25 Years Post-Beijing: There’s Still Work to Be Done

Governments need to adopt a feminist approach to policymaking, resource that agenda, and hold one another to account.

Tanzania, August 2018. (UN Women / Flickr)

Twenty-five years ago, the Beijing Declaration put a flag in the sand for gender equality—marking a historic step toward centering women’s rights as human rights and strengthening civil society’s role as a key partner to give voice to the lived realities of women and girls from around the world.

As we reflect on how this Platform for Action can best continue to serve as a global framework, activists must grapple with a host of emerging challenges, from a worsening digital divide and climate crisis to a global pandemic.

Key unfulfilled promises remain, such as resource gaps to fund the women’s rights movement, regression of rights and attacks on human rights defenders, deficiency in social protections, and inadequate access to sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR).

As a Pakistani who has followed the recent surge in violent rape attacks in the country, I am also deeply concerned that gender-based violence (GBV) is a persistent and pervasive threat to women, girls, and LGBTQIA+ communities worldwide.

Governments must make stronger commitments to advance gender equality.

Despite the Pakistani government’s launch of a National Plan of Action for economic, social, legal and political empowerment for women as a follow up to the 1995 Beijing Conference, progress has been limited due to discriminatory gendered norms and ineffective policies. This is just one example that illustrates the breakdown in gender equality efforts, that goes far beyond Pakistan’s borders. Globally, we must do more—and we actually have the answer.

Governments need to adopt a feminist approach to policymaking, resource that agenda, and hold one another to account. This entails comprehensive, systemic and intersectional reforms that seek to integrate a wide range of policy interventions to address gender inequities. Clear and coordinated goals, tactics, and strategies are needed to drive a holistic and sustainable policy agenda.

These actions include:

Respond to a multi-dimensional crisis with a multi-dimensional, gender-responsive plan. COVID-19 has revealed itself to have far-reaching impacts on the global economy, health and care. As a result, it requires a multi-dimensional approach with a gender lens when designing short- to long-term socio-economic responses.

There is an opportunity here to reinvent our policy responses—as demonstrated by the government of Hawaii through the launch of its recent feminist recovery plan. The plan seeks to change gaps in the care, health, ecological, and economic sectors, offering recommendations to address gender pay equity, GBV, reproductive health, and childcare services through federal social programming. The plan has already started to influence state and county-level initiatives and legislation, and this bold mandate for gender equality and sustainable economic recovery is commendable.

Meanwhile, the Feminist Alliance for Rights (FAR) has highlighted key feminist policy areas which governments must address to counter the enormous challenges brought by COVID-19. Any economic plan, whether recovery or long-term, must integrate gender considerations and allocate sufficient budget and social provisions to support women, girls and LGBTQIA+ communities—and to ensure long-standing inequities, which are only exacerbated by COVID-19, are addressed.

Design policy responses with and for women and girls. The State Commission of Hawaii and FAR didn’t design their innovative frameworks in isolation, but in close collaboration with activists and feminist movements, making it all the more important that women’s and girls’ voices must be included in the decision-making spaces and processes where responses are formed.

Women’s participation is necessary at every level, from national crisis teams to local community-led responses.

Implement measures to ensure accountability. From the global to regional and national levels, accountability is essential. Information and communication technologies and public forums are important ways civil society and media can ensure that governments deliver on their promises. Mechanisms like the Universal Periodic Review (UPR) are other means for assessing country-level human rights commitments. Across all efforts, gender-responsive, sex-disaggregated data and analysis is needed for meaningful policies, monitoring, and evaluation.

Redirect resources. Funding remains a key challenge, but what about the massive amount of wealth that is benefiting global elites and corporations? It is time that new tax frameworks are set in place and that governments divest resources from corporate tax bailouts, military expenditures, and illicit financial flows towards developing public infrastructure, social provisions, a feminist care economy, and women’s rights initiatives.

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An Opportunity to Reimagine the Future

Despite the perpetual political barriers and systemic social hurdles faced, women leaders like New Zealand’s Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, India’s Health Minister Kerala K.K. Shailaja, and Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel, whose empathetic and strategic plans have managed the COVID-19 crisis effectively, give me hope.

There has also been a surge in women and youth movements that are challenging the patriarchy, racism and systemic inequalities. Women’s rights organizations and young feminist leaders—especially black and queer organizers—have been at the forefront of Black Lives Matter, climate justice, peacebuilding, #MeToo, and other movements—amplifying marginalized and silenced voices and pushing boundaries.

A Black Lives Matter protest in Philadelphia in June. (Creative Commons)

While in Hawaii local activists and grassroots organizations are engaging the State Commission to ensure that the recovery plan is implemented and reaches the hardest hit communities, the Women’s Rights Caucus, a global coalition of over 200 feminist organizations and networks, is advocating for gender equality at the United Nations.

As we build on the work done since the Beijing Conference, let’s use this anniversary to garner more political engagement, collective agenda-setting, and mobilization – all to challenge deep-seeded structural inequalities. The Generation Equality Forum (GEF) next year provides an important platform for promoting accountability; leveraging financial commitments; creating space for radical collaboration; and building innovative partnerships for the next five years.

While the world is still spinning, it’s time for our leaders to reflect and re-center their commitments on what’s important.

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Tanya Khokhar is a Global Policy Consultant with the International Center for Research on Women.