Beyond Beijing: Some Priorities for the Global Women's Movement
Posted on: Monday, January 1, 2001
For the first time in history, the seemingly self-evident assertion that women's rights are human rights is backed by the force of an international legal instrument. This is perhaps the most essential accomplishment of the Beijing Platform for Action (PFA), the document produced at the 1995 UN World Conference on Women held in Beijing. In fact, the PFA represents the most extensive set of commitments ever made by governments to advance women's equality and human rights. Five years later, the "Beijing + 5 Review Process," offers us an important opportunity to assess governments' progress in fulfilling these commitments. For the international women's movement, "B5," as it has come to be known, is also a chance to take stock of our own work, to evaluate past efforts and build consensus for moving forward.
The Power of a Global Women's Movement
To many, the hundreds of women's non-governmental organizations (NGO's) that met in Huairu, China, an hour's drive from the official UN conference, represented the true heart of Beijing. The vitality and efficacy of this NGO gathering reflected the emergence of a broader "global citizens' movement" that successfully occupied political space created by the end of the Cold War. Since the 1990's, worldwide networks of NGO's, rights groups and civil society activists have demonstrated substantial organizational and political power in battling sweatshops, debt and environmental destruction, and scored important victories embodied in the Landmine Treaty, the Pinochet ruling, defeat of the Multilateral Agreement on Investment and the initiative to create a permanent International Criminal Court. An integrated analysis of women's lives and struggles argues for locating the international women's movement within this broader network. As we move forward from Beijing, we need to assess the increasingly global context not only of our own work, but also of a range of new initiatives that offer opportunities and challenges to a truly international women's movement.
The 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro signaled a new trend in NGOs utilizing United Nations conferences to move their agendas. The 25-year-old series of UN women's conferences predates this development, but the Beijing conference does mark a clear escalation in women's demands for a seat at the table of international policy-making. Since 1995, the United Nations and its member states have been forced to pay increasing attention to issues of gender. A worldwide consensus to activate international instruments to protect women's human rights is emerging. The PFA is a critical tool in the process of elevating "women's problems" to mainstream international and national policy levels and using international instruments to leverage national laws advancing women's equality.
These accomplishments are the fruits of decades of work by a range of women's groups worldwide, from small community associations to international legal consortia. These diverse initiatives have been brought together in a global movement thanks to the demand for rights and inclusion by women whose historical marginalization within their own societies has been reproduced within the women's movement itself. This process of critique and debate has yielded a clear recognition in the PFA of power disparities between the world's women and governments. But racism, exclusion and fault lines between the global North and South continue to undermine the women's movement from within. Meanwhile, escalating attacks on the rights and resources of poor and marginalized women worldwide undercut the goals of the PFA from without. To strengthen the integrity and efficacy of the global women's movement, we must continue to focus on the perspectives and priorities of those women most threatened by abusive policies.
For example, indigenous women are demanding a human rights consensus based on collective rights with recognition of the primacy of cultural and historical rights. Their perspective represents an important challenge to the traditional rights paradigm which posits the individual as its subject. Defending indigenous women's rights, then, entails more than an abstract commitment to fighting racism; it means a fundamental overhaul of the human rights framework. In Beijing, the women's movement succeeded in challenging the traditional framework by displacing the dichotomy between the private and public spheres and insisting on states' responsibility for rights violations committed by non-state actors. Now, human rights as defined by indigenous peoples should be incorporated into our critique of the rights framework, even as we continue to insist on the centrality of a gender perspective at forums like the upcoming UN conference on racism and discrimination to be held in South Africa in 2001.
Strengthening A Women's Human Rights Agenda
Five years after the signing of the PFA, the long distance between its ratification and implementation is glaringly obvious. The lack of progress, particularly in areas of sexual and reproductive rights, is partly attributable to opposition from forces organized against women's rights, led by the Vatican and other religious extremists. But a more structural problem lies in the fact that many government signatories to the PFA have failed to pass and enforce laws to protect women's human rights or to create public programs to advance women's equality. Lack of adequate enforcement mechanisms is a general weakness of international law. The deficiency is mirrored in the PFA's lack of benchmarks and timelines to measure progress on implementation. The problem underscores the continued need to strengthen women's political participation, including lobbying at the national level, so that governments can be held accountable to long-term obligations made under the spotlight of high-profile international conferences.
The PFA is also undercut by its lack of emphasis on social and economic rights. This shortcoming is critical for several reasons. First, it reinforces the historical manipulation of human rights doctrine by the US and other Northern governments. Since the Universal Declaration of Human Rights first inaugurated the international human rights movement in 1948, the United States has consistently denied the validity of social and economic rights, refusing to ratify key instruments such as the 1966 Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, which guarantees rights to food, shelter and improvement of conditions of life (Article 11). Meanwhile, the United States (often with the help of major US NGO's) privileged certain individual rights. These rights were isolated, proclaimed to be universal and then redirected as rhetorical weapons against communist governments. Today, it is mainly countries from the global South that the US deems "enemies of human rights." But the paradigm remains the same: the US constructs an ideological version of "human rights" to deny millions of people their social and economic rights. In an era of worsening global inequality and poverty, the women's movement needs to challenge this political maneuver as well as rights violations rooted in US-backed economic policies.
