Commission on the Status of Women, gender, girls rights, human rights, United Nations, Women's rights

How social media changed the women’s movement

Read my speech from last week’s panel discussion at the Commission on the Status of Women:

Dear colleagues, and feminist sisters and brothers – good morning!

We are here today to undertake an important task – bridging the gap between online and offline activism.

The Commission on the Status of Women has always been a place where these two tracks meet to galvanize action and translate policy into practice. It’s the two weeks of the year when the twittersphere is as full of gender discussions as the UN is full of feminists.

As someone who has been an activist for over 10 years, essentially ‘coming of age’ during the reign of the MDG framework, and in the shadow of the Beijing platform – which has taken on an almost mystic legendary quality for many of my generation – I would like to take a moment to reflect on the ways in which I believe social media has changed the face of the women’s movement.

When I first attended the CSW in 2009, my biggest concern was finding an electric socket. The conference rooms, including the General Assembly hall, were relics from a bygone era, and the most exciting event took place when I was forced to unplug a lamp in the hallway to charge my laptop – instantly plunging the entire area into complete darkness.

For me this experience really sums up the distance we have come in the way the UN views the importance of using technology to increase transparency, accountability and participation.

The MDG’s were decided in a small room filled UN technocrats. The Sustainable Development Goals on the other hand are the product of probably the widest consultation the United Nations has ever led. This could not have happened without social media platforms and forums for online discussion.

The Beijing platform Section J calls for the use of new forms of media to bridge gaps and ensure women’s voices are included in decisions that affect their lives.

We all know the challenges we face in making this a reality: the digital divide which prevents women and girls from accessing, using, controlling and designing tech tools; discrimination in all its forms which means women’s engagement with technology is often fraught with violence and abuse; girls shying away from studying computers or science, leaving this sector to be driven by a male-centred user experience.

But we must also consider the ways in which social media has allowed young feminists and gender equality activists to make their voices heard, where once only the ‘specialist’ was allowed to speak.

I am part of a millennial generation that uses blogs to share our innermost thoughts; that relies on Facebook for breaking news; a generation that can say a lot in 120 characters; who views distances and borders as an insignificant detail.

The exchange of views, the proliferation of opinions, and what I believe to be the consciousness raising process that takes place any time there is a feminist debate online – is invaluable to the women’s movement.

Forums like the OECD’s Wikigender have opened up a new space where vital gender and development issues can be widely discussed, and more importantly, where these discussions can impact influencers including donors, the media and multilateral institutions.

In bridging online and offline activism, I have had the privilege of working directly with girls from all over the world.  As an expert with Plan International, my work involves training girls to be advocates and use social media tools to engage with decision makers both locally and globally.

Our focus on including girls in the post 2015 agenda has translated into real accomplishments in terms of policy outcomes, and it has, I believe, also fostered a new generation of girl-advocates and empowered citizens.

The goals on eliminating child marriage and FGM, on increasing educational achievements for girls with a focus on quality and safety, have all been hard fought for by many, including girls.

We have used social media as a tool for extending the reach of girl-led campaigns through youtube where they uploaded videos and vlogs; through Facebook, where girls shared inforgraphics, stories and links; through twitter, where their voices were heard by those in charge; through SMS messaging campaigns, online forums and digital news magazines.

Through offline advocacy, ensuring girls meet and talk directly with their own governments at capitol and mission level. And most importantly, capturing these meetings through video, photos and blogs, and using them to hold decision makers to account for the promises they make to girls behind closed doors.

In 2014, one girl advocate who stood up for her right to an education was awarded the Nobel peace prize. Malala Yousafzai remains an inspiration to every girl in the world who has been denied her rights, for her bravery in overcoming extreme violence to make her voice heard.

I believe that social media is and will continue to be an instrument and a platform for women and girls who will not be silent in face of discrimination and exclusion. My experience, and those of my fellow panellists, shows there is still a gap between online and offline activism, but it is narrowing rapidly.

