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HUMAN RIGHTS COUNCIL HOLDS HIGH-LEVEL PANEL DISCUSSION ON COMMEMORATING THE TWENTY-FIFTH ANNIVERSARY OF THE BEIJING DECLARATION AND PLATFORM FOR ACTION

25 February 2020

The Human Rights Council this morning held a high-level panel discussion on commemorating the twenty-fifth anniversary of the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action, adopted at the Fourth World Conference on Women.

Michelle Bachelet, High Commissioner for Human Rights, Trine Rask Thygesen, Secretary of State for Development Policy of Denmark, and Chen Xu, Permanent Representative of China to the United Nations Office at Geneva, delivered keynote statements.

The panellists were Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, Executive Director of UN Women, Bandana Rana, Vice-Chair at the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women, and Magalys Arocha-Dominguez, Expert on Human Rights and Gender Equality.

Ms. Bachelet reminded that 25 years ago, the rallying cries of women had led to the adoption of the Beijing Declaration and Platform of Action. Some 189 countries had pledged to achieve gender equality, following an extraordinary mobilization of female activists of all ages and backgrounds. Nowadays all could see pushbacks on the advances made in the field of women’s rights. They should not tear up the women’s rights agenda as they must resist all challenges to the hard won accomplishments for all women in their full diversity.

Ms. Thygesen said the panel was a timely opportunity to look back at achievements made over the past 25 years. In 1980, Denmark hosted the Second World Conference on Women. Today, Denmark stood alongside Kenya, China and Mexico as other hosts of World Conferences on Women, an evidence of cross-regional consensus towards gender equality. In order to achieve Sustainable Development Goals but also to pushback against a global pushback against women’s equality, all had to recommit to the Beijing Platform.

Mr. Chen recalled that 25 years ago the Fourth World Conference on Women had adopted the Beijing Declaration. Much progress had been made in improving women’s rights since then, including access to education, freedom of marriage and inclusion in all parts of the work place. The cause of women in China had attained new achievements in that period. He hoped developed countries would continue to help developing countries in achieving these goals.

Ms. Mlambo-Ngcuka noted that the adoption of the Beijing Declaration had been a milestone. Significant progress had been seen in the access of women and girls to health and education. However, there had been unacceptably slow progress on the economic front with the global gender gap in labour force participation stagnating.

Ms. Rana said that the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women was the right place where the impact of commitments made in Beijing could be assessed. It had been crucial in strengthening the accountability of States in accelerating implementation of the Beijing commitments.

Ms. Arocha-Dominguez commemorated all those defenders of women’s rights who contributed to the Mexico, Copenhagen and Nairobi Conferences, which set the groundwork for the Beijing Conference 25 years ago. She regretted that some of the broad visions of the Beijing Conference had still not been fulfilled. Female poverty had led to almost slave levels of female labour in parts of the world.

In the ensuing discussion, speakers noted the multiple and intersecting forms of discrimination against women and girls. They discussed challenges in achieving gender equality in different sectors, especially in the field of sexual and reproductive health, family life and employment. Speakers urged States to fight against such attacks on women’s rights and wondered how investments in access to justice for women and girls could be mobilized. They also underscored the role of women in peace and security, as well as their role in stemming the negative effects of climate change. As for the representation of women in decision-making bodies, speakers cited measures and laws to strengthen their presence in high-ranking positions. Full implementation of the Beijing agenda would require transformational laws, systemic change, financial contributions, and multilateral cooperation.

Speaking in the ensuing discussion were South Africa, Brazil, Mozambique, France, Namibia, Montenegro, Luxembourg on behalf of a group of countries, Brazil on behalf of the Community of Portuguese-speaking Countries, Pakistan on behalf of Organization of Islamic Cooperation, Australia on behalf of a group of countries, Angola, Qatar on behalf of the Arab Group, European Union, Uruguay on behalf of a group of countries, Bangladesh on behalf of a group of countries, Djibouti on behalf of members of Francophonie, Burkina Faso on behalf of the African Group, Bahamas on behalf of Caribbean Community and Common Market, Maldives on behalf of least developed countries and small island developing States, Republic of Korea on behalf of Mexico, Indonesia, South Korea, Turkey and Australia, Sweden on behalf on Nordic and Baltic countries, Azerbaijan on behalf of the Non-Aligned Movement, European Union, Malaysia on behalf of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations,
International Development Law Organization, and Food and Agriculture Organization.

The following civil society organizations also spoke: Centre for Reproductive Rights Inc, Action Canada for Population and Development, International Commission of Jurists, Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, Women@theTable and Make Mothers Matter.

At 11 a.m., the Human Rights Council will continue with its high-level segment.

