In September 1995, the Fourth World Conference on Women took place in Beijing. An unprecedented number of 17,000 participants and 30,000 activists (UNWomen) descended on Beijing to enhance gender equality and further the empowerment of women worldwide. A parallel Forum attended by around 30,000 activists put pressure on the government representatives, and kept the media interested in the conference. Two weeks later, the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action had been drafted, a historic landmark in advancing women’s and girls‘ rights. The Declaration was a milestone in affirming that the rights of women are an „inalienable, integral and indivisible part of universal human rights“ (paragraph 9). Until this day, the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action continues to be one of the go-to documents when discussing human rights of women.
The Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action enumerated twelve critical areas of concern in which governments must take action in order to empower women and promote gender equality. It envisions a world in which girls and women are able to exercise their freedoms and realize their rights free of constraints based on their gender. On an economic level, areas of concern include the burden of poverty on women, gender inequalities in managing and accessing natural resources, and inequalities in economic structures. Social issues such as the unequal access to, and outcomes in education and healthcare are also addressed. The issue of violence against women, especially the effects of armed conflict on women were also raised as areas of concern. Politically, the inequality between men and women in positions of power and decision making, and the lack of mechanisms to promote the advancement of women was highlighted. Women‘s unequal access to, and participation in the media, as well as the stereotyping of women within communication systems was also discussed. Overall the lack of respect for, and inadequate protection and promotion of the human rights of women criticized, and, for the first time in history, discrimination against, and violations of the rights of the girl child were addressed.
The Beijing Conference brought a variety of women‘s issues onto the agenda, and civil society and governments worldwide returned home with the will to translate the Declaration‘s promises and concrete plans for action into practice. In the 20 years since Beijing we have seen a profound number of improvements in women‘s lives. Most countries have incorporated a guarantee of gender equality into their constitutions. According to UNWomen (2015), gender parity in primary education has been achieved in almost all regions of the world. More women than ever before hold political offices and others jobs that were unthinkable for women to hold in the past. Following Beijing, violence against women appeared on national agendas, with two-thirds of countries committing themselves to fighting domestic violence through the creation of laws and campaigns. It is indisputable that we have come a long way since the Fourth World Conference in Beijing, 1995.
However, despite significant improvements in advancing women‘s rights and promoting gender equality, many issues remain to be tackled. Although girls‘ enrollment in primary level education has increased, many girls worldwide are encouraged to drop out of school during secondary school years to support themselves and their families. Gender stereotypes continue to determine women‘s opportunities and choices in certain fields. For example, only thirty percent of the world‘s scientists are women (UNESCO, 2014). Moreover, occupational segregation based on gender, with ‚female‘ jobs such as nursing or teaching receiving significantly lower pay than their ‚male‘ counterparts, means that women are still disproportionately impoverished, and often dependent on male earners. Despite anti-violence campaigns and litigation, UN Women (2015) estimates that worldwide one in three women experiences sexual or physical violence at least once in her lifetime. Thus, although there has been a significant amount of progress in the last two decades, much remains to be done to realize the promises of Beijing.
2015 marks the 20th anniversary of the Fourth World Conference on Women. It is a year in which countries will have to re-evaluate their progress since the Declaration in 1995. In late March, the fifty-ninth session of the Commission on the Status of Women will take place in New York, with a main focus on reviewing the progress made in implementing the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action. 2015 therefore offers the opportunity to regenerate commitment and mobilize the public worldwide to promote gender equality and advance women‘s empowerment.
On the occasion of the 20th anniversary of the Beijing conference, the Heinrich Böll Foundation Cambodia held a roundtable workshop in order to examine the legacy of the Beijing Conference, and its relevance today. The workshop consisted of two panels. Both panels were chaired by Ms. Benu Maya Gurung, Program Coordinator of the Alliance Against Trafficking in Women and Children in Nepal (AATWIN), who was able to offer insights from Nepal.
The first panel looked back to Beijing in 1995, drawing on personal experiences of the panelists who had attended the conference. Ms. Barbara Lochbihler, Member of the European Parliament and organizer of the Women’s Train to Beijing in 1995 gave the first speech. Ms. Hoy Sochivanny from Positive Change for Cambodia (PCC) and Ms. Ung Yokkhoan from Amara, Cambodian Women‘s Network for Development also participated in the discussion. The speakers assessed the impact of the conference at the time, and its implementation to this day.
The second panel aimed at answering the question whether Beijing is still relevant today. It was formed by Ms. Kasumi Nakagawa, professor at Pannasastra University, Ms. Sothea Sok from the Khmer Youth Alliance for Democracy and Ms. Ly Pisey from the Women‘s Network for Unity. The panelists discussed the situation of young women in Cambodia, the achievements since Beijing, as well as what needs to be improved.
This publication contains excerpts from the discussion that took place on the 16th of February 2015 at Metahouse in Phnom Penh, Cambodia.