It is now up to us to keep the decision making doors wide open so women and girls from all across the globe can use social media platforms to enter into these spaces, influence the powers that be, and in so doing become the next generation of feminists and activists.

Thank you.


watch this speech online here:

day of the girl, development, gender, girls rights, human rights, United Nations, Women's rights

It’s a feminist thing

There is wall to wall support and praise for awarding Malala Yousafzai the Nobel Peace Prize this year. And yet, it seems to me that her struggle for girl’s rights has not been linked in our collective consciousness, nor in public statements, with feminism. And that’s a huge fail on all accounts.

On the eve of the International Day of the Girl I would like to take a moment to reflect on the ways in which feminism has stayed a Western concept while the engine of development has given rise to a notion of women’s/girl’s rights that is entirely divorced from the ideas of gender justice.

So, why do we even celebrate a day for girls? there’s already a day for women, a day for children and a day for challenging violence against women. why girls? the answer is simple – because they are not women yet, but they are no longer children. for so many girls, childhood is cut short by puberty. As Helena Minchew from the International Women’s Health Coalition said yesterday at an event in the US House of Representatives: ‘what is a normal biological process, and even a joyous occasion, actually puts girls at risk, reduces their control of their bodies and their life choices’.

Of course, the fact that the UN in its infinite wisdom decided to call the 11th of October the International Day of the Girl Child (!) is precisely why this day is needed. the inaccuracy of the term ‘girl child’ when these girls are in fact no longer treated as children, is beyond ironic.

However, the intention to direct more attention, and hopefully funding and policy measures, at adolescent girls – is critical. and yet, it’s important to note that the narrative around girls who are subject to violations that occur at the onset of puberty such as child, early and forced marriage, FGM/C and others is tied to human rights, and universality, and humanism, but not to the most important term – power.

girls face increased risks and a reduced sense of agency when they hit puberty due to socio-cultural pressures, dictates, binaries, norms, stereotypes and structures. All over the world, societies function by reducing the power that women have over their bodies and their choices, submitting them to their male family members and eventually their husbands. If we don’t clearly link the struggle Malala Yousafzai led to be able to go to school, and earn an education, which in other words means knowledge and power, with the struggle of the feminist movement which has for decades demanded an equal share of the pie, then we are all going to lose out.

The development engine has worked hard to frame ‘gender equality’ in human rights terms, fearful of alienating communities that claim various forms of discrimination and abuse against females are part of their ‘culture’, but in so doing has taken much of the political sting out of the process of achieving gender equality.  In discussing the rights of girls to a life of equal opportunities, I believe we must also speak about this as a power struggle, we must couch this in terms of a movement for the liberation of women and girls from the shackles of oppression.  The objectifying representation of women in the media, our limited reproductive freedom, the pay gap – you name it – it all traces back to unequal power relations that have over the years been cemented into social, cultural and religious institutions that work 24/7 to keep women and girls in their inferior place.

Until the version of the story that is being propagated by Malala, and other human rights activists who refuse to acknowledge the feminist nature of their struggle, takes on a feminist political edge – we will never see girls freely attending school in Pakistan. because it’s not about changing a policy, or increasing investment in teacher training, it’s about shifting deeply rooted notions about the value of females.

gender, post 2015, United Nations

Sustainable Development Goals

The work around the next MDGs or ‘Post 2015’ as it is most commonly known, has been going on for a number of years now. considering the amount of flack the old Development Goals got back in the day, it might seem surprising that the draft version of the new SDGs (are we calling them that?) look so much like the MDGs.


