“Empowering women as political and social actors can change policy choices.” (The World Bank)
If Eleanor Roosevelt’s ghost could speak at the UN today, she probably would have eloquent but stern words for world leaders. A pioneer in the struggle for women’s rights, she wouldn’t have missed a chance to remind them that the UN would not be an outstanding institution without women’s leadership. However, many governments seem to have forgotten the her-story of the UN. While women’s leadership is prominent in social sectors, the trade and finance negotiations at the UN remain dominated by men.
Still, progress has been made. When the UN Charter was signed in 1945, only 47 countries guaranteed women the right to vote. There was no national legislation banning female genital mutilation. Sexism was an unknown diplomatic term, and women had never written an international treaty. Change was inevitable as women leaders took an active interest in international politics. Furthermore, that momentum had been building within the women’s movements long before the UN was founded.
In 1919, the National Women’s Trade Union League convened the first International Congress of Working Women in Washington, D.C., in cooperation with its European counterpart. They worked to adopt labor measures, such as the Convention on Maternity Protection and laws concerning night work and minimum wage for women. At a meeting of the League of Nations, a woman on the Danish delegation succeeded in drawing the organization’s attention to the plight of women and children deported from Turkey. By 1937, the concern for women’s legal rights and claims to nationality were strong enough for the League of Nations Assembly to establish a Committee of Experts on the Legal Status of Women.
During the negotiations on the UN Charter, feisty women delegates from Brazil, the Dominican Republic, and Mexico insisted that the phrase “to ensure respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms without discrimination against race, sex, condition or creed” be included in the UN Charter and enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
Soon afterwards, Eleanor Roosevelt, who was an American delegate to the first General Assembly, met with a handful of government representatives and signed the proclamation, Open Letter to the Women of the World. This document encouraged women to take more active roles in international affairs and the peace movement. Many delegates also argued that the UN needed to establish an independent body for women’s affairs.
Events moved quickly. In May 1946, a sub-commission of the Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) approved a set of principles, policies, and a thirteen-point program for a separate commission on women. Later that year, with the strong support of the United States, ECOSOC established the most important UN body responsible for overseeing policies concerning women: the Commission on the Status of Women.
For more than half a century, the world’s women have claimed a political space on UN territory. Like creative landscape architects, the women’s movement has sketched ambitious plans. In 2020, the UN celebrated the 25th anniversary of the UN Fourth World Conference on Women — the largest conference ever held in the history of the UN. Women have done their part. But have governments delivered?
Let’s not be modest. With nearly 50,000 NGO and government participants, the Fourth World Conference on Women qualified for the Guinness Book of Records as the largest number of women activists working together at any one place ever. If we had all jumped at once on Huairou ground, we might have knocked the earth out of its orbit.
The NGO Forum on Women began days before the official conference. For ten days, participants chose from 4,000 workshops and panels to attend. They joined in the daily plenaries that highlighted speeches from feminist activists and leaders. Plenary speakers rallied the crowds around global themes, such as political participation, religious freedom, economic justice, and violence against women. Tents for women to meet each other according to the world’s regions were the centers of networking and lobbying preparations. Youths, the disabled, lesbians, and indigenous peoples had their own tents. Electronic technology was used effectively to link the Forum to the UN conference and to a global townhouse. There were more than 60,000 emails sent and received and around 100,000 visits to the NGO Forum website. (Imagine what that number would be if the UN conference happened today).
There was no doubt about it. In both virtual and real spaces, this was a global conference like no other. The international women’s movement in Beijing appeared stronger, more diverse, and more committed to influencing the UN than ever before. The interaction between non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and governments had passed many milestones since the first UN women’s conference in Mexico in 1975. From Copenhagen (1980) to Nairobi (1985), we saw the evolution of the NGO Forum from a rebel camp on the outskirts of the UN grounds to a legitimate partner inside the UN tent.
Global paradigms and international consciousness had also evolved. In the past two decades leading up to the NGO Forum, the women’s movement had branched out to take an active interest in major UN social development summits on population, poverty, racism, and the environment. International networks, working groups, and national women’s organizations had lobbied to bring a women’s agenda to the attention of world leaders. The political momentum of these meetings finally converged in Beijing. By then, the discourse had shifted from viewing women as victims to an assertion of women’s rights as fellow citizens.
The Huairou NGO Forum was a full partner with the official meeting more than any other UN conference. The success of the Fourth World Conference on Women depended on the strong interaction and mutual commitments between NGOs and governments. The NGO and government interaction shaped the political dynamics that led to a global consensus document known as the Beijing Platform for Action (BPfA).
One critical point: the women’s conferences were not just events. They were highlights of a long political process which shifted its leadership from women of the North to women representing a global, regional-based movement. Nor was the BPfA just another UN document; what distinguished this lengthy paper from previous plans of action was the invisible transformation of the NGO-government political process that led to the compromises represented within the BPfA. The real Post-Beijing legacy was a structural change in the relationship of a social movement to the intergovernmental system.
The size, scope, and goals of the NGO Forum on Women presented new organizing challenges that required innovations in the broader organizational structure. To meet this challenge, Supatra Masdit and Irene Santiago, the Forum’s convener and executive director respectively, were determined to organize regional facilitating committees and coordinate these committees through a full-time secretariat in New York. A critical factor leading to the success of the NGO Forum was the collaboration between the facilitating committee and a new NGO Forum Secretariat. While a handful of women had organized previous women’s conferences representing international NGOs and basing the meetings in the United States, this NGO Forum had roots throughout the world and was culturally diverse. Regional focal points, backed by representatives from the Conference of Non-Governmental Organizations (COnGO), and the NGO Committees on the Status of Women worked with the New York Secretariat. With a Planning Committee of 200 organizations, these groups raised funds, organized the regional NGO Forums, helped coordinate the women’s caucuses, and provided technical support to the regions. A newsletter kept everyone informed and shared helpful guidelines on how to draft amendments to the official UN documents.
