Beijing+5: 23rd special session of the General Assembly

The Four Global Womens' Conferences 1975 - 1995:
Historical Perspective

Four world conferences on women convened by the United Nations in the past quarter of a century have been instrumental in elevating the cause of gender equality to the very centre of the global agenda. The conferences have united the international community behind a set of common objectives with an effective plan of action for the advancement of women everywhere, in all spheres of public and private life.

 The struggle for gender equality was still in its early stages at the inception of the United Nations in 1945.  Of the original 51 Member States, only 30 allowed women equal voting rights with men or permitted them to hold public office. Nevertheless, the drafters of the United Nation Charter had the foresight to deliberately refer to the "equal rights of men and women" as they declared the Organization's "faith in fundamental human rights" and the "dignity and worth of the human person". No previous international legal document had so forcefully affirmed the equality of all human beings, or specifically targeted sex as a basis for discrimination.  At that moment, it became clear that women's rights would be central to the work that lay ahead.

 During the first three decades, the work of the United Nations on behalf of women focused primarily on the codification of women's legal and civil rights, and the gathering of data on the status of women around the world. With time, however, it became increasingly apparent that laws, in and of themselves, were not enough to ensure the equal rights of women.

 The struggle for equality entered a second stage with the convening of four world conferences by the United Nations to develop strategies and plans of action for the advancement of women. The efforts undertaken have gone through several phases and transformations, from regarding women almost exclusively in terms of their development needs, to recognizing their essential contributions to the entire development process, to seeking their empowerment and the promotion of their right to full participation at all levels of human activity.

Mexico City: A Global
Dialogue is Opened

The first world conference on the status of women was convened in Mexico City to coincide with the 1975 International Women's Year, observed to remind the international community that discrimination against women continued to be a persistent problem in much of the world. The Conference, along with the United Nations Decade for Women (1976-1985) proclaimed by the General Assembly five months later at the urging of the Conference, launched a new era in global efforts to promote the advancement of women by opening a worldwide dialogue on gender equality. A process was set in motion — a process of learning — that would involve deliberation, negotiation, setting objectives, identifying obstacles and reviewing the progress made.

 The Mexico City Conference was called for by the United Nations General Assembly to focus international attention on the need to develop future oriented goals, effective strategies and plans of action for the advancement of women.  To this end, the General Assembly identified three key objectives that would become the basis for the work of the United Nations on behalf of women:

  • Full gender equality and the elimination of gender discrimination;
  • The integration and full participation of women in development;
  • An increased contribution by women in the strengthening of world peace.

 The Conference responded by adopting a World Plan of Action, a document that offered guidelines for governments and the international community to follow for the next ten years in pursuit of the three key objectives set by the General Assembly. The Plan of Action set minimum targets, to be met by 1980, that focused on securing equal access for women to resources such as education, employment opportunities, political participation, health services, housing, nutrition and family planning.

 This approach marked a change, which had started to take shape in the early 1970s, in the way that women were perceived.  Whereas previously women had been seen as passive recipients of support and assistance, they were now viewed as full and equal partners with men, with equal rights to resources and opportunities. A similar transformation was taking place in the approach to development, with a shift from an earlier belief that development served to advance women, to a new consensus that development was not possible without the full participation of women.

 The Conference called upon governments to formulate national strategies and identify targets and priorities in their effort to promote the equal participation of women. By the end of the United Nations Decade for Women, 127 Member States had responded by establishing some form of national machinery, institutions dealing with the promotion of policy, research and programmes aimed at women's advancement and participation in development.

 Within the United Nations system, in addition to the already existing Branch (now Division) for the Advancement of Women, the Mexico City Conference led to the establishment of the International Research and Training Institute for the Advancement of Women (INSTRAW) and the United Nations Development Fund for Women (UNIFEM) to provide the institutional framework for research, training and operational activities in the area of women and development.

 An important facet of the meeting in Mexico City was that women themselves played an instrumental role in shaping the discussion. Of the 133 Member State delegations gathered there, 113 were headed by women. Women also organised a parallel NGO Forum, the International Women's Year Tribune, which attracted approximately 4,000 participants.

 Sharp differences emerged among the women gathered at the Forum, reflecting the political and economic realities of the times.  Women from the countries of the Eastern Block, for instance, were most interested in issues of peace, while women from the West emphasized equality and those from the developing world placed priority on development.  Nevertheless, the Forum played an important role in bringing together women and men from different cultures and backgrounds to share information and opinions and to set in motion a process that would help unite the women's movement, which by the end of the Decade for Women would become truly international. The Forum was also instrumental in opening up the United Nations to NGOs, who provided access for the voices of women to the Organization's policy-making process.