Although, the MDGs did a good job of rallying governments, and it’s hard to deny that significant progress has been made on targets such as education and reducing the levels of extreme poverty. Some argue that this is a result of a general increase in economic prosperity over the past 20-30 years. maybe. but it seems like the MDGs did the impossible, which was, to be aspirational and concrete at the same time. that’s a tricky balance, and for the most part they got it right. so what now?

taking a look at the Zero draft it seems like the UN is learning from mistakes, and taking steps to ensure the SDGs are more comprehensive and nuanced. This is, I should hope, the influence of CSO’s and coalitions which has taken part in wide ranging consultations. the process isn’t over yet, there’s still time for the UN governing bodies to backtrack and buckle under pressure from member states, making the next 18 months of advocacy work critical.

thank god Civicus published an Advocacy and the Post 2015 for Dummies toolkit.

advocacy toolkit

Seriously though, if you’re a Civil Society Organization involved in UN level work and you need this toolkit to explain ‘What is Advocacy?’, you’re in the wrong business. I’m not sure who this is supposed to help, but it does provide a useful breakdown of the UN decision making process around the SDGs.

and it’s enough to make you want to cut yourself. I mean, seriously. It’s the most complicated process ever developed in the history of complicated processes. trust the UN to come up with something so ridiculously unwieldy, it requires it’s own manual, and even that makes little sense unless you’re already involved in the meetings. It’s like road signs in Israel, they are there to confirm what you already know rather than point you in the right direction. If you trust the signs, you’ll never get to where you need to go.

So I guess the next 18 months or so are for CSO’s to ensure the more controversial sections of the draft, that didn’t make into the first set of gaols, actually make it through this time. And maybe harden some of the language too?

SDG 5.10

I mean, ‘promote the availability of gender disaggragated data’ is: A. ridiculous, data should be disaggregated by sex, how the fuck do you analyze data according to social norms? and B. a sorry excuse for a target. Data must be disagregated by sex and age. anything else is a waste of time and money. there – that’s what the target should say.

I’m also interested in seeing what kind of indicators will be included in the target on  reducing gender based violence – which I suspect will be very tricky. and fingers crossed the mention of the ICPD platform won’t be dropped – it’s the most critical gap that currently exists in development efforts. women’s sexual and reproductive health rights are under constant attack from a variety of conservative forces and it will show the UN’s true leadership if they manage to get everyone signed off on this.

Here’s hoping the SDGs really do usher in a new development era…as the Girl Effect once said: It’s no big deal, just the future of humanity.




gender, girls rights, United Nations, Women's rights

empowering marginalized adolescent girls through ICTs

Check out an article by Linda Raftree and myself on integrating ICTs into C4D work with marginalized adolescent girls, which is based on a UNICEF report that we wrote a while back. It was posted in the Guardian today for International Day of the Girl, and it links our research from the report with the issue of ‘innovation for girls education’. You can read the article here and you can access the full UNICEF report here.

below is a short summary of the report:

UNICEF report

Social, cultural, economic and political traditions and systems that prevent girls, especially the most marginalized, from fully achieving their rights present a formidable challenge. The integration of new Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs) to the Communication for Development (C4D) toolbox offers an additional means for challenging unequal power relations and increasing participation of marginalized girls in social transformation.

Especially during puberty, various forms of discrimination and exclusion intersect to increase adolescent girl’s marginalization. At the same time, interventions aimed at adolescent girls have the most transformative potential as they can significantly alter a trajectory of vulnerability by reducing the prevalence of various forms of discrimination such as early marriage and early pregnancy.

The report shows how  ICTs can play a role both in empowering adolescent girls and in reaching or engaging those around them to create enabling environments for girls.

In the report we examine ways that ICTs can strengthen C4D programming by:

  • enhancing girls’ connections, engagement and agency;
  • helping girls access knowledge; and
  • supporting improved governance and service delivery efforts.