In New York, I joined a small team that constituted the Secretariat along with a dedicated group of volunteers and interns. My job was to be the liaison with the UN and help coordinate regional NGOs. Using the best of high-tech equipment and communications available at the time, this group was able to manage the complexities of a global conference. Most of us had left our own jobs to join the team. At the beginning, we did not realize that we had entered an endless maze of new challenges.
It all started smoothly. The 14-member NGO facilitating committee had returned from their first visit to China with a written agreement that guaranteed freedom of speech on NGO Forum grounds. With the site issue settled, we turned to the problem of raising our own funds, since the UN did not sponsor or fund the NGO Forum. There was reason to be upbeat here too. Many corporate, government, and UN funders and foundations generously contributed. The Chinese government agreed to provide the main logistical support in Beijing.
Then, things took a sharp turn for the worse. The Chinese organizers announced an abrupt change of venue that moved the location of the NGO Forum for Women away from the UN conference by a two-hour bus ride. The small town of Huairou, not Beijing, would host the world’s women movement — a move designed to limit the numbers of participants and the possibility of mass demonstrations in the streets. I remember the shocked look on Supatra Masdit’s face when she read the telegram from the All-China Women’s Federation announcing the change. She turned pale. The Chinese delegate who had brought the message looked even more distressed.
A flurry of global NGO protests and campaigns followed that mobilized and demonstrated the force of the women’s movement. Pressures on the UN and governments were persistent and widespread. Compromise was achieved. On June 8, a new letter of agreement was signed. The Chinese organizers accepted a vastly increased number of participants, guaranteed a shuttle service and a satellite site near the UN conference center in Beijing. With barely two months left to organize the NGO Forum, we tossed out old maps and rushed to establish new ones. Hotel reservations changes and visas obstacles were only part of the confusion. It was clear to us that the real cost was being paid by the participants whose dreams were crumbling in a nightmare of logistics.
For the NGO Forum, the lives of organizers change completely. Sleep was what we did between crises, and insomnia took up the remaining time at night. What kept us going was the realization that thousands of women counted on us to stick together and work out problems with the Chinese organizers. All we had to do was keep a united front and hold the pieces together until the women of the world could arrive in Beijing to weave them together. So we did — and they did. Triumphantly.
At the time of the NGO Forum on Women in 1995, Huairou was a sleepy, provincial town on the outskirts of Beijing surrounded by peaceful low mountains and peach orchards. There were only two reasons Chinese visitors might stop in this town: a pleasant break on the way to the Great Wall or a very quiet spot for a leisurely weekend in the countryside. Few foreigners, if any, ever went there.
This all changed during the UN Fourth World Conference on Women when Huairou was chosen as the site of the NGO Forum. I was curious of how the people of Huairou feel about hosting the NGO Forum on Women and what at impact did the Conference have on the women. In search of answers, I made a return pilgrimage.
Leaving Beijing’s traffic jams behind, I sighed with relief as we reached the wide open roads leading to Huairou. In 1995, the locals had dubbed it the “women’s superhighway.” This was not a term of endearment so much as it was a reflection of reality. Heavy trucks and bicycles were banned at the time in order to leave the road free for the women's buses. As soon as the meeting ended, the Chinese quickly reclaimed it and transformed it into what I called “the super Yangtze.” Trucks carried their precious loads of fuel to the countryside. Bicycles headed into Beijing with every possible thing strapped on their frames: sleeping children, vegetables and watermelons — sometimes all at once.
At the border of Huairou County, our car passed under a red and white banner. Like a friendly Chinese fortune cookie, it read, “Welcome to tourism holiday spot of Huairou and expect everything to turn out as you wish.” Banners are the Chinese way of bestowing good wishes on a special event and have an aura of old-fashioned good luck charms. Red in Chinese tradition symbolizes happiness and good fortune. For Huairou, it would forever have a distinct gender identity as well.
I stopped to buy some melons at a roadside stand. The couple running the stand were newlyweds who exemplified the new spirit of rural entrepreneurship. They had started this small business with only a tiny truck and a little cash. Our conversation soon strayed from melons to the NGO Forum on Women. They had been in Huairou when the women’s conference took place.
“Did you see anything about it on television?” I asked. The young woman told me that they had watched, alongside everyone else. When I asked their thoughts on the results of the meeting, I expected a polite response about how it was a great event for China and how the people of Huairou were honored to have hosted the event. That kind of comment would tend to make the best impression in a political culture where personal opinions are rarely expressed to strangers. They didn’t disappoint, telling me exactly what was expected. I continued my journey past billboards advertising an ostrich farm, cellular phones, and suburban housing developments.
The countryside just outside the town was filled with rows of red earthen and vinyl huts. I met briefly with Cai Tieying, the head of the March Eighth Women’s Production Team, who explained that the agricultural co-op was founded and run entirely by women farmers.
The impact of the UN conference on the women of Huairou was local and global in more ways than one. Unbeknownst to the foreign visitors, village women had held their own parallel forums while the NGO Forum on Women was happening, so the collective spirit could include them. I imagined the women seated in the local community hall, discussing their recommendations for the Beijing Platform for Action. The successful March Eighth Women’s Production Team was a direct outcome of their mini-NGO Forum workshop and an income-generating project.
“The Japanese gave us seeds for the cucumbers, and we export a lot of the produce abroad,” Cai Tieying said. Organic vegetables were gaining popularity in Beijing, so the markets in big cities were also lucrative. I picked a sample and munched on the prickly cucumber, wondering if a Japanese homemaker in Tokyo and another in Beijing were doing the same thing.
