NEW YORK - Leaders and activists warned Thursday of a global pushback against women’s rights, 25 years after a landmark conference in Beijing that set out an ambitious agenda for women’s equality.
“We need to start now, with your excellencies’ commitments at this commemoration, to recapture and ‘fast forward’ from the modest gains made since 1995 that are now under threat,” Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, executive director of U.N. Women, told leaders joining the virtual conference. “We need big bold steps, not incremental ones.”
She said that while the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action had led to major advances — including 274 legal and regulatory reforms in 131 countries — significant gaps remained, including in achieving gender parity in representation from the boardroom to the peace table, as well as in wages.
“It’s time to bring an end to discriminatory laws, norms and homophobia, to end men’s violence against women and girls, and make a concerted effort to put women at the heart of climate justice,” she added.
Twenty-five years after the Beijing conference, advocates noted that no country has achieved full gender equality.
In 1995, when the declaration was signed in Beijing, there were 12 female heads of state of government. Today, there are only 22 among 193 countries.
“These days, the very states that are successful, economically and socially, as well as in terms of peaceful conflict resolution, are often those where women are among those shouldering responsibility,” said one of those leaders, German Chancellor Angela Merkel.
President Emmanuel Macron of France lamented that in the current global climate, the 1995 Beijing Declaration would not find the consensus to be adopted in 2020.
“That is where we are collectively,” he said. “Everywhere, women’s rights are under attack, as are human rights, from which they are inseparable. Progress achieved by great efforts is being undermined even in our democracies, starting with the freedom for women to control their own bodies, and in particular, the right to abortion.”
Data from the U.N. Population Fund show that only 55% of women worldwide are able to make their own decisions about their sexual and reproductive health and contraception.
Women and girls also face inequalities in access to education. Twelve million girls under age 18 see their education end each year with forced marriage. Others are subjected to the harmful practice of female genital mutilation. One in three women will experience some form of violence in her lifetime.
Women also have been particularly affected by the coronavirus pandemic.
“While women are in the front lines fighting against this pandemic, they are also being pushed to the edges because of its multifaceted impacts,” said Ethiopian President Sahle-Work Zewde. “In much of the developing world, we know women depend on the informal economy to earn their living, and they find themselves in extremely difficult condition to sustain the lives and well-being of their families.”
The pandemic has also made women and girls more vulnerable to domestic violence. U.N. Women says only 48 countries treat violence against women and girls-related services as integral parts of their national and local COVID-19 response plans, with very few adequately funding these measures.
“Unless we act now, COVID-19 could wipe out a generation of fragile progress toward gender equality,” U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres warned. “COVID-19 is a catastrophe, but it is also an opportunity for transformative thinking that puts women front and center of the response and the recovery.”
Participants called for a recommitment to the Beijing Declaration’s principles, and the necessary policy changes, partnerships and investments to realize the goals.