We reflect and build on the views of adolescent girls from 13 developing countries who participated in a unique discussion for this paper, and we then provide recommendations to support the integration of ICTs in C4D work with marginalized adolescent girls, including:

  • Girls as active participants in program design. Practitioners should understand local context and ensure that programs use communication channels that are accessible to girls. This will often require multi-channel and multiple platform approaches that reach more marginalized girls who may not have access to or use of ICTs. Programs should be community driven, and real-time feedback from girls should be incorporated to adjust programs to their needs and preferences. Mentoring is a key component of programming with girls, and holistic programs designed together with girls tend towards being more successful.
  • Privacy and protection. Every program should conduct a thorough risk analysis of proposed approaches to ensure that girls are not placed at risk by participating, sharing and consuming information, or publicly holding others to account. Girls should also be supported to make their own informed choices about their online presence and use of ICT devices and platforms. A broader set of stakeholders should be engaged and influenced to help mitigate systemic and structural risks to girls.
  • Research and documentation. The evidence base for use of ICTs in C4D programming with marginalized adolescent girls is quite scarce. Better documentation would improve understanding of what programs are the most effective, and what the real added value of ICTs are in these efforts.
  • Capacity building. Because the integration of ICTs into C4D work is a relatively new area that lacks a consistent methodological framework, organizations should support a comprehensive training process for staff to cover areas such as program design, effective use of new ICT tools in combination with existing tools and methods, and close attention to privacy and risk mitigation.
  • Policy. Programs should use free and open source software. In addition, child protection policies, measures and guidelines should be updated to reflect changes in technology, platforms and information sharing.
girls rights, United Nations

Malala day and the rise of youth

Today is the UN youth takeover day or in its alternative name ‘Malala Day’, named after Malala Yousafzai who was brutally shot in the head by religious extremists for campaigning on girl’s education in Pakistan. The UN general assembly will be taken over by 600 young people, and presided over by Malala herself. The youth delegates will then pass the first ever UN youth led resolution.

This important event is not only about the UN acknowledging the issue of global education, and girl’s right to education, as a critical topic; it is also a recognition of the importance of ‘youth’ in today’s global processes.

The world is experiencing a ‘youth bulge’, which basically means there are more young people under 30 alive in the world today that ever before. These young people are coming of age in an era plagued by political instability, but also great technological progress. They are taking part in protests, online and off-line, they are critical of centralised decision making processes and they want their voices heard. The rise of young people is being felt throughout the globe, from Brazil to Egypt, Turkey and India, where young protesters have taken to the streets in huge numbers.

The UN rightly identifies youth unemployment as one of the biggest issues facing the world today. young people in developing countries make up (especially in conflict affected states) more than 60% of the population, and they are entering labour markets that cannot offer them decent employment. this is a cause for concern and a driver of political instability. although labour markets are influenced by global systems, macro-economic processes and trading regimes, leaving us with a feeling that there is little we can do to change or expand them, there is one thing we can do to better equip young people to this changing landscape.

which brings me back to education. in order to ensure young people are equipped to face the challenge of a changing political landscape and an economic system in turmoil, we must provide them with the right skills, capabilities and knowledge. By ‘we’ i mean those of us in the business of holding governments accountable. innovative approaches to education are needed to ensure young people leave school with the ‘resilience’ they need to face shocks and rapid changes, to adapt to changing priorities and new employment opportunities especially in the knowledge economy.

there is a gender lens to all of this. as usual. girls are still facing more barriers to accessing their education than boys. this means that they are missing out in greater numbers on the chance of acquiring the skills and knowledge they need to develop resilience and adaptability, key components of being able to successfully negotiate employment opportunities. structural forms of discrimination are keeping girl’s from taking advantage of new technologies further limiting their chances of realising their aspirations.

Today is a chance to remind the decision makers that education is the most important topic on their agenda. It is also a chance to remind them that there are power imbalances that are keeping half the population from accessing the most basic right – a good quality education. I believe the global attention leveraged today will provide an important platform for strengthening the voices of those most concerned with these issues – young people, girls and boys, who are inheriting a complex net of problems. UN member states would do well to heed the young people flooding their halls today, lest they encounter them in less amicable circumstances, marching in protest.