A statue of a slim woman with her arms outstretched welcomed us to the center of town. I interpreted this gesture as welcoming, although it could easily have been seen by locals as a heavenly supplication to help survive the challenges of preparing for the hordes. Made of molded concrete, she had been hastily erected to commemorate a historic moment for women. At least the artists understood that what was happening to the town was more than just a sudden tourist boom.
I asked a police officer where the market that sold souvenirs, teapots, and quilts was. I thought I could easily do a few interviews there. The only problem was that it no longer existed. The police officer explained that everyone shopped at the big department store since 1995. On the other hand, he added that I could probably find what I wanted in a shopping mall next to the McDonald’s sign.
I crossed the street to examine the Beijing-Huairou International Conference Center. Its large English sign stood out among the Chinese graphics as did the green dove suspended in the middle of its tall glass facade. This is the hall where Hillary Clinton had delivered her outspoken message on women’s human rights. Over the doorway, a red banner now welcomed a meeting of international businesses to Huairou. Like the rest of China, Huairou’s internationalism has taken a distinctly commercial turn.
I saw crowds of students on bicycles nearby pour into the main street with a chatter that rose above the traffic noise. A group of young women stopped when the traffic policeman waved his arm, and they exchanged friendly words. Above their heads, I recognized the willow and evergreen trees. This place had been the heavily barricaded entrance to the NGO Forum. In 1995, heavy-handed, armed security guards prevented unwanted Chinese protesters from entering or even more importantly, radical women from marching out and demonstrating .
Farther up the road, at the Long Shan Hotel, I joined an international group of women for a briefing presented by the local representative of the All China Women’s Federation. She said that hosting the NGO Forum was “a glorious time in the history of Huairou.” Keeping in line with the development program approved by the state council, Huairou women mapped out their own county plan of action that focused on priorities such as poverty, women’s literacy, health, and the environment. According to her report and confirmation from other sources, the government’s financial input into Huairou was substantial, and women’s programs grew immediately afterwards.
“During the campaign to promote nine years [of] compulsory education, we did a lot to ensure that all of the graduates of junior high school can enter senior high school,” she said. “We also set up a special fund to aid children who live in poverty. In 1997, our health clinic for women and children was established and is now in operation. The statistics bureau is also doing a specific data collection to help promote the cause of women and children.”
After the briefing, the vice mayor of Huairou hosted a lunch during which she explained that everything on the table was locally grown, including the ingredients for the ostrich curry and seasoned cucumbers. There was also a dish I didn’t recognize.
“You are eating Mulan leaves,” the vice mayor said. “ I thought that since you are visiting the former site of the NGO Forum, this was an appropriate dish to serve.” I recognized the name, because I had just seen a preview of the movie based on the peasant girl, Mulan, who saved China from Mongolian invaders. Legends tell of how her Chinese troops were starving until she discovered that this wild mountain tree leaf was edible. We joked that if I ate these and went under the Huairou road banner, the combination might give me special powers. We finished the delicious meal and hoped for the best.
The vice mayor wished that Huairou would forever hold a special place in Chinese history. She wanted her town to become a center where the world’s women could return and work together toward “women’s liberation.” To show their sincerity, the local women’s committee proposed to build a monument to the world’s women. This would be in the shape of a woman’s hands with each finger a different color to symbolize the diversity of women working together. I thought it was a nice idea.
I hurried along the split path up the incline that led to the main grounds. The modern buildings that had once been used for the NGO Forum media center, newspaper site, and meeting rooms had been converted into a national sports training center. Large patches of urban gardens were flourishing on their grounds. Sunflowers rose high, and green beans were ready for picking. Behind one row I spotted three young women in their twenties. I asked if they had heard of the NGO Forum on Women. One answered, “Oh yes, we were all volunteers there. We served food in the main canteen.” We exchanged memories. I told them that the women appreciated the friendly help of the young Chinese volunteers. They were impressed most by how women from so many different countries could be happy together in one place.
The small path extending past these gardens took me into the grounds where the large gray concrete meeting halls stood. I searched behind ruins and under fallen stones for some precious archeological evidence of a material culture left behind by the participants in the NGO Forum on Women. There wasn’t a hairpin or pen to be found. I spotted a small broken sign and my hopes went up, but it turned out to be a military motto written by a team during a training session. As soon as the women had left, these buildings were used for young men’s boot camps. It was hardly the historic legacy I had expected, but I was pleased that almost everything else I’d seen suggested that the women of Huairou had actually gotten some direct benefit from the meeting three years ago. For me, that was something of a litmus test. If the NGO Forum had failed to produce some positive results for the local people who had made it happen, what hope was there for global progress? They passed my test.
The rain was getting heavier, so I headed back to the gate. Two old men standing near the gardens looked up and stared, wondering no doubt why I was shaking my feet so vigorously. My shoes were stuck in the famous Huairou mud. I smiled. I could almost hear the commotion of 30,000 women who had once gathered in the grounds behind me. Glancing back, I stepped off the sidewalk again into the mud on purpose, just to soak up more memories from the bottom of my feet.
During the last presidential election in the United States, school children debated issues often with naive earnestness. One fifth grader said to me, “Well, I don’t think past presidents kept their promises. Do you see a policeman on every corner?” I told her I didn’t recall any promise of the sort, although I agreed that keeping campaign promises was important.
The next presidential election will be the central theme of many educational projects. Relying on paper voting booths and hand-cut campaign banners, children will aspire to imitate grown-up politics. Some will join the revelry of a mock convention and make wonderfully short-winded speeches. They will practice citizenship as if their futures depended on it. They will also be rewarded for good behavior in participatory politics. Apathy in this setting gets an F, not an A.