Copenhagen: The Review
Process Begins

There was a general consensus that significant progress had been made as representatives of 145 Member States met in Copenhagen in 1980 for the second world conference on women to review and appraise the 1975 World Plan of Action. Governments and the international community had made strides toward achieving the targets set out in Mexico City five years earlier.

 An important milestone had been the adoption by the General Assembly in December 1979 of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, one of the most powerful instruments for women's equality.  The Convention, which has been termed  "the bill of rights for women", now legally binds 165 States, which have become States parties and obligates them to report within one year of ratification, and subsequently every four years, on the steps they have taken to remove obstacles they face in implementing the Convention. An Optional Protocol to the Convention, enabling women victims of sex discrimination to submit complaints to an international treaty body, was opened for signature on Human Rights Day, 10 December 1999. Upon its entry into force, it will put the Convention on an equal footing with other international human rights instruments having individual complaints procedures.

 Despite the progress made, the Copenhagen Conference recognized that signs of disparity were beginning to emerge between rights secured and women's ability to exercise these rights. To address this concern, the Conference pinpointed three areas where specific, highly focused action was essential if the broad goals of equality, development and peace, identified by the Mexico City Conference, were to be reached. These three areas were equal access to education, employment opportunities and adequate health care services.

 The deliberations at the Copenhagen Conference took place in the shadow of political tensions, some of them carried over from the Mexico City Conference. Nevertheless, the Conference came to a close with the adoption of a Programme of Action, albeit not by consensus, which cited a variety of factors for the discrepancy between legal rights and women's ability to exercise these rights, including:

  • Lack of sufficient involvement of men in improving women's role in society;
  • Insufficient political will;
  • Lack of recognition of the value of women's contributions to society;
  • Lack of attention to the particular needs of women in planning;
  • A shortage of women in decision-making positions;
  • Insufficient services to support the role of women in national life, such as co-operatives, day-care centres and credit facilities;
  • Overall lack of necessary financial resources;
  • Lack of awareness among women about the opportunities available to them.

 To address these concerns, the Copenhagen Programme of Action called for, among other things, stronger national measures to ensure women's ownership and control of property, as well as improvements in women's rights to inheritance, child custody and loss of nationality. Delegates at the Conference also urged an end to stereotyped attitudes towards women.

Nairobi: "The Birth of Global Feminism"

The movement for gender equality had gained true global recognition as the third world conference on women, The World Conference to Review and Appraise the Achievements of the United Nations Decade for Women: Equality, Development and Peace, was convened in Nairobi in 1985.  With 15,000 representatives of non-governmental organizations attending the parallel NGO Forum, many referred to the Conference as the "birth of global feminism". The women's movement, divided by world politics and economic realities at the Mexico Conference, had now become an international force unified under the banner of equality, development and peace. Behind this milestone lay a decade of work. A lot of information, knowledge and experience had been gathered through the process of discussion, negotiation and revision.

 At the same time, delegates were confronted with shocking reports. Data gathered by the United Nations revealed that improvements in the status of women and efforts to reduce discrimination had benefited only a small minority of women. Improvements in the situation of women in the developing world had been marginal at best. In short, the objectives of the second half of the United Nations Decade for Women had not been met.

 This realization demanded that a new approach be adopted.  The Nairobi Conference was given the mandate to seek new ways to overcome the obstacles to achieving the Decade's goals — equality, development and peace.

 The Nairobi Forward-Looking Strategies to the Year 2000, the strategy developed and adopted by consensus by the 157 participating governments, was an updated blueprint for the future of women to the end of the century.  It broke new ground as it declared all issues to be women's issues. Women's participation in decision-making and the handling of all human affairs was recognised not only as their legitimate right but as a social and political necessity that would have to be incorporated in all institutions of society.

 At the heart of the document was a series of measures for achieving equality at the national level.  Governments were to set their own priorities, based on their development policies and resource capabilities.

 Three basic categories of measures were identified:

  • Constitutional and legal steps;
  • Equality in social participation;
  • Equality in political participation and decision-making.