Keshet Bachan

Commission on the Status of Women, gender, girls rights, United Nations, violence

57th Commission on the Status of Women – should we care?

Since joining the women’s empowerment sector, i have had the opportunity to attend and lead delegations to a couple CSW meetings in NY. I was initially quite excited by the idea of a high level summit of women’s organizations all committed to feminist ideals coming together at the United Nations to establish new policies, present innovative ideas and breath new life into stagnant discussions around age old problems. Although the side panels are always interesting, and a great place to network and meet like minded dedicated individuals, I have always felt that the CSW was more style than substance.

From an advocacy perspective these meetings are a dud. The ‘Agreed Conclusions‘ document that is adopted at the end of the two week meetings have no teeth, no accountability mechanisms and rarely (if ever) get translated into government level policies. In fact  the few General Assembly discussions i have had the misfortune to attend were dull affairs where countries of the world, in alphabetical order, regaled a dozing audience with stories of what they do to help/protect/promote/mention women. At certain points this becomes an almost comic affair as countries who are well known for their complete disregard to women’s rights and countries that have been chosen multiple times as ‘the worst place to be a woman’ or some such, stand up and give a 10 minute brief on their dedication to the issue.

So why do third sector organizations with stretched budgets keep spending good money to attend these meetings? granted, there is some press and media attention to be had. But it’s rather marginal, and I wonder who besides those that are already interested (you policy wonks know who you are!) actually follow things like #CSW57 and other hashtags?

During the two week meeting the big INGO’s get together with the UN agencies who bring an OECD mission along so they can all hug each other on a panel discussion. So the well known allies of women’s groups get together and celebrate themselves, while certain governments work in advance to create a blocking vote that derails any attempt at passing more action oriented conclusions.

the best example of CSW impotence is the fact that in my many travels to ‘the field’, no one has ever heard of this meeting. sorry, but its true. the only interested folks, are those who are attending, have attended, or might attend one of the meetings in future.

seriously though, wouldn’t it be great if women’s organizations got together (what a pipe dream huh?) and boycotted the whole thing? or held an alternative CSW, like the World Social Forum, but for women and girls? then we would spend two weeks naming and shaming governments, creating real alliances based on a feminist political consciousness that didn’t shy away from challenging the old power bases and spoke about girls rights in terms other than ‘what a great investment’ (read – more consumers for our free market systems).

I guess we’ll call that radical idea ‘Plan B’.

In the meantime, I’m taking this CSW with a grain of salt. With the lofty intention of ‘eliminating all forms of violence against women and girls’ there is more riding on the outcomes of these meetings than ever before.  Women and girls are suffering from violence and abuse right now. there has never been a more urgent call to action, nor is there a more pervasive widespread issue that touches every women and every girl in the world. So what will the CSW actually manage to achieve  Will we see a limp set of innocuous ‘agreed conclusions’ that will have no impact what so ever? or will we see funding allocations and policy changes?

I guess we’ll have to wait and see. But I’m not holding my breath.


gender, girls rights, United Nations, violence

violence against women and girls happens only once a year

Today the world marks the International Day for Elimination of Violence Against Women. This important day gives us, men and women, girls and boys, an opportunity to stop and consider the ways in which violence is ‘gendered’. That is – that women and girls are more likely to suffer from violence than men and boys.

That isn’t to say that men and boys don’t fall victim to violence – of course they do. Except that we live in a world of unequal power relations, which means the strong can hurt the weak and get away with it. and men are stronger – both physically and socially.

Let’s take a look at some numbers for illustration –

A (somewhat dated, but still valid) World Health Organization study found that up to 70% of women across the globe suffer from physical and or sexual violence from an intimate partner at some point in their lives.

In the United States, one-third of women that are murdered each year are killed by intimate partners.

An estimated 150 million girls under 18 suffered some form of sexual violence in 2002 alone.

In the Democratic Republic of Congo over 1,500 women are raped every – that is 48 women an hour.