What happens between these years of imitation citizenry and real life? I wonder what can explain the average viewer’s preference for mindless television to the serious business of choosing a mayor, senator or president.
Something is amiss. If the average citizen’s dream is freedom from politics, this will soon be a reality. The Pew Research Center reported that about 56 percent of eligible voters exercised their right to vote in the last presidential election. That leaves 44 percent who stayed away from the polls. If five percent were sick and another one percent was blown away by natural disasters, that still leaves a third of the eligible voting population in the “I don’t feel like voting” category. Compare this to elections in Thailand, South Africa, and Indonesia in the so-called “developing world.” In these countries, more than 70 percent of voters show up at the polls. In comparison, America looks like a government of the elite few who get to the polls. The 55.7% VAP turnout in 2016 puts the U.S. behind most of its peers in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, most of whose members are highly developed democratic states. Looking at the most recent nationwide election in each OECD nation, the U.S. places 30th out of 35 nations for which data is available.
It is particularly worrisome that less than half of eligible women voters participated in presidential elections. Not that women always vote for feminist causes. In most countries, there is no guarantee that women will support women’s rights. Raufa Hassan, a human rights activist who ran against conservative religious leaders in Yemen, got less than a third of women’s votes. She found out the hard way that there is a feminist gap dividing women voters as well as a gender gap between women voters and men voters.
Nevertheless, demographic trends favor increasing women’s influence in politics. In most industrialized countries, women voters now outnumber men. If women are well informed and willing to take the lead, they can make a major difference. For example, the League of Women Voters polls showed that in the 103rd United States Congress, women legislators voted for more family-friendly causes than did men. 91 percent of the women supported the ban on assault weapons, whereas only 66 percent of the men voted in favor of that measure.
Something has to compel women of diverse backgrounds, particularly young women, to jump into the voting pool. Maybe what is missing is the link between what happens in the classroom and what goes on at home. The practice of citizenship rights may need more attention from parents. Perhaps we have relied too much on teachers to drive home the meaning of the democratic creed; after all, they can only give students a taste of how democracy should work. The lessons learned at school have to be reinforced at home.
I propose we model a new campaign on the successful “take your daughter to work” program and start a movement to take our daughters to vote. We can show children how names are registered, how votes are tallied, and what mysteries lie behind the black curtain. For a son or a daughter, a childhood outing with a parent to vote could be the most important influence on their future political life. Then, classroom lessons would have meaning beyond an assignment and a family tradition that can be passed on to others.
Dear Soon-Young Yoon,
I have been invited to participate in the Generation Equality Forum to report on stories about young women and trafficking. I want to put my journalism training to good use, work from the human rights perspective, and get more involved with the UN. The problem is that I am not sure that I am qualified to be involved in global issues at the UN. Do I really belong in the company of all those ambassadors? Maybe you can suggest another young feminist who has kept up with international affairs. I even missed the 1995 Beijing women’s conference. Please advise.
Worried New Generation Leader
Dear Worried New Generation Leader,
Here is my advice about how to get involved with the UN:
In the inner court of Beijing’s Forbidden City, a carving of the mythical phoenix decorates the outer wall of the empress's palace like a talisman to ward off evil spirits. The phoenix was the court’s favorite symbol of the empresses’ power. According to legend, the phoenix died in a fiery death only to rise from the ashes of its own destruction. No wonder empresses held the phoenix dear. They probably thought that heaven guaranteed them immortal powers.
I think there is a modern variation of the traditional phoenix symbol. Like the mythical bird, Chinese women have had their historical moments, wielding power and then vanishing from sight. Yet in each era, their political spirit was reborn, usually with a different identity.
This century is a propitious time for a new Chinese phoenix to rise. Ideological certainties are being re-examined, and serious cracks have developed in the plan for paradise on earth. In China, as in many other one-time communist strongholds, things didn’t turn out quite as expected. Today, isolationism, big government, and central planning are unpopular artifacts, replaced by internationalism, private enterprise, and free markets.
Amidst this transition, Chinese women needed only a brief opportunity to become the center of national attention. The Fourth World Conference on Women provided that chance. According to scholars at Beijing University, the most immediate result of the Conference was a great leap forward in women’s political participation in the 1990s.
In the 1990s, Wu Qing, a distinguished professor of American studies at the Chinese International University, was a leading evangelist for the cause. Toting a grassroots political philosophy, she traveled around the country, speaking to communities and women’s groups. Her main message was that women must exercise their rights by voting and holding their local representatives accountable. Wu believed that the future of women’s political power lay in mobilizing their political consciousness and encouraging more independent-minded women to run for office. That kind of conviction was hard to beat.
Wu spoke from her own experience as a successful independent candidate for the prestigious People’s Congress. In her spare time, she opened her university office to her constituency to stay in touch with their concerns. They told her everything, from family problems to illnesses, and she listened. Her views may have strayed from the party line, but she insisted that everything she espoused was legal.
The Conference also marked a turning point for the largest women’s non-governmental organization in the world: the All China Women’s Federation (ACWF). There were stable financial resources that strengthened its political clout. Thanks to the visibility of the Conference, the ACWF had considerable backing from the government and international donors to provide services needed by Chinese women. The ACWF launched popular anti-poverty and literacy campaigns that reached millions of women. Its departments included human resources development, publicity and education, children’s work, and international liaison. A publishing house, several magazines, and the China Women’s Daily were also affiliated. These social services, combined with strong media outreach, guaranteed that the ACWF was a major player in the country’s struggle for social and economic reform.
