By Maureen Burns-Bowie
Maureen Burns-Bowie, Director of the International Caucus’ UN Program (https://www.wcainternationalcaucus.org/) is pleased to share with Women’s Caucus for Art members a new online publication, “Beijing Journal” (https://www.beijingjournal.online/).
This year, 2020, we celebrate ten days in September 1995 as the 25th anniversary of the United Nations Fourth World Conference on Women, Beijing, China. This event brought together 17,000 UN delegates and 30,000 representatives from civil society NGO’s (non-governmental organizations). Women worldwide went to the conference to explore the role of women in society, develop solutions with timelines, enumerate steps to reach those goals, and demand accountability. The conference laid the foundation for a penetrating analysis of women’s needs, aspirations, and rights. On stage in Beijing, Hillary Rodham Clinton gave her address of “Women’s Rights are Human Rights”. It was a fitting triumph after the long struggle of Eleanor Roosevelt during the early years of the UN when she worked tirelessly to create the “Universal Declaration of Human Rights”.
WCA had a truly remarkable presence in Beijing, with 100 women attending the NGO Forum. (Some report 99 women and one man). The delegation was led by President Helen Klebesadel and Vice-President Jo Hockenhull. The representatives from WCA were artists committed to the rights of women. They shared their artwork which expressed a new sort of world—just a step or two closer to the Utopia we all dream of. They set up makeshift art exhibitions, moderated panels, participated in performance arts, and attended official UN events. China was not a welcoming host and NGO participants were followed, harassed, threatened. Many events were moved to far away locations or cancelled at the last minute. Nonetheless, the women endured (of course!) The experienced bad weather, good art, new ideas, renewed commitments to social/artistic activism, and the beginnings of lifelong friendships.
The outcome of the Beijing Conference was “The Beijing Platform for Action” adopted unanimously by 189 countries, a stunning document which demanded gender equality and a decent and dignified life for women. It enumerated the abuses that women endure, as well as the rights they should be able to expect in any culture. The strategic objectives and concrete actions included addressing: women and poverty, education, health, violence against women, women and armed conflict, women in the economy, women in power and decision-making, institutional mechanisms for the advancement of women, human rights and women, women and media, women and the environment, and the young girl.
Beijing expanded the scope of feminism, pulling it out of narrow western confines to address ideas of global feminism with many more issues to consider, embracing women from less industrialized countries, more repressive cultures and vastly different value systems.
The insights, resolutions, and plans are as relevant and timely today as they were when first written. They continue to be a blueprint for societal change. An omission was addressing sexual and gender orientation. A few countries with widespread fundamentalist religious beliefs refused to sign on, and 100% agreement was a requirement for the platform. Much to the consternation of the vast majority, a few of these conservative delegates made some negotiations difficult. (Since then, updated progressive UN resolutions fill in this gap.) Nonetheless, the Beijing Platform is a substantial document that maintains timeliness and purpose. Today, 25 years later, it is still referenced as the most comprehensive survey of changes that must be made to advance women’s rights. The Beijing Platform still shows the path forward. And the United Nations continues to be the main institutional proponent worldwide for the advancement of women. As a result of the Beijing Conference, the greatly expanded awareness of the importance of women’s rights in all human endeavors led to strengthening of women’s organizations within the United Nations, which eventually led to the creation of “UN Women” in 2010.
Since this landmark event twenty five years ago, much progress has been made, but it has been a fragile victory, with a signifiant amount of ground lost recently. This is due in part to the effect the pandemic on all of our lives. And the increase of fascism worldwide has emboldened entrenched patriarchy with the resultant subjugation of women.
Cultural evolution is always uneven, with lots of setbacks. Progress is not a steady and unbroken march forward. But, as Martin Luther King reminded us, “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice”. We will have to maintain our resolve, as the reactionary forces we see today will not go away quickly or easily. We face a rise in right wing ideologies and populist movements threatening democracies worldwide, a suffering planet in the middle of a climate crisis, massive human rights violations, a pandemic that has isolated most people in the world, slowed down economies, and torn at the fabric of our nations. All of these crises disproportionately affect women. Public sentiment is divided on women’s issues. Even women are divided. But historical trends move in the direction of increased human rights, albeit with difficulty. The challenges of today are a stark reminder that we must remain vigilant. There will be continuing threats to progress. Of course we know that we will never step into that Utopia we imagine, but we must keep up the struggle to get closer and closer. Fortunately, at the UN, the Beijing Platform continues to be the standard to strive towards for all women in all countries. “BUILD BACK BETTER”