Keynote Statements

MICHELLE BACHELET, United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, reminded that 25 years ago the rallying cries of women had led to the adoption of the Beijing Declaration and Platform of Action. Some 189 countries had pledged to achieve gender equality, following an extraordinary mobilization of female activists of all ages and backgrounds. The Beijing World Conference was a reminder that women were not asking for any special rights or privileges but the same rights as men. They were calling for an end to centuries-long discrimination and deprivation. Twenty-five years ago, their clamour had been heard and answered. It had been a historic step forward. The Beijing Declaration was a rejection of traditional notions, such as that violence against women should be dealt with within the family and that women should be kept away from classrooms. Although the world was still far from achieving full gender equality, the percentage of women in paid jobs had increased, and 140 countries guaranteed gender equality in their constitutions. Countries now collected far more data on violence against women. Gender equality was indispensable for achieving equality for all, the High Commissioner stressed. She wanted everyone to cherish the progress made and celebrate Beijing. However, she underlined that the Beijing agenda was unfinished. Nowadays all could see pushbacks on the advances made in the field of women’s rights. They should not tear up the women’s rights agenda as they must resist all challenges to the hard won accomplishments for all women in their full diversity, Ms. Bachelet stressed. She called on countries to repeal discriminatory laws against women and to strive for the equal representation of women.

TRINE RASK THYGESEN, Secretary of State for Development Policy of Denmark, said this panel was a timely opportunity to look back at the achievements made over the past 25 years, but also to reflect on why the world currently faced severe backlashes on issues that they saw as fundamental and undisputable rights. In 1980, Denmark hosted the Second World Conference on Women. For the past 40 years, Denmark had been strongly committed to advancing women’s and girls’ rights and empowerment. Today Denmark stood alongside Kenya, China and Mexico as other hosts of World Conferences on Women, a very clear evidence of cross-regional consensus towards gender equality. The vision was laid out in Beijing 25 years ago and 189 States had agreed on a clear roadmap. In two out of three countries, there were now as many girls as boys in primary schools. Many women had entered the labour market and maternal mortality had declined by almost 40 per cent. However, one in three women still experienced violence in their lifetime. On average, men earned 63 per cent more than women and the gap was increasing. In order to achieve Sustainable Development Goals but also to pushback against a global pushback against women’s equality, all had to recommit to the Beijing Platform. The upcoming Generation Equality Forum was welcomed and the six action coalitions, designed to accelerate fulfilment of the Beijing promises. Those coalitions would form future joint efforts and transform the way all worked together on the agenda. The final push for gender equality had to be a joint effort as no country could do it alone.

CHEN XU, Permanent Representative of China to the United Nations Office at Geneva, recalled that 25 years ago the Fourth World Conference on Women had adopted the Beijing Declaration. Much progress had been made in improving women’s rights since then, including access to education, freedom of marriage and inclusion in all parts of the work place. The cause of women in China had attained new achievements in that period. The status of women had reached new levels. China had mobilized all resources nationwide to combat the COVID19 virus, with women playing a key role in this. This embodied the cause of women in China. However, there remained inequalities between men and women, with women being 25 per cent more likely to be in extreme poverty than men in younger age groups. Many women suffered deeply from imbalanced development, war, climate change and other challenges. It was necessary to ensure that women shared equally in development; to improve the protection of women’s rights on a systemic basis, including rights to education and health; to illuminate the gender gap in social protection; and to strengthen international cooperation on women’s rights. He hoped developed countries would continue to help developing countries in achieving these goals, and reiterated that China was willing to cooperate with partners to do so.

Statements by Panelists

PHUMZILE MLAMBO-NGCUKA, Executive Director of UN Women, noted that the adoption of the Beijing Declaration had been a milestone. Efforts to achieve gender equality had been strengthened. Beijing had focused countries on the norms and stereotypes that discriminated against women. The world was in a process towards achieving gender equality. But progress had been slow and unequal and there had been significant pushback. The world had seen significant progress in the access of women and girls to health and education. However, there had been unacceptably slow progress on the economic front with the global gender gap in labour force participation stagnating. Of those employed, 58 per cent of women worked in the informal sector which meant that women remained much closer to poverty than prosperity. When it came to violence against women and girls, it remained a silent and endemic crisis. There were a number of critical cross-cutting levers for overcoming stagnation and catalysing progress towards gender equality. They included adequate financing through mobilization of financial resources. That was why UN Women was convening the Generation Equality Forum, together with Mexico and France, in order to deliver concrete game-changing results for women and girls, and to fulfil the promises of Beijing.

BANDANA RANA, Vice-Chair at the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women, said that she had worked directly with survivors of violence, founded women’s shelters, and worked from the grassroots to the national and global levels through various networks she had co-founded. Today, the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women was the right place where the impact of commitments made in Beijing could be assessed. It had been crucial in strengthening the accountability of States in accelerating implementation of the Beijing commitments. Ms. Rana underlined that the international community could not implement if it could not measure, which was why the Committee through its constructive dialogue and recommendations helped States to measure their progress. The international community was witnessing global backlash against structural barriers underlying women’s oppression. Hundreds of thousands of women died each year from complications in pregnancy and less than a quarter of members of parliament were women. They needed to create effective institutions and allocate adequate resources for women to realize their rights. In conclusion, Ms. Rana said that 2020 should mark a centre stage for accelerating actions on commitments as the world could not afford to regress.