The Conference didn’t turn China upside down by itself, but it clearly contributed to the country’s political renaissance. Above all, it helped to encourage many Chinese women to see themselves as leaders at the forefront of China’s modernization. Striving to be assertive and demanding self-respect, young women in particular are making progress toward power. They are challenging traditional authoritarian models of centralized power and heavy-handed rule. For the new leaders of the Chinese women’s movement, the imperial manner of authoritarian leadership is part of the old order. The feminization of politics in China has taken on a new purpose: encouraging women’s equal participation and leadership in a democratic society. The phoenix has risen. May it grow strong and fly higher.
Nearly a quarter century after the international women’s movement swept through Huairou, China, at the NGO Forum in 1995, we are still pondering the magnitude and meaning of the event. Many women experienced a kind of magic that changed their lives. In the crowds, no one was a stranger. A young student from New York joined hands with a villager from El Salvador and a Chinese painter. They could not speak each other’s language, but they danced together in the Healing Tent of the NGO Forum. Who would have thought that The Hokey Pokey dance could be a ritual dance of empowerment?
Veterans of the first UN World Conference on Women in Mexico City (1975) could see that something was different about this UN meeting. In the eyes of some women leaders, the international women’s movement had grown-up. As one Latin American feminist put it, “Women no longer saw themselves as downtrodden victims.” Instead, they were celebrating their power and claiming their rights as citizens. The tactics had changed from confrontation as the only and main strategy to the use of mass media and successful lobbying. The result of the Conference was a new self-image: examining equality, development, and peace from women’s perspectives, not just as women’s problems. Noeleen Heyzer, former director of UNIFEM (now UN Women) said, “It was not a world conference about women, but a women’s conference about the world.”
In the eyes of many participants, all issues were women’s issues. Women want to redefine the structures, cultures, and values of development. The regional NGO Forum documents not only recorded women’s perspectives on health, education, and welfare, but also the development topics of international banking, structural adjustment, the environment, and international affairs.
Since the 1970s, women activists have argued that most UN and government agencies based their early development policies on a false image of women and children as passive, helpless victims of social injustice. Report after report of unequal status in education, health, and economic status reinforced this view. The state was a patriarchal father whose duty was to look after its dependents of women and children. However, the diagnosis of social ills was always incomplete because of inaccurate information and incomplete data.
The picture became clearer in the 1980s as UN and national statistics confirmed the role of women as major contributors to every country’s gross national product as workers and economic decision-makers. While development models recast their programs to fit a new image, the international women’s movement became increasingly uncomfortable with their role as victims.
Through the UN women’s conferences, the feminist and women’s movements experienced a gradual and intentional transformation of their collective identity. Women would no longer be passive bystanders to be rescued as victims, but active participants in finding solutions to the world’s problems. Our role was not only to uplift ourselves, but to share our dreams for equality, development, and peace with the rest of the world. A world conference shines the spotlight on a global consensus whose strength had been building before and continues after the event. The NGO Forum in 1995 was that special moment in history when visions for good were clear and the fog of ignorance was lifted.
The stereotype of Korea’s pre-modern history is that it was steeped in Confucianism. A preference for boys was a common reason for women to have more children, because according to traditional law, only male heads of household were allowed to conduct ancestral rites. If everyone followed these patriarchal rules, then where did the Korean spirit of women’s revolt come from? How did women during Japanese occupation in the 1930s rise up as leaders of the anti-colonial movement? What explains the central role that strong-willed rural women leaders played in South Korea’s economic boom?
It turns out that patriarchal culture is much more fragile than we think. Beneath the veneer of patriarchal cultures lie cultures of resistance. Wherever men had power, women also created their own spaces of respect and influence. Anthropologists understand that cultures are very heterogenous and full of contradictions. That is how in the most dominant patriarchal cultures, we often find optimal breeding grounds for a powerful women’s movement.
In a sense, powerful women living in a patriarchal society are also part of traditional Korean culture. The mother-in-law has been a strong political figure in the household, acting as the traditional midwife and holding the family purse strings. However, strong women who exert influence in male-dominated societies are everywhere. As a UNICEF officer, I visited villages and poor urban communities in Indonesia, Thailand, Burkina Faso, France, Senegal, and India. In these and other countries known to have national laws that discriminate against women, I found that local women are often opinion leaders and custodians of modern as well as customary religious practices.
Blaming culture for women’s oppression is problematic in societies where women are the culture bearers and the main strongholds of a community’s cultural identity. Myrna Cunningham Kain, former chair of the UN Indigenous Peoples’ Forum, defends culture as a development asset. At various UN forae, she has called for the UN to recognize and respect the cultural heritage and identity of rural women.
I’m concerned that too many recent UN reports about cultural norms categorically portray culture as a barrier to women’s empowerment and full participation. Here is one example: “Cultural norms, care responsibilities, and security issues mean that women and girls face more difficulties than their male counterparts in gaining access to local and national markets and institutions” (E/CN.6/2012/3 p, 17). It is true that traditions like female genital mutilation are perpetuated in the guise of respect for cultural traditions. It is also wrong for governments to hide behind culture as an excuse to be complacent about reforming discriminatory family laws that violate women’s rights. At the same time, the oversimplification of culture as a problem does not advance our understanding of women’s personal and collective resources. As a matter of accuracy, we should distinguish between harmful cultural norms and those that empower women.
If women have one lesson to teach about social change, it is this: Where there has been a culture of oppression, there have always been custodians of hope. You only have to find them and let them speak.
American presidential campaigns are archetypes of modern-age politics. Orchestrated mostly at the top by professionals, campaigns invested millions of dollars on focus groups to craft messages, publicity, television appearances, and image makeovers. The complexities of political platforms are simplified and streamlined, then tailored to reach target audiences. The political economies of these campaigns are undeniably robust. Given the extraordinary resources at their command, you wonder how either party could ever lose.
