The World of International Organizations Explained

U.N. reboots 1995 plan for gender equality

French demonstrators carry signs for women's rights at a Paris gathering in March 2017 (ARÊTE/Jeanne Menjoulet)

A U.N.-led global commission on Monday recommitted the world to achieving gender equality, in a relaunch — and update — of a quarter-century old landmark agreement for advancing the rights of women and girls.

The Commission on the Status of Women agreed by consensus that nations should fulfill the policy goals of the 150-page Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action on gender equality that resulted from the Fourth World Conference on Women hosted by China in September 1995.

Meant to honor International Women’s Day and the silver anniversary of the 189-nation Beijing Declaration, the commission’s relaunched political declaration reflects both improvements in the past 25 years and widespread concerns that progress is not happening more quickly or broadly.

“Twenty five years after Beijing, we all recognize that progress on women’s rights has not gone far or fast enough,” said Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, executive director of U.N. Women, an agency created a decade ago.

“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,” she said in a statement. “Today, member states have reaffirmed the Beijing Platform for Action, the progress and the gaps. Women and girls will hold them accountable as we work together for true and lasting equality and the full enjoyment of our human rights.”

A new report from U.N. Women found 25 years on from the Beijing declaration, more girls are in school than ever before, fewer women die in childbirth and the proportion of women in parliaments doubled. In the past decade, 131 countries passed laws to support women’s equality.

But the world also remains a place of entrenched attitudes in which millions of women face discrimination, poverty and violence, and in which almost a half-million women and girls over the age of 15 are illiterate, the report found.

Progress on women’s access to paid work ground to a halt over the past 20 years, it said, with 62 percent of women aged 25 to 54 in the labor force compared to 93 percent of men. Nearly one in five women, or 18 percent, faced violence from an intimate partner in the past year, the report said, and 32 million girls are still not in school.

Similarly, the U.N. Development Program’s new Gender Social Norms Index reflected findings that about half of all men and women believe men are better politicians, and more than 40 percent believe men are better business executives and more entitled to such jobs. Some 28 percent of surveyed respondents said they believe it is justified for a husband to beat his wife.

The commission, created in 1946 as part of the United Nations Economic and Social Council, is the world’s main intergovernmental body for the promotion of gender equality and empowerment of women. Its declaration doubles down on what U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres described as “the most comprehensive and transformative global agenda for gender equality and women’s empowerment.”

The Beijing Declaration represents a blueprint for women’s rights, calling for ambitious action in 12 areas for women and girls that include eliminating poverty and violence, ensuring educational access for all girls and elevating women to participate in all levels of business and government.

It was the first U.N. document to say women should decide all “matters relating to their sexuality, including their sexual and reproductive health, free of discrimination, coercion and violence.”

‘One overwhelming global injustice’

But since the 1995 Beijing conference, which drew 17,000 participants and 30,000 activists, the commission said younger generations of women and girls face a host of new challenges, such as discriminatory laws, structural barriers, discriminatory social norms and gender stereotypes.

And in the time since the Beijing Declaration was approved, some conservatives have pushed back on expansive definitions of LGBT family to argue for more traditional notions involving a father, mother and children. They also opposed sexual and reproductive health and rights for women.

The commission skirted those issues by dropping direct references to them, allowing the original language of the Beijing Declaration to stand. Also left out was any mention of a 2000 U.N. Security Council resolution calling for women to be included in decisions about promoting peace.

Guterres told the commission that women in parliaments are still outnumbered 3-to-1 by men, and women still earn just 77 cents for every dollar earned by men. And in some areas, he noted, progress has run into conservative “pushback” on gender equality and stalled, or gone in reverse.

“Some countries have rolled back laws that protect women from violence; others are reducing civic space; still others are pursuing economic and immigration policies that indirectly discriminate against women,” he said in a speech to the commission. “Women’s access to sexual and reproductive health services is far from universal. We must push back against the pushback.”

Guterres called gender equality and discrimination against women and girls the “one overwhelming global injustice” in the world that is fundamentally a question of power.

“We still live in a male-dominated world with a male-dominated culture, and have done so for millennia,” he said. “Centuries of discrimination, deep-rooted patriarchy and misogyny have created a yawning gender power gap in our economies, our political systems and our corporations. This simply has to change.”

The president of the U.N. General Assembly, Nigerian diplomat Tijjani Muhammad-Bande, said not enough has been done to improve the lives of most women and girls in the world, and global warming will only make it harder to get more done.

“No country can claim to have achieved gender equality,” he said in a speech to the commission. “The most existential threat facing us all, climate change, has a disproportionate effect on the most marginalized women and girls. Climate change exacerbates existing inequalities, which inhibit women’s empowerment.”

The world of international organizations explained.

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