MAGALYS AROCHA-DOMINGUEZ, Expert on Human Rights and Gender Equality, commemorated all those defenders of women’s rights who came before, and who contributed to the Mexico, Copenhagen and Nairobi Conferences, which set the groundwork for the Beijing Conference 25 years ago. Latin American and Caribbean women had strategic unity when coming to the Beijing Conference, as a result of their cooperation on the 1994 Action Plan of Mar del Plata, a crucial milestone in this fight. She regretted that some of the broad visions of the Beijing Conference had still not been fulfilled. Female poverty had led to almost slave levels of female labour in parts of the world. Child pregnancies were still an issue, and chauvinist and sexual stereotypes that underpinned sexual violence against women had to be addressed across the world. Women’s equality could not be achieved in isolation, but instead had to be achieved within the right social frameworks. So long as there remained chauvinist, racist, and male dominated societies, there would be no gender equality.

Discussion

Speakers recognized the multiple and intersecting forms of discrimination against women and girls. Challenges in achieving gender equality remained in many sectors, especially in the field of sexual and reproductive health, family life and employment. The economic emancipation of women could not be reached unless governments worked with multiple stakeholders, including the business sector, and unless they supported shared parenting. Some speakers reminded that women did not have access to resources in order to be more productive, which in turn negatively affected the field of agriculture, forestry and fisheries in many developing countries, and contributed to rural poverty and malnutrition. States had been active in eliminating violence against women, improving their access to healthcare and education, as well as political representation.

Unfortunately, progress had not been equal across countries and the majority of women worldwide did not enjoy equal rights. The failure to secure quality and affordable sexual and reproductive healthcare, as well as to protect the principle of bodily autonomy, remained one of the leading causes of death for women and girls. It was necessary to dismantle patriarchal structures and values which frequently tended to invoke religion, culture and tradition in order to curb women’s and girls’ rights. Speakers thus urged States to fight against such attacks on women’s rights. They regretted that peace was not a separate freedom coalition for women’s rights, noting that disarmament was a precondition for peace. Accordingly, they called on the Human Rights Council to include a gendered conflict analysis in its reports. They also warned that predictive analytics and other forms of artificial intelligence were highly likely to reproduce and deepen traditional gender and racial biases reflected in the existing data.

The rule of law should be promoted as the enabler of achieving gender equality because of a persistent justice gap between men and women, some speakers underlined. Equal access to justice could make a real difference in the lives of women and girls, especially for those living in rural areas and with disabilities. Speakers thus wondered how investments in access to justice for women and girls could be mobilized. They also underscored the role of women in peace and security, as well as their role in stemming the negative effects of climate change.
As for the representation of women in decision-making bodies, speakers cited measures and laws to strengthen their presence in high-ranking positions, noting that real empowerment should start at the very top. Women should be able to occupy leadership positions without any discrimination. Reminding of a rise of social and political movements aiming to overturn laws on human and women’s rights, and to diminish funding for women’s and human rights organizations, speakers stressed that Governments had to fight that pushback, engage youth and aim for their meaningful participation, and place women’s rights at the centre stage in the Beijing+25 process. The twenty-fifth anniversary of the Beijing Declaration was an opportunity to reflect on the progress made in gender equality, and to reinforce the collective responsibility of States to fulfil the normative framework of the Beijing agenda. Full implementation of the Beijing agenda would require transformational laws, systemic change, strong financial contributions, and multilateral cooperation.

Concluding Remarks

PHUMZILE MLAMBO-NGCUKA, Executive Director of UN Women, highlighted in concluding remarks a number of areas of work where UN Women had focused, including on feminist action for climate justice, and feminist movements for leadership. There were a number of cross cutting levers for overcoming stagnation and catalysing progress towards gender equality, and these included financing for equality, removing all discriminatory laws, closing the gap between equality in law and in practice, as well as strengthening institutional mechanisms for gender equality. She looked forward to the UN Decade for Action (2020-2030), and noted that UN Women was convening the Generation Equality Forum, hosted by Mexico and France. She asked that Member States would be party to this project, and although private sector participation had been secured, civil society would be core to this work to achieve gender equality.

MANDANA RANA, Vice Chair of the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women, reiterated in concluding remarks that whilst progress on women’s rights had been made, problems persisted, and chief among these was violence against women. In addressing this problem, it was imperative to address the mindset, and engage men, boys and religious leaders to ensure constructive dialogue was a useful medium. This work must be an exercise to help groups in their work to be more gender sensitive, rather than an exercise to name and shame. She urged Member States, human rights defenders and non-governmental organizations to provide as much information as possible to the Committee to help in their work. The Committee had now made it obligatory for members to report on progress on recommendations on women’s rights.

MAGALYS AROCHA-DOMINGUEZ, Expert on Human Rights and Gender Equality, noted in concluding remarks that some gaps were still present and intersectional discrimination had to be explored further. Often when they talked about the vulnerability of rural or indigenous women or specific sectors, for example seasonal workers who were exploited, they in fact were talking about intersectional discrimination. The United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women had to be used in a better way. Indicators for intersectional discrimination had to be developed. Non-governmental organizations, Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom and the Centre for Reproductive Rights were thanked for raising important issues and submitting relevant evidence to the Committee.

For use of the information media; not an official record

HRC20.006E