For leaders in the international women’s movement, this high-flying style seems far beyond reach. While women should always aim high, we should be thankful that not everyone believes that big budgets are the only way to win public support. Some activists have successfully gone mainstream, cutting into the mass-media power line and accessing big-time money. For the rest of us, candlelight vigils, testimonials, and white ribbons are as extravagant as we get. The surprising result is that these low-cost alternative strategies are both cheaper and often leave a more enduring impression.
One telling example is the 16 Days of Activism Against Gender Violence campaign, which ends on Human Rights Day on December 10. The campaign positively thrives on volunteers and limited resources. By its 20th anniversary in 2020, the campaign had grown into a global phenomenon. Years ago, under the leadership of Charlotte Bunch, founder of the Center for Women’s Global Leadership, a handful of women dreamed of global mobilization that would push governments into action to curb violence against women. Today, many governments have made the Campaign a national celebration. UN Women participates in the campaign, so some people even mistakenly think that it is an official UN-sponsored event.
The campaign has developed a novel political strategy based on unity with diversity. The Center sets the theme, such as ending gender-based violence in the world of work. However, everyone decides their own priorities within these themes. One year, American Feminists for Animal Rights planned workshops showing the connection between violence against women and violence against animals. The Spanish Men’s Group Against Male Violence held a meeting called “Towards a New Masculinity.” Women’s groups in Argentina organized a concert with singers protesting violence. Art projects in Ireland displayed 200 tiles with women’s names written on them. White ribbon events were planned in Cambodia, Australia, India, Spain, and England.
These events all took place without a central office orchestrating messages and planning strategies. The key has been to unite all events on a single calendar, giving all those who participate the exhilarating sense of a global, collective effort. The Center invites all participants to send their plans for the campaign. Daily calendars are posted on a website, and groups can share contact points and information. The entire campaign has an amazingly coherent impact.
There is another important impact of such campaigns. Rather than leaving the public feeling like they had been sold political products and targeted for even more, the campaign empowers those who participate. It provides a collective space for feminist and women’s groups that might otherwise feel alone in their efforts to take up sensitive issues, like violence against women. Of course, partisan millionaire donors are not likely to finance this campaign. However, women can achieve personal as well as political victories by changing their own course and by going their own way.
One day during an American presidential election, I received an urgent phone call from the prime minister of a tiny South Asian island. She had been following the campaign closely and was very agitated. “I heard that less than half of the eligible voters were going to the polls,” she exclaimed. She wanted to know if there had been a military coup or threats of terrorist attacks or if women were being threatened if they went to the polls. I tried to dispel her fears about terrorist threats and answered that I hadn’t seen any tanks in the streets, but I couldn’t explain why so few Americans show up to vote. Although there were hundreds of polls conducted during the campaign, few of them, if any, had asked Americans why they weren’t voting. The media’s explanation was that the public generally saw one candidate as stiff and the other as dull and that alone was enough for voters to tune out of an election.
A friend of mine has a less charitable explanation. He worries that the American presidential elections have become a spectator sport that voters watch from a distance, akin to watching a winner emerge from the World Series. In his opinion, Americans love to see an exciting battle of champions, whether in politics or sports. However, if candidates don’t rise to the level of stardom, even party loyalists might show their disdain by boycotting the polls and turning to more engaging local. He points out that the real tragedy is that the political game is not a contest between people, but teams. For example, casting a vote for a conservative candidate is a vote for an entire phalanx of ultra-conservatives.
The prime minister was impatient with my attempts to explain. “In our country,” she said, “everyone knows the candidates and their positions on issues, like abortion, foreign aid, and the environment. We watch American elections as much as our own, because the outcome of these elections are critical to our future. If American policy on global warming doesn’t get on track, the sea level is going to rise, and half of our country will sink beneath the waves. Our maternal child healthcare services are improving with the help of American foreign aid, but if the anti-abortion conservatives win, our women will no longer have the right to reproductive choice. Don’t Americans understand that their president is a world leader too?” I couldn’t calm her down.
At this point, she made a daring proposal. She was going to write a letter to the new president offering to fill the gap in the American political structure. The note would say: “Your people do not seem to be enthusiastic about voting for presidents. We can only surmise that the citizens who stay at home are happy to let strangers determine who will lead the country. As strangers go, we are actually the most qualified. Why? Because we have keenly studied the candidates’ qualifications, the issues, and weighed the consequences on the world. Therefore, we propose that if Americans won’t vote, we will. If you grant us this privilege, we promise to make informed decisions and take full responsibility to help bear the burden of democracy.”
I marveled at her imagination and her earnest desire to enhance the democratic process. At the end of the day, those of us in major democratic states need to be to remind the public that if we don’t choose their leaders, someone else will. I cast my vote to have my friend from the tiny South Asian island appear on primetime television and make her offer to join the electoral process. It’s a message worth hearing for all future elections everywhere.
The gender count of participants at UN conferences has been a sore point for decades. Mildred Persinger, former president of the International Women’s Tribune Center, remembered the Bucharest population summit in 1974 as an event that changed her life. “All of the men were deciding what women should do about contraception, abortion, and family planning,” she said. The next year, she was equally upset that most heads of delegations at the 1975 World Conference on Women, including the president of the conference, were men. Ever since, she had been vigilant about asking UN organizers where the women were.
According to a UN Women report decades later, the same question was still being asked. By 2018, the number of women in executive government positions had stagnated. The private sector — usually the hub of innovative governance — also falls short. Among multinational corporations and bank boards of governors, there are only a few women CEOs and chairs.
