Have global leaders just missed a huge opportunity to step up their commitment to women’s rights?

Abigail Hunt | Sep 10, 2015

Womankind’s Policy Manager Abigail Hunt reflects on the commitments made at the global leaders’ event convened during the United Nations General Assembly in September 2015.

A global leaders’ event, hosted by the People’s Republic of China and UN Women, took place on 27th September 2015 to mark the 20th anniversary of the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action (BPfA), agreed in 1995 during the Fourth World Conference on Women.

The “Global Leaders’ Meeting on Gender Equality and Women’s Empowerment: A Commitment to Action” was the culmination of a global review of the BPfA. It took place on the last day of the Sustainable Development Goals Summit, during which UN Member States formally adopted the policy framework which will guide development priorities to 2030 – and which also includes a specific objective to ‘Achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls’ known as Sustainable Development Goal Five (SDG5).

As we explain in our recent report, the BPfA is still considered by many women’s rights activists to be the most comprehensive blueprint on the actions needed to achieve gender equality and women’s rights. Whilst welcoming the adoption by governments of SDG5, many also maintain that the more comprehensive ‘Beijing agenda’ must remain the definitive roadmap for action if women’s rights are to be achieved in the years to come.

Global Leaders’ commitment event: A reality check

If there was a time for the women’s rights movement to take a temperature check on the extent of current commitment to women’s rights and gender equality by governments worldwide, the global leaders’ event was it. Similarly, if there was an opportunity for governments worldwide to shine on the world stage and spell out what steps they will take to put SDG5 into action, this was also it. Many women’s rights organisations – including Womankind Worldwide – hoped the event would be the moment when governments would define in practical terms what new initiatives they would launch to implement the SDG5 targets.

In other words: new agenda, new action.

The event started strongly with Xi Jinping, President of the People’s Republic of China pledging $10 million USD to UN Women in his opening address, as well as outlining women’s health and training projects. Many throughout the day reiterated the urgent need to tackle violence against women, ensure women’s full and meaningful participation in decision-making, and support women’s economic empowerment – with various initiatives to this end outlined.

Some even established women’s rights as front and centre to their government’s approach. Here, a special mention should be reserved for Sweden’s Prime Minister Stefan Löfven, who opened his address by declaring, ‘I am proud to lead the world’s first Feminist Government, guided by the principle of international solidarity’, to a loud applause.

However by the end of the day, it became clear that many leaders had dedicated their three-minute time allocation to highlighting actions already taken by their government, instead of explaining how they would respond to UN Women’s call to ‘Step it up’ on gender equality. Some focused on the inequality of women in the global South and conflict-affected countries, without clear reference to their role in tackling the discrimination experienced by women in their own countries. Many lacked focus on the intrinsic value of women’s rights, instead employing instrumentalist language focusing on the benefits of women’s empowerment for the family, community and country.

Recognition of the vital role of women’s rights organisations and movements in achieving women’s rights and gender equality was also few and far between. It was left to Bandana Rana, President of Womankind partner organisation Saathi, Nepal, to remind the room in a civil society address that, ‘the contribution of civil society and women’s organisations at the grassroots level will be key to the implementation and monitoring of the 2030 Agenda’, and that financial support for their work is crucial.

Of course the numbers also tell the story. Even though some of the declarations fell short on the high expectations which marked the start of the day, it must be recognised that some 80 world leaders turned up to acknowledge the importance of gender equality. When discussions on women are often slidelined, or delegated to women’s ministers, securing the time of state or government heads during the packed agenda of the United Nations General Assembly is challenging, to say the least.  Given the contestation over the content of SDG5 in the recent Post-2015 negotiations, it came as no surprise that not all UN Member States would be standing up to make progressive pledges.

Yet even in this context some absences were particularly noticeable. Despite being present at the UN General Assembly well over half of the leaders of UN Member states did not make an appearance at the commitment event.

As an organisation based in the UK, Womankind was extremely disappointed that Prime Minister David Cameron did not attend, particularly when his government leads on Women, Peace and Security at the UN Security Council, and has repeatedly declared women and girls to be a priority area of its international development work. The UK consistently championed gender and women’s empowerment during the Post-2015 negotiations, and the International Development Secretary Justine Greening co-hosted a high-profile event on women’s economic empowerment only two days earlier. This is but one example demonstrating the long journey still remaining to build support for gender equality and women’s rights at the highest political levels.

Nonetheless, as the UN celebrates its 70th anniversary and discussion takes place about its role in today’s world, the convening power of UN Women was clearly demonstrated. Given the organisation’s resources are already stretched to the limit this event was no easy feat. This also serves as a reminder that UN Women is possibly the only global entity able to to bring together so many of the key players essential to achieving women’s rights and gender equality – even if many were missing on the day.

At the crossroads in 2015: If not now, when?

The SDG Summit and Global Leaders’ Meeting on Gender Equality and Women’s Empowerment held this weekend were an unprecedented opportunity for governments worldwide to make the substantial, concrete commitments to the transformative agenda vital for the full realisation of women’s rights.  Yet whilst there has been much to celebrate, the ambitious agenda agreed in Beijing in 1995 has not been stepped up across the board. This has left many women’s rights activists asking: if not now, when?

Further information

For a full overview of commitments made by global leaders on 27th September 2015 see:http://beijing20.unwomen.org/en/step-it-up/commitments

For further reflection on the BPfA and its implementation see the special edition of the IDS Bulletin:Beijing +20 – Where now for gender equality? (££). This edition includes an article by Womankind Worldwide exploring how women’s rights organisations have drawn on the BPfA in their work: If Not Now, When? Reasserting Beijing for a Progressive Women’s Rights Agenda in 2015 and Beyond (££)

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