Indeed, economic and social rights go the heart of the goals of the PFA as embodied in its slogan, "equality, development and peace." Consider the scope of human rights violations inherent in the following conditions:
- Indigenous women have the world's lowest rates of education and life expectancy and the highest rates of illiteracy, infant and maternal mortality and death from preventable disease.
- Of the 1.3 billion people surviving on less than $1 a day, 70% are women.
- Of the world's 900 million illiterate people, women outnumber men 2 to 1.
- Worldwide, women are paid 30 to 40 percent less than men for comparable work.
- More than half a million women, mostly in the poorest countries, die each year because of a lack of basic prenatal care.
Yet women provide 40-60 percent of household income worldwide, 75% of healthcare in developing countries, and over 75% of the food consumed throughout Africa. As primary caretakers of the young, the elderly and the sick in every society, women are responsible for meeting the basic needs of the vast majority of the world's population. Violations of economic and social rights therefore affect women differently than men, and often, disproportionately.
The Enabling Environment
One lesson already emerging from the B5 process is the need for the global women's movement to better articulate the link between macro-economic policies and violations of women's human rights. For these policies are a major obstacle to implementing the PFA. Increasingly, the policies of national governments in the global South are the sum of proscriptions (like trade regulations, debt servicing and Structural Adjustment Programs, or SAPS) handed down by international financial institutions like the World Trade Organization (WTO), the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank. Consequently, even where women's organizing has generated political will at the national level to implement the PFA, public planning is hamstrung by macro-economic policies beyond the control of national governments. Indeed, the current macro-economic environment works in direct opposition to the PFA by eroding governments' capacities to meet people's basic needs. To cite just one illustration: in compliance with the PFA, the Rwandan government has pledged to make girls' education a national priority. This is critical in a region where more than 50% of all women are illiterate. But the IMF has turned this into a hollow promise by mandating school fees even for the poorest families.
Women, both as individuals and activists, have absorbed the burden of neo-liberal policies that are implemented at the expense of the poor. As individuals, women have been forced to replace governments in providing their families with basic services like healthcare, day-care and the minimum caloric intake once guaranteed by food subsidies. Women's workload has increased sharply as a result, with the poorest women hardest hit. These same women and girls suffer most from cuts in services, showing drastic drops in school enrollment, food intake and life expectancy.
Similarly, women's organizations have had to fill the role of government in implementing the PFA. These efforts, ranging from health clinics to battered women's shelters to AIDS education and literacy programs, to income-generating initiatives, nutrition classes and girls' leadership training, represent the best in the human potential for tenacity, creativity and sheer hard work. These efforts are to be applauded, but they must also be understood as the result of a serious failure of governments to meet their commitments to the PFA. This failure must be rectified, for NGO's, no matter how competent, are no substitute for responsible government. At the same time, governments must be made to recognize the crucial new role of NGO's in policy-making at all levels. For as "democratic" governments in both the North and South have increasingly come to represent only elite interests, NGO's have become an important voice for the world's majority.
Women from the global South have pointed out that the old slogan, "Think Globally, Act Locally," must now be turned on its head. They argue that when local conditions are so heavily impacted by global trends, community-based activists must be equipped to understand and impact developments in the international arena. MADRE has always contended that community-based projects must include components that provide training to enable women to influence macro policies. Otherwise local work remains a limited and, eventually, exhausting venture for women. That's why MADRE brings the voices of community-based women into international processes like B5 and insists that the women's movement devote resources (like translation, per diem stipends and popular versions of legal texts) to guarantee that the international arena is not dominated by elites. We also believe that the original injunction to "act locally" remains crucial, for international work that is not rooted in community priorities risks becoming abstract and irrelevant to most women. Ultimately, policies at the local, national and international levels must function together to protect women's human rights. Surely, the project of transforming the world requires the combined and interactive force of community-based work, national mobilizations and international advocacy.
The MADRE Model
This is the model that MADRE has been developing since 1983. As a human rights organization, MADRE does much more than document and condemn abuses. Our programs support women who face human rights crises; help women win justice in the aftermath of abuse; and strengthen women's capacities to eradicate root causes of rights violations by demanding long-term social change. MADRE works in partnerships with local women's organizations in communities threatened by US-backed policies in Central America, the Caribbean, the Middle East, Central Africa and the Balkans. Over the years, we have developed an internationally recognized model of human rights in action:
- Meeting Immediate Needs: MADRE enables our sister organizations to ensure their communities' survival with emergency shipments of food, medicines and other kinds of direct relief.
- Supporting Women-Centered Development: MADRE provides training and program support that enable women to create solutions to the crises they face and play leadership roles in their families, communities, countries and in the international arena.
- Campaigning Internationally: MADRE works to make international law relevant and accountable to the people it is meant to serve and brings community-based women into the process of creating international law.
- Educating for Change: MADRE informs and mobilizes our 23,000 members in the US to demand alternatives to destructive US policies.
By Mónica Alemán and Yifat Susskind