Recently at the UN Commission on the Status of Women meetings, women were asking a different question: Where are the men? Over the years, women have been so effective in raising political awareness about equal representation that the majority of the 4,000 delegates annually were women. Yet something was amiss. Some women wondered if any men had even heard about the women’s conferences. With four major summits behind them, it was beginning to look like women were preaching to the converted. It was time to make more men take responsibility for women’s rights. After all, references to men’s responsibilities for promoting gender equality have started to appear in more and more final documents.
These women were right on track, but the solution is not so simple. The gender imbalance in UN conferences reflects much deeper problems at home. At the ministerial level, Sweden is the one of the few countries that has had as many female as male ministers. Few countries have appointed men as gender ministers, recognizing that men’s leadership roles are critical to achieve gender equality. The issue of women’s empowerment remains largely absent from the agenda of most meetings in the public and private sectors.
A breakthrough of governments occurred during the UN Climate Change negotiations. With the help of Mary Robinson, former President of Ireland, women’s organizations lobbied governments to pass the first gender-balance resolution in a UN treaty. These organizations included the Women’s Environment and Development Organization (WEDO). The agreement called for annual reports on the numbers of women and men serving on government negotiations teams. In 2017, a gender plan was also sketched out to help ensure that gender equality and women’s empowerment in climate change moved higher on the list of political priorities. If words turn into action, the gender balance sheet of the UN meetings should look better in the future. We must keep on counting until the answers no longer matter.
The final tally of the Beijing women’s conference’s achievements was very impressive. Here are some headlines. Governments supporting the Holy See were unable to derail the strong language that supported sexual and reproductive health and rights. Some states finally adopted the NGO amendments with reservations, a diplomatic way of saying that they agreed but disagreed. Issues about the girl-child, violence against women, and structural adjustment were given adequate attention, thus forging stronger commitments to the 12 Critical Areas of Concern, a set of priorities identified as most likely to contribute in the short-term to women’s equality.
The international women’s movement asserted its right to speak on all issues as women’s issues. Women wanted to redefine the structures, culture, and values of development, and they no longer saw themselves as victims. Instead, they established their rights as citizens. It was a matter of looking at the world through women’s eyes.
There was a search for greater commonality between women in rich and poor countries to work together. Together, they acknowledged that solutions to global poverty, environmental degradation, negative impact of the media, and new information technologies involve everyone. The rich nations of the North recognized that they too were made up of immigrant, poor, and disenfranchised groups.
At the UN conference, delegates recognized that the true enemy of peace was not war between nations, but an absence of a culture of peace. Before there can be a lasting peace between nations, there must be an enduring peace in family life. There cannot be an end to global ethnic violence while domestic violence persists. There cannot be a moral separation between private and public spheres. Responsibility for domestic violence was no longer a private issue, but now a public, legal issue.
Since the International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD) in Cairo in 1994, the concept of women’s health has been closely tied to women’s empowerment and education. Emphasis was appropriately given to health information and prevention, such for HIV/AIDS. Health services should deal with women’s complete state of well-being, mental and physical, throughout the life cycle and address the needs of girls, adolescents, and the aged.
Human rights emerged as a new moral instrument for women’s rights. It stood for more than political and civil rights and applied to the wide range of development issues, such as women’s health, education, media, and economics.
Gender as a social construct of the relationships between men and women was debated and entered into the Beijing Platform for Action (BPfA). This controversial concept affirmed that “biology is not destiny.” There are social and cultural differences that define gender inequality.
We could also count the paragraphs included. We should be proud of gains made, but the most important achievements of the BPfA are invisible. Even if governments go home and go about business as usual, the women’s movement has the potential to carry this document and make governments accountable through voting. Furthermore, this constituency is now better organized and more global than ever before. The mobilization around the BPfA and the Fourth World Conference on Women strengthened the NGO network in a spider web-like structure from grassroots to regional levels. Leadership diversified, and regional, subregional, national and subnational structures emerged with working groups and issue caucuses. These spider web-like structures continued to evolve and held on long after the conference in Beijing was over.
Ladies and gentlemen, welcome aboard United Nations Air flight number A/CONF.177/20 — your bargain shuttle to the Fifth World Conference on Women. We urgently request a doctor to cure some delegates showing signs of brain damage. There are a few dizzy spells lingering from stalled discussions during the last preparatory meeting in New York on key subjects concerning women’s sexual and reproductive health and rights. Our preliminary diagnosis is that this is hypochondria, a fake illness that is likely to reappear in all future meetings. The Women’s Caucus suggests that these delegates stay in bed, so they can read previous agreements. Delegates who negotiated at the International Conference on Population and Development are fit to travel to this global gathering.
We apologize for any translation problems on this flight. Due to budget cuts, our flight attendants no longer receive language training. However, we have tried to accommodate these differences with multilingual personnel. Your cabin crew today includes a few former government officials who have volunteered for this flight in lieu of their country’s contribution to the UN. Let’s give them a hand.
We understand that although some non-governmental organizations (NGOs), women’s groups, and journalists pushed the emergency button several times during previous meetings, most countries declined to be alarmed. Looking at the state of our world, some observers think drastic action is the only rational response. However, we commend you for your reasonable and cautious attitude and have seated those troublemakers in the rear of the plane. Those NGOs who tried to take seats in first class and chat up the folks with real power are being appropriately disciplined. We regret that they often try to gain access to areas that are off limits. They will not be given the final UN document or earphones for entertainment.
In the interest of environmental consciousness, we are happy to announce that there will be no food or beverage service during this flight. The wasted food, plastic utensils, and trays will not be a black spot on our waste disposal record. We couldn’t afford all those frills anyway. Please try to cooperate with our new procedures. At this time, the captain has turned on the “no smoking” sign. In keeping with the concern for the environment, we hope you will put up similar signs in all lavatories and public places in your countries.
