This month, the Generation Equality Forum convened by UN Women will end in Paris, bringing together governments, corporations, and international changemakers to launch investments and develop policies aimed at achieving gender equality by 2030.
While it’s a landmark event organized to empower women around the world, it’s not the first time the United Nations has initiated a dialogue to examine women’s rights.
In 1946, the United Nations formed the Commission on the Status of Women to promote gender equality. As part of this effort, the UN designated 1975 as “International Women’s Year” and launched the first UN World Conference on Women dedicated to promoting women’s rights internationally.
Delegates from 133 governments and thousands of activists attended the conference — and its parallel forum, the International Women’s Year Tribune — sparking ideas and initiatives to improve the lives of women and girls. The conference also served as a blueprint for future global gatherings for gender equality.
In total, the UN organized four world conferences dedicated to examining the status of women, each resulting in renewed efforts to promote women’s health, wealth, and justice.
The Generation Equality Forum was set to take place in March 2020, marking 25 years after the Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing. However, the COVID-19 pandemic made gathering impossible, pushing the forum to 2021. The pandemic also exacerbated existing inequalities, disproportionately affecting women and girls around the world and underscoring the need for renewed efforts to promote women’s advancement.
In the lead up to the forum, Global Citizen is looking back at the previous four conferences to reflect on the will and perseverance of the women who attended them in the hopes of securing gender equality for people everywhere. These activists serve as inspiration for promoting equal rights and are a testament to what can happen when women gather.
Here are 11 quotes from the UN Conferences on Women to inspire you when fighting for the rights of women around the world.
First World Conference on Women, Mexico City
June 19, 1975 – July 2, 1975
The First World Conference on Women set the stage for the UN’s strategy for the advancement of women, resulting in the World Plan of Action for the Implementation of the Objectives of the International Women’s Year. This plan of action involved supporting national and international coalitions aimed at correcting the underdevelopment of women and combatting gender-based violence and discrimination.
The conference in Mexico City also established the United Nations Decade for Women to coordinate long term efforts in advancing women’s rights, leading to the creation of the second and third conferences on women in 1980 and 1985.
Of the 133 delegations from participating countries, 113 were headed by women, opening the door for women’s voices to be heard and respected on the international stage.
In the world outside, we are ignored, we are invisible, we are not important ... We've got to change these attitudes toward us — smilingly if necessary, angrily if necessary, and aggressively if necessary. Otherwise, there will be no such thing as true equality.
Elizabeth Reid, delegate from Australia
We are not here only to demolish discrimination but to envision the benefits to the human race of integrating this forgotten half of humanity in development.
Sirimavo Bandaranaike, Prime Minister of Sri Lanka
The mere fact that so many women got together in such a big group will bring us power. Whenever women get together on something, they can generally make their wishes known.
Khunying Suparb Visessurakarn, delegate from Thailand
Second World Conference on Women, Copenhagen
July 14, 1980 – July 30, 1980
In 1980, 145 member states gathered in Copenhagen for the Second World Conference on Women to review the status of women’s development halfway through the UN’s Decade for Women. The conference identified that equal access to education, employment opportunities, and adequate health care services were paramount to streamlining women’s development.
More than 1,500 delegates participated in discussions, speaking to the effects of conflict and economic stagnation on women. A common theme found among the speakers and attendees was the recognition that women from around the world must work together to solve all forms of oppression that prevent equal rights from being realized.
Women are unavoidably only the bridge between generations, and what we accomplish for ourselves today are only the foundation upon which future generations of women and men will build.
Ms. Datin Paduka Rafida H. Aziz, delegate from Malaysia
There can never be total development of women, there can never be full equality of women with men, unless and until there is peace between nations. Peace, let there be peace indeed.
Ms. Vasiti Raiwalvi, delegate from Fiji
Discrimination against women and racism are two sides of the same coin. Both deny justice.
Justice Annie Ruth Jiagge, delegate from Ghana
Third World Conference on Women, Nairobi
July 15, 1985 – July 26, 1985
The UN’s Decade for Women culminated in the Third World Conference on Women in Nairobi to examine the international achievements relating to the progress of women’s rights and examining the areas that required further action. There were 157 countries represented, with delegates discussing issues ranging from violence against women to water and food insecurity.
The conference in Nairobi concluded that while progress had been made to develop policies to achieve gender equality and integrate women into all spheres of human activity, the UN’s Decade for Women had not achieved the goals outlined in Mexico City 10 years earlier.
More than 15,000 people attended the conference and its accompanying forum, commenting on the need to center women’s voices at the international stage to bring about peace and cooperation between nations.
[Women] are the backbone ... I shall never forget that women should rule the world because they are very, very peaceful.
Peace, in all its aspects, is now clearly a woman's issue. Perhaps if there were less patriarchy there'd be less violence.
Frances Tarlton "Sissy" Farenthold, conference attendee
Fourth World Conference on Women, Beijing
Sept. 4, 1995 – Sept. 15, 1995
Ten years after the previous women’s conference in Nairobi, the fourth and final World Conference on Women took place in Beijing and marked a significant turning point for efforts to achieve gender equality. More than 47,000 participants attended the conference and its parallel forum, signifying a historic moment for international recognition of women’s rights.
The fourth conference resulted in the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action, adopted by 189 countries as an agenda for securing women’s empowerment in the 21st century. Delegates focused on the incredible progress that had been achieved since 1975 when women from different parts of the world began working together and called for future solidarity.
If there is one message that echoes forth from this conference, let it be that human rights are women's rights and women's rights are human rights once and for all.
Hillary Clinton, First Lady of the United States
This moment imposes great challenges on us. One of the greatest is the need to unite! In mobilizing our resources, so that the platform of action we will approve here becomes reality for the benefit not only of womankind but all of humanity.
Dr. Ruth Cardoso, delegate from Brazil
We must empower women and expand their choices. We must respect and value the diversity of women. We must recognize that some women face additional barriers to equality because of their race, ethnicity, religion, or sexual orientation.
Sheila Finestone, delegate from Canada
The Generation Equality Forum marks the 25-year review and appraisal of the Beijing Declaration, during which activists and government leaders can create and adapt policies to center women’s advancement. Only through global cooperation can the world achieve gender equality by 2030.
Let the words of these 11 activists inspire you to take action for women’s empowerment everywhere and bring about a world where gender equality is no longer a dream but a reality.