But it’s important to note – it’s not only about the magnitude of this pandemic (and make no mistake, violence against women and girls is a social disease) but about the type of violence women and girls are suffering from on a daily basis. Violence against women and girls is personal. It’s not drive by shootings or missile attacks. It’s acts of humiliation, violation and degradation. and that also means that it happens in private spaces, mostly between intimate partners and family members.

Last January I wrote a blog post questioning the ability of a mobile application to protect women from violence. the mobile app was aimed at providing women in India with a feeling of protection as they walked down the busy streets of their urban environment by allowing them to send a panic signal. However, my argument was that most violence women face is at home, not on the street from total strangers, but from their husbands and their extended families. This is an important point as it also explains why it’s so hard to find statistics and hard data on the prevalence of violence. In many senses the phenomena is hidden from prying eyes behind the closed doors of the private sphere, and yet the main avenue for reducing violence is by operating in the public sphere of (mobile apps?) human rights, legislation and policies. and herein lies the problem.

There’s an undeniable chasm between formal legislation that prohibits violence in various forms (where it exists) and The State’s ability to enforce this law. Violence between married couples is still largely regarded as a ‘domestic’ (issue) which doesn’t require the involvement of The State and its representatives, the police and judiciary. In fact, certain types of violence that happen in the private sphere, such as rape, are treated with impunity and are rarely seen as worth prosecuting. The term ‘unrapeable’ refers to women who cannot claim they did not consent – e.g prostitutes. But this term has also been used to refer to spousal or marital rape, as many view marriage as a social contract that implicitly assumes consent. As Senator Bob Wilson, a Democrat from California famously said in 1979: “But if you can’t rape your wife, who can you rape?”

It is well known that the instruments at our disposal – legislation, policy, human rights standards, state agents – are flawed tools incapable of adequately responding to violence which happens outside their purview, i.e. at home. not only that, these instruments still reflect a patriarchal worldview which shies away from protecting women and girls from the people most likely to hurt them. It’s interesting to note that sexual violence perpetrated against women during conflict (mostly by enemy troops) is considered a weapon of war and in some instances (of widespread and systematic practice) could be deemed a crime against humanity. But this distinction comes, in my opinion, from a male perspective and from their fear of being subject to rape in situations of conflict. Surely every woman knows in her bones that sexual violence is always a weapon, regardless of who does it and where it happens.

We are left to wonder – what can put an end to violence against women and girls? well, marking the 25th of November by raising the issue is a good start. Awareness raising is important as it ensures women and girls are made aware of their rights and freedoms, and communities are mobilized in support of legislative measures that protect women and girls. However, unequal power relations mean that working with women and girls is not enough. They can protect themselves or mitigate situations of violence to a certain extent, but they require the support and partnership of men and boys.

Plan’s 2011 report – So,what about boys? – provides insight into the important role that men play in preventing violence against women. It is important on this day to remember that preventing violence is up to everyone, including those who have traditionally been cast in the roles of the villains. Whilst I encourage my fellow feminists to point to the egregious forms of violence being perpetrated against women in staggering numbers every day, i would also caution against alienating those who could ally with us to help put an end to this global crisis. Bring men and boys on board!

check out the campaign at

The other important learning from this day (at least for me) is that there’s a sense of ceremony and formality about this day that de-politicizes violence against women and reduces its sense of urgency. By ghettoizing violence against women into one day the United Nations has effectively provided governments with a chance to ignore the issue the rest of the year. Moreover, the fact that violence is discussed en mass only once a year gives the impression that its not as urgent as say – climate change or the financial crisis in Greece. But violence against women and girls is so widespread, it’s literally immeasurable. Surely such an acute problem warrants a global outcry of condemnation and a global response that goes beyond annual statements, twibbons and Facebook pages?

gender, girls rights, post 2015, United Nations


So this blog has been dormant for a while. That’s the problem with blogging. You have a lot you want to say, especially when you’re involved in an interesting project, but the more involved you are in a project the less time you have to blog. the classic dilemma.