In the front seat pocket, there are changes proposed for the document that were not taken seriously at the regional preparatory meetings. These changes represent the statements compiled by the NGO International Facilitating Committee and the Women’s Caucus. If you are unable to finish reading these during the flight, you are invited to take your complimentary copies to the meeting, where they belong anyway.
Those of you who are frequent fliers on our UN Air conference flights will earn an additional 1,500 pages of documents points for your outstanding performance on the UN reading test. Many of you have been to so many UN meetings that you have already reached the Gold Elite category. This allows you to upgrade your seats to the cockpit, where you can discuss issues with the new woman Secretary General, who is the pilot for this flight.
Congratulations to NGOs, architects, and governments for some excellent recommendations on how to improve human settlements during the Habitat IV meeting. To the left of the plane, you can see the model urban settlements built in two weeks according to the guidelines drawn up at the conference. It was a rush job in order to have them ready for the photographers. If you do not recognize your recommendations, we suggest you consult with local contractors and city officials about what happened to them.
We thank you for flying with us today. As you know, this is a new privatized venture for the UN. It is the wave of the future. Since we can’t get government funding, we have no choice. In keeping with our newfound faith in the market economy to solve every problem, UN Air is funded almost entirely by passenger patronage, interest from the UN pension fund, and change contributed to the charity box at the airport. We expect to expand our routing and upgrade our DC-3s. Remember our motto: “We’re all in this together, so fly UN Air to the next century.”
On the last day of the Beijing Plus Five meeting in New York, I saw a ghostly figure handing out leaflets. Dressed in a gray jacket and long skirt, this young woman looked oddly old-fashioned. My curiosity was aroused.
“Hi,” I said. “What organization do you represent?”
To my surprise, she answered. “I belong to the youth caucus and I am here to make sure that none of the previous agreements made at other UN meetings are changed,” she said as she handed me a leaflet that was blank except for a large black comma drawn on it. “Our group does not believe that this comma belongs where the delegate from Grenada put it, and we are here to set the record straight. In the document agreed upon in 1995, that comma was definitely before, and not after, the word equal.”
Suddenly I was paying attention. Here was a lobbyist so faithful to the text that she had even memorized the punctuation. She believed that a UN document was like a bible that must never change, so she was relentless in her mission.
Then a cloud of pessimism passed over me. “What difference would that make?” I asked myself. “Did the future of women’s equal rights hang on this grammatical change?” The young woman saw my puzzled expression and began a tiresome lecture on the importance of being faithful to previous agreements. I cut her short by saying that I would catch her later.
On reflection, I confess that her point of view was consistent with the mantra, “Don’t Slide Back.” Nevertheless, I cringed at the possibility that future meetings would get bogged down by commas. Moreover, I regretted that youth groups were so blindly drawn into lobbying about words rather than actions that they couldn’t see past the grammar. When I saw her the next day, I argued with her, “You are right to defend the original agreements, but we also have to enlarge our vision and update our approach. We can use the agreements made in the past as a foundation, but we have to understand them in the bright colors of the present. We must see their possibility to light the way to the future.”
“The Platform for Action is only a wonderful floor, not the ceiling of possibilities,” I continued. “Many years later, we can restack our priorities in action coalitions. Women’s sexual and reproductive health and rights have been placed squarely at the center of sustainable development. Other issues like climate change, health, globalization, science and technology need more attention.” She just stared at me, handed me another leaflet and walked away like a gloomy shadow.
No one else caught a glimpse of her. She could become invisible. To avoid this, we must revive the spirit of the Beijing conference. The energy and vision of the international women’s movement has been nurtured by energized, creative new thinkers who are testing its strength on the ground. We need to point our youth in a more productive, forward direction that could breathe life into the feminist and women’s movement at the UN once again.
If you don’t know what CSW stands for, you can join 95 percent of the world’s women. I first learned of the UN CSW in 1980, when I worked with the UN Secretariat for the second UN World Conference on Women. I was a novice in the Secretariat and had to catch up on endless UN acronyms. To the outside world, CSW could stand for almost anything — Combat Submission Wrestling or Certified Specialist of Wine came to mind.
I soon learned that CSW stood for the Commission on the Status of Women. The CSW was founded in 1946, only one year after the UN’s creation, and is the oldest of six UN commissions. It was created to promote the principle of equal rights for men and women. Specifically, it oversees the progress of legally binding treaties, such as the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), and works with UN Women, the main UN body responsible for implementing programs for gender equality and women’s empowerment. At a high level, the CSW is meant to be a catalyst to ensure that the UN and world governments live up to their promises to women for equality, development, and peace. It has to do a review and assessment of progress in implementation of the Beijing Platform for Action, including the all-important albeit unglamorous provision on institutional mechanisms for the advancement of women, including all of the ministries of gender and women’s affairs.
That’s a tall order. However, the CSW has never shied away from the challenges of responding to the international women’s movement’s demands for change while upholding intergovernmental and UN rules. The legacy of the CSW goes back to the international women’s movement and human rights movements in the 1930s that eventually led to the UN’s founding in 1945. The CSW steered the process for the UN world women’s conferences in Mexico (1975), Copenhagen (1980), Nairobi (1990), and Beijing (1995).
Innovation has to come from somewhere within the UN. I believe the CSW is a shining example of how to build a strong international organization that ensures that governments, social movements, and the UN come together to defend women’s human rights. However, the CSW will simply rehash old ideas if we don’t take the responsibility to set it on the right course. The annual CSW meeting is an excellent opportunity to make sure that creative ideas flourish. NGOs gathered at that event will have a chance to speak out on how the UN’s sustainable development goals on peace and security, climate change, and science and technology can support gender equality and women’s empowerment.
What can you contribute to the CSW session next year?