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….