The 1995 Beijing Declaration Promised Gender Equality — But It Has Fallen Short
The document, written 25 years ago, is startlingly relevant today.
This post was originally published on March 5 and has been updated to reflect the UN's recommitment to the declaration on March 10.
Twenty-five years ago, leaders from 189 countries agreed to pursue gender equality in an unprecedented display of solidarity during the United Nations’ Fourth World Conference on Women.
The gathering produced the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action, an ambitious and visionary document that outlines a world in which women have the same rights and opportunities as men.
World leaders envisioned gender equality in the home and the workplace, in hospitals and courtrooms, in legal, economic, and interpersonal spaces. They wanted a fundamental reconfiguration of society, so made it clear that “human rights are women's rights.... and women's rights are human rights,” as Hilary Clinton, the First Lady of the United States at the time, said in her address at the conference.
“Women comprise more than half the world's population,” Clinton said. “Yet women are 70% of the world's poor, and two-thirds of those who are not taught to read and write.”
“Women are the primary caretakers for most of the world's children and elderly,” she added. “Yet much of the work we do is not valued — not by economists, not by historians, not by popular culture, not by government leaders.”
First Lady Hillary Clinton addresses a special session of the Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing on Sept. 5, 1995. It was this speech where Clinton declared, "human rights are women’s rights, and women’s rights are human rights."
Clinton said these words in 1995. Today, while some progress has been made — 143 countries guarantee equality between men and women in their constitutions — the world is still staggeringly unequal for women.
That's why, 25 years after the declaration was made, UN member states reaffirmed their commitment to it on March 9, agreeing to invest heavily in measures to reach gender equality.
"Twenty-five years after Beijing, we all recognize that progress on women’s rights has not gone far or fast enough," UN Women Executive Director Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka said in a statement. "It’s 2020, yet no country has achieved gender equality and women continue to be squeezed into just one quarter of the space at the tables of power."
While extreme poverty has declined since 1995, women are still more likely to live in extreme poverty than men. Educational attainment among women has increased over the past two decades, but women are more likely to be illiterate than men and girls are often denied the right to go to school. Today, as many as 131 million girls are missing out on an education.
An estimated 303,000 women die during childbirth each year because of inadequate access to health care.
More than 750 million women alive today were married before they turned 18, and 200 million women were subjected to female genital mutilation, the UN reported. While rates of these injustices are declining, their ongoing existence reflects the deep misogyny that courses through many societies.
The world is currently facing historic levels of displacement, and women make up around 80% of those displaced by climate-related disasters, which puts them at higher risk of sexual violence, health consequences, and economic disenfranchisement.
Women aren’t protected from domestic violence and sexual assault in 49 countries, and roughly 20% of women have experienced intimate partner violence in the last 12 months, according to the UN.
Women in more than half of the world are unable to own land, they have to get permission from their husbands to work in 18 countries, and 104 countries bar them from working in a range of professions.
Women can be fired for being pregnant in 37 countries, have no recourse for workplace sexual harassment in 59 economies, and suffer from the gender pay gap just about everywhere, according to a World Bank report.
Women are 2.6 times more likely than men to do unpaid labor; women are actually owed trillions annually for this work. Globally, women-owned businesses face a credit gap of $1.5 trillion, which prevents them from investing in and expanding their operations.
Political representation has improved over the past two decades, especially in countries like Rwanda, but it’s still heavily skewed against women, who hold just 23.7% of parliamentary seats around the world.
This lack of representation reinforces gender inequalities by erasing women’s voices from the decision-making processes that shape societies.
Although written 25 years ago, the Beijing Declaration is still startlingly relevant. It calls for the full emancipation of women in economic, political, civil, health, and interpersonal realms. It urges governments to prioritize women’s empowerment, and encourages men to play a leading role in making this happen.
Even today, the document serves as a blueprint for change, hope, and equality.
“We have taken the decisive, irreversible step forward; there is no going back,” Gertrude Mongella, former secretary-general of UNESCO, said in at the 1995 conference. “The strands for weaving a better world for humanity are here; let us, therefore, act, and act now."