Reflections on Beijing + 5
Results of the United Nations' Fourth World Conference on Women
Archived article from Dec 7, 2001
By Amy Vames
In 1995, Beijing, China, was the site of the United Nations' Fourth World Conference on Women, also known as the Beijing Women's Conference. The conference produced important commitments from the 189 countries represented there to improve the status of women. Delegates also agreed to assess how well those commitments had been honored in June 2000, a meeting that came to be known as Beijing + 5. The Center for Women's Global Leadership at Rutgers recently published a book, "Holding on to the Promise:
Women's Human Rights and the Beijing + 5 Review," that provides an overview of the progress made in women's human rights since 1995.
Charlotte Bunch, executive director of the center, talked with Focus about the Beijing + 5 review, as well as her attendance at the September U.N. Conference on Racism in South Africa.
Focus: What do you think was the most important thing to come out of the Beijing + 5 United Nations Special Session?
Bunch: Probably the most important thing was the fact that governments in the end stuck by their commitments from Beijing. There were a number of governments who were threatening to try to rescind some of those commitments. But in the end, they didn't weaken the Beijing platform, and in some areas, such as violence against women, they made some more specific commitments that strengthened it.
Focus: Why is it that some governments are unwilling to commit resources even though they go along with the Beijing platform?
Bunch: Most governments don't see the pursuit of equality for women as a priority for government money. Many have passed laws in favor of equality, but when it comes to what they're going to do to make it happen, it's simply not a priority compared to defense spending and other issues. Even for those governments that are poorer, we believe they have an obligation to spend a higher percentage on advancing women's rights. In terms of what we know about development, it will advance their countries both economically and politically. I think the countries in Europe and North America have less excuse and in some ways should be held even more accountable, because they do have the money and their unwillingness to commit it to women's issues is perhaps even more serious.
Focus: What are some specific positive changes that have come about since the Beijing conference?
Bunch: One of the clearest examples is the countries that have revised or passed new legis-lation concerning violence against women. In particular, almost all the countries throughout Latin America now have fairly strong legislation against domestic violence and rape, which was not true for most of them before the Beijing conference. There's been an effort to improve women's economic situation in many places, and more attention is being paid to equal wages. There also have been improvements in how seriously governments take their commitment to eliminating discrimination against women. Prior to Beijing, many governments were late in making their reports to the U.N. on compliance with the Women's Convention. Increasingly, governments view those as important reports. Of course, the United States hasn't ratified this convention, so it doesn't apply to us. It's a major embarrassment to the U.S. -- it's the only industrialized country in the world that hasn't ratified this convention.
Focus: Are you concerned about how the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks might sidetrack some of these advances?
Bunch: I'm very concerned about that. I think there will be a tendency to say that issues like equality for women are secondary to national security. I fear there will be a tendency to feel it's OK to tell people who are critical of the government to be quiet. These kinds of things will make it more difficult to advance our goals in both the U.S. and internationally.
Focus: How did the racism conference in South Africa that you attended in September tie in with women's human rights?
Bunch: Racism and oppression against women are often intertwined. We wanted to address in this conference the specific way that racism affects women. The ways in which women of color experience racism are often tied up with sexual violence and attitudes that are related to being women. Even the way men experience racism is affected by gender because it often involves sexual stereotypes. We wanted the conference to address that, to not act as if all racism were a generic experience. Until you look at different women's situations and conditions, including how racism affects women's struggle for rights, you really can't formulate solutions for women that are adequate. The Center for Women's Global Leadership held a hearing at the conference that looked at the intersection of race and gender in women's lives and how the solutions we hoped the conference would address need to take that into account.