My latest project revolves around the post 2015 agenda. so the powers that be at the UN are organising consultations with everyone under the sun, and there’s even an open discussion happening here. Reading through some of the comments made me raise my eyebrows a few time, and by the end of it I was wondering who’s the poor schmuck who has to sift through some of these rantings and present the post 2015 folks with coherent input. There is also a parallel process happening that involves the submission of position pieces from various NGO’s and academics. some of these are quite interesting, in particular i recommend reading the following:

The Gender and Development Network report (by Emily Esplen and Jessica Woodroffe) –

Jan Vandemoortele –

UN Task Team Report –

Sakiko Fukuda-Parr  –

Nicholas Burnett and Colin Felsman (on education post 2015) –

It seems the main issues being considered is how to keep the stuff the MDGs did well and how fix the MDG failures. except no one agrees on what was good and what wasn’t. another dilemma.

Even the high level buy-in and unprecedented donor support for the MDGs which seems to have been their biggest success, is considered by some to be a failure to engage national governments which has left the MDGs with little or very poor local level adaptation.

With regards to gender equality and the MDGs – I guess its too soon to say, but I get the impression (and i hope I’m not jinxing this) that the women’s movement is better coordinated these days and the majority is calling for both a dedicated goal as well as a process of gender mainstreaming.

The debates continue apace, so watch this space.


gender, girls rights, United Nations, World Conference on Women

Do we need a World Conference on Women?

On International Women’s Day this year Ban-Ki Moon, the UN Secretary General, together with the President of the UN General Assembly, proposed to convene a 5th World Conference on Women. Their proposal is now awaiting approval by the 66th Session of the General Assembly which is convening this September. If you’re a woman’s rights activist and you want to have your say about this proposal go here. If you would like to support the movement to convene a 5th World Conference on Women (WCW) sign a petition here. If you didn’t even know there had been 4 previous world conferences, read on.

Let’s start with some basics before we get into the debate – what is a World Conference on Women, where did it start and what has it acheived so far?

The 1st World Conference took place in Mexico in 1975 to mark International Women’s Year and it proved an  important point of departure for the UN in terms of recognition and investment in Women and challenging gender discrimination. Some of the main outcomes of the 1st World Conference were getting the General Assembly to declare a UN Decade on Women (1976-1985) and establishing UNIFEM (now UN Women) which opened a new era both in terms of policy and legislative progress on women’s rights. In fact, the landmark Convention for Elimination of All forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) was passed not long after, in 1979. In addition, the World Conference agreed on a platform of action which set goals for the UN member states to achieve by 1980 on issues such as housing, nutrition and family planning. For the first time, women were viewed as full and equal partners with men, rather than passive recipients of support and assistance.

The 2nd World Conference in Copenhagen in 1980 was important in terms of recognizing men’s role in promoting women’s rights and their empowerment. The progress made since 1975 was celebrated and renewed efforts in challenging gender inequality especially in the context of peace and development were made. However, the 3rd World Conference in Nairobi could be seen somewhat as a setback. Over 1,400 officials from 157 states, and 15,000 NGO representatives met to discuss the decade of progress made since the first World Conference, and formulate strategies for future action. Turns out the women’s movement had grown significantly, and so had the number of opinions, agendas and priorities. Debate raged between those who wanted the issue of violence against women firmly on the agenda and those who wanted to continue working on the issues of peace and development.  The final outcome document is probably lost in annals of history, its only real achievement was the establishment of a global survey on the role of women in development which subsequently turned into ‘The World’s Women: Trends and Statistics’ in the early 90’s.

That said, the World Conference made it clear that the women’s movement was now a force to be reckoned with globally (if it could only get its act together and agree on something) which became evident in the 1994 Cairo Conference on Population where women pushed the boat out on health and reproductive rights with great success.