 In keeping with the view that all issues were women's issues, the measures recommended by the Nairobi Forward-Looking Strategies covered a wide range of subjects, from employment, health, education and social services, to industry, science, communications and the environment. In addition, guidelines for national measures to promote women's participation in efforts to promote peace, as well as to assist women in special situations of distress, were proposed.

 Accordingly, the Nairobi Conference urged governments to delegate responsibilities for women's issues to all institutional offices and programmes. Moreover, following the Conference, the General Assembly asked the United Nations to establish, where they did not already exist, focal points on women's issues in all sectors of the work of the Organization.

 The Nairobi Conference had introduced a wider approach to the advancement of women.  It was now recognized that women's equality, far from being an isolated issue, encompassed every sphere of human activity.  Therefore, women's perspective and active involvement on all issues, not only women's issues, was essential if the goals and objectives of the Decade for Women were to be attained.

Beijing:  Legacy of Success

While the efforts of the previous two decades, starting with the Mexico City Conference in 1975, had helped to improve women's conditions and access to resources, they had not been able to change the basic structure of inequality in the relationship between men and women. Decisions that affected all people's lives were still being made mostly by men. Ways had to be sought to empower women so that they could bring their own priorities and values as equal partners with men in decision-making processes at all levels.

 Recognition of the need to involve women in decision-making had begun to emerge during the course of the series of global conferences held by the United Nations in the early 1990s on various aspects of development — the environment, human rights, population and social development. All the conferences had stressed the importance of women's full participation in decision-making, and women's perspectives were incorporated into the deliberations and the documents that were adopted.

  However, it was with the next in the series of conferences, the Fourth World Conference on Women held in Beijing in 1995, that a new chapter in the struggle for gender equality can truly be said to have begun.

 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.

 The legacy of the Beijing Conference was to be that it sparked a renewed global commitment to the empowerment of women everywhere and drew unprecedented international attention. The Conference unanimously adopted the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action, that was in essence an agenda for women's empowerment and stands as a milestone for the advancement of women in the twenty-first century. The Platform for Action specified twelve critical areas of concern considered to represent the main obstacles to women's advancement and which required concrete action by Governments and civil society:

 By adopting the Beijing Platform for Action, governments committed themselves to the effective inclusion of a gender dimension throughout all their institutions, policies, planning and decision-making. What this in effect meant was that before decisions were to be made or plans to be implemented, an analysis should always be made of the effects on, and needs of, both women and men.  For example, instead of striving to make an existing educational system gradually more accessible to women, gender mainstreaming would call for a reconstruction of the system so that it would suit the needs of women and men equally.

 The introduction of gender mainstreaming called for the re-examination of society in its entirety and its basic structure of inequality.  The focus was, therefore, no longer limited to women and their status in society but was committed to restructuring institutions and political and economic decision-making in society as a whole.

 In endorsing the Platform for Action, the United Nations General Assembly called upon all States, the UN system and other international organizations, as well as NGOs and the private sector to take action to implement its recommendations. Within Member States, national machineries that had been established to promote the status of women were assigned a new function as the central policy-coordinating unit to mainstream a gender perspective throughout all institutions and programmes. Within the United Nations system, the Secretary-General designated a senior official to serve as his Special Adviser on Gender Issues, whose role was to ensure system-wide implementation of the gender perspective in all aspects of the work of the United Nations. The Organization was also assigned a key role in the monitoring of the Platform.

 The Beijing Conference was considered a great success, both in terms of its size and its outcome.  It was the largest gathering of government and NGO representatives ever held, with 17,000 in attendance, including representatives of 189 governments. The NGO Forum held parallel to the Conference also broke all records, bringing the combined number of participants to over 47,000.

 The presence and influence of NGOs, one of the most active forces in the drive for gender equality, had increased dramatically since the Mexico City Conference in 1975. In Beijing, NGOs had directly influenced the content of the Platform for Action and they would play an important role in holding their national leaders accountable for the commitments they had made to implement the Platform.

UN General Assembly Review

The General Assembly has called for a special session to review the progress made in the five years since the Beijing Platform of Action was adopted.  The special session will convene in New York, 5-9 June 2000, under the theme "Women 2000: Gender Equality, Development and Peace for the Twenty-First Century".  "The special session will provide the opportunity for Governments and civil society to share good practices and examine current challenges and obstacles encountered in the implementation of the Beijing Platform for Action. It will make it possible to give new momentum to political commitments to achieve women's empowerment and gender equality."

Published by the United Nations Department of Public Information
DPI/2035/M—May 2000