent when looking at the high number of people forced to flee.
And while debates on women, peace, and security are among the most oversubscribed debates at the UN, the supportive rhetoric that many members bring to the debates rarely manifests in national migration policies. One example is the worrying trend of immigration detention, threatening women’s health and rights, despite more humane, cost-effective alternatives.
If commitments to women’s rights don’t include those fleeing conflict and crises, governments are engaging in cynical window dressing. The Beijing Platform for Action specifically calls on governments to mainstream a gender perspective into national immigration and asylum policies, regulations, and practices, in order to promote and protect the rights of all women, including steps to recognize gender-related persecution when assessing grounds for granting refugee status and asylum.
In many crises, adolescent girls are overlooked and underserved, which can be prevented by engaging all girls, including girls with disabilities, so that they can safely access schooling and other essential services. This has been underscored by the current health crisis caused by COVID-19, risking a permanent interruption of education, denial of safe spaces, and a rise of negative coping mechanisms by family members, such as child marriage.
For humanitarians, the “I’m Here” approach provides practical step-by-step guidance on how to make sure they are reaching all girls in need of support. Trusting youth leaders, in particular young women, to lead movements is crucial to institutional change, including when addressing gender-based violence.
At a recent UN convening on women and girls, Tarana Burke, the founder of the Me Too movement, noted that she herself comes from youth leadership. She said the best thing that an elder said to her was “You have power now.”
Let’s Stand Up for all Women and Girls
If the past 25 years have taught us anything, it’s the need to mobilize and seize spaces otherwise occupied by anti-feminist forces. Standing up to discrimination against women and girls means standing up for all women and girls in all their diversity and their representative organizations fighting for racial justice, LGBTIQ inclusion, indigenous rights, disability rights, and climate justice. The Beijing Declaration recognized this, and thus called for ensuring the right of all to achieve gender equality.
We cannot wait another 25 years for this to happen.
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