Which brings us to the Beijing 1995 landmark World Conference on Women. There is no doubt, the Beijing Conference was a turning point in the world’s understanding of women’s empowerment. The term ‘Women’s Rights are Human Rights’ was coined by Hillary Clinton, then the 1st lady, forever changing the way we think and talk about and practice women’s rights.

 “It is time for us to say here in Beijing, and for the world to hear, that it is no longer acceptable to discuss women’s rights as separate from human rights. These abuses have continued because, for too long, the history of women has been a history of silence. Even today, there are those who are trying to silence our words.”

Her full speech is phenomenal and worth listening to or reading here.

It might seem like acknowledging that women’s rights are human rights is a no brainer, but until then women were considered an ‘add on’ issue and the benefits of investing in women in terms of economic and social gains were only just emerging.

The Beijing Platform for Action (BPfA) which was the outcome of the 4th World Conference established some key benchmark standards on education, training and technology. But more than that, the BPfA firmly established the conceptual shift from ‘Women in Development’ to ‘Gender and Development’ (which is still used today). According UNDAW: “The fundamental transformation that took place in Beijing was the recognition of the need to shift the focus from women to the concept of gender, recognizing that the entire structure of society, and all relations between men and women within it, had to be re-evaluated. Only by such a fundamental restructuring of society and its institutions could women be fully empowered to take their rightful place as equal partners with men in all aspects of life. This change represented a strong reaffirmation that women’s rights were human rights and that gender equality was an issue of universal concern, benefiting all.”


In fact, the BPfA has been so influential, there hasn’t been another World Conference since! It’s been celebrated a couple times, in Beijing+10 and Beijing +15 meetings in NY, but a new consolidated platform for action hasn’t been attempted. Until now.

So what prompted the UN to announce another WCW set for 2015? I suppose that depends on who you ask, and how cynical they are feeling at that particular moment. Regardless, the debate now involves two opposing views: those who consider this conference an opportunity to raise new issues on the agenda, and get new commitments from member states by generating another consensus document;  and those who view this conference as an opportunity to generate renewed momentum around implementing (and being accountable to) existing conventions and frameworks.

Obviously, the BPfA set a pretty high standard. So the women’s movement is asking itself – can we top that? Do we have new issues, new frameworks, new paradigms to bring to the floor? and if so, will we be able to reach consensus, or will this conference fracture an already fragile movement which is suffering from cutbacks sparked by an economic crisis and severe austerity measures? Will this conference be progressive and groundbreaking or will we see a ‘backlash’ and a regression on previously agreed standards?

It seems like no one is really debating whether this conference will happen, it’s just a question of ‘under what conditions’. For my part, I am tempted to agree that this WCW could be fundamental in renewing pledges for support, commitments to standards and more importantly increasing funding towards gender equality work. And there are issues that haven’t received the attention they need since Beijing, foremost among those are girls, as a particularly vulnerable cohort which are not adequately protected by existing Human Rights instruments. The world has also moved on quite a lot since 1995 in terms of Information Communication Technologies (ICTs) which surely require some dedicated discussions, especially as more and more violations against women are happening through the Internet and online.

At the same time, if women are kept busy on the sidelines while the UN makes the really important decisions elsewhere, then this Conference is a waste of our time and our money. and if the women’s movement can’t coalesce around a shared agenda that will build on our diversity but unite us in purpose, then we will come away from such a conference significantly weakened.

There are more questions than answers on this. but that’s ok. Because it’s getting us involved in the debate, and it’s allowing newbies (like me) who were only turning 14 when the Beijing Conference took place, and probably didn’t take any notice of it, an opportunity to join and perhaps influence the next World Conference on Women.

Now that you’ve heard what i have to say, and you know a bit more about the process, why not make your voice heard? check out AWID’s Facebook page, where you can leave a comment and maybe make a difference?

Join the debate today! and stay tuned for more from my new blog….