Press Briefing


Ahead of next week’s 10-year review and appraisal of progress in achieving gender equality since the 1995 Beijing World Conference on Women, and the special session of the General Assembly entitled “Women 2000”, a panel of senior United Nations women’s rights officials today stressed that violence against women, across-the-board discrimination and lack of education and employment opportunities remained key challenges.

Women’s rights advocates worldwide consider 2005 a critical year for energizing efforts to put gender equality at the top of the global peace and development agenda, and the United Nations-led high-level review of the Beijing commitments will take place in the context of the forty-ninth session of the Commission on the Status of Women, set to open Monday, 28 February and run through 11 March.

At the 1995 Fourth World Conference on Women, held in Beijing, China, the world’s nations adopted the landmark Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action aimed at removing obstacles to women’s participation in all spheres of public and private life.  The Platform identified 12 critical areas of concern, including, among others, the increasing feminization of poverty; unequal access to and inadequate educational opportunities; violence against women; inequality in power sharing and decision-making; and the girl child.

That Conference was followed up five years later by the twenty-third special session of the General Assembly, “Women 2000:  gender equality, development and peace for the twenty-first century” -- also known as “Beijing+5” -- at which countries pledged additional initiatives such as strengthening legislation against all forms of domestic violence, and enacting laws and policies to eradicate harmful practices such as early and forced marriages, and female genital mutilation.

Briefing correspondents at Headquarters today on the event, Kyung-Wha Kang, Chairperson of the Commission on the Status of Women, said the panel had planned its two-week session to focus on what needed to be done to put the Beijing commitments into practice.  The event would kick off Monday morning with a high-level opening meeting featuring Secretary-General Kofi Annan.  That would be followed by a three-day ministerial-level plenary and a special commemoration Friday of International Women’s Day.

Predicting an exciting two weeks, she said the gathering was expected to draw some 80 government ministers and senior officials, and that 6,000 civil society groups had registered to attend.  Seven interactive round tables would be held to examine policy issues in more detail and to maximize the momentum that had been created around what was not only the tenth anniversary of Beijing, but also the thirtieth anniversary of the United Nations first World Conference on Women, held in Mexico City in 1975.

Participants were also expected to consider relevant issues as input to the upcoming mid-term review of the United Nations Millennium Development Goals, set for this coming September.  Ms. Kyung-Wha added that, as part of its multi-year work programme, the Commission was expected to consider current challenges and forward-looking strategies for the advancement and empowerment of women and girls.

Joining Ms. Kyung-Wha was Rachel Mayanja, Special Adviser on Gender Issues and Advancement of Women, who outlined the Secretary-General’s report, which would serve as guiding documents for the session.  A questionnaire to Member States on implementation of Beijing’s commitments and the outcome of “Women 2000” at the national level provided an important basis for the report.  The questionnaire focused on a review of major achievements, gaps and challenges, as well as priority areas for further action to ensure full implementation.

Ms. Mayanja said the report noted five major conclusions based on the governments’ replies, including their belief in the continuing relevance of the Beijing Platform for Action and the outcome of Women 2000 and their commitment to full implementation; their recognition of positive and negative impacts of major global and regional trends on the situation of women; greater attention to the needs of rural women, ethnic minorities and indigenous women, among others facing multiple discrimination; the importance of partnerships to ensure gender equality; and the role of non-governmental organizations in raising awareness, outreach and advocacy, and in direct intervention and service delivery.

She said that the analysis of the replies had revealed that, in general, progress had been made towards the advancement of women in most regions, though in some critical areas, that progress had been uneven, or often much too slow.  Highlighting some steps forward, she noted the entry into force in 2000 of the Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, the adoption by many countries of new policies and strategies to promote gender equality, and greater attention being paid to the role of men and boys.

Still, gaps and challenges had remained, particularly between policy and practice in gender equality.  Ms. Mayanja said public attitudes towards the advancement of women had not kept pace with legal and institutional changes, stereotypes still persisted and discriminatory practices in critical areas identified by Beijing persisted.  Globally, the majority of the poor were women, and violence against women continued unabated.  Women’s share of the unemployed and illiterate was “shockingly” large and they continued to be marginalized in power and decision-making arenas.  Discrimination remained a permanent feature in all societies without exception.  “A lot of work remained if we are going to make headway in the implementation of the Beijing Platform”, she said.

Carolyn Hannan, Director of the Division for the Advancement of Women in the United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs, followed the Special Adviser, giving background on the Secretary-General’s report.  She said that the questionnaire had received 135 responses, and another eight since the report had been finalized.  Another report before the Commission, on measures taken and progress achieved in follow-up to and implementation of the Fourth World Conference, provided an overview of efforts taken by United Nations agencies to promote gender equality and women’s empowerment.

That report examined the policies in place, as well as institutional arrangements, operational activities and gaps and challenges identified within the United Nations system.  She added that the six United Nations Regional Commissions had organized conferences during the run-up to the review, and that a host of non-governmental organization conferences had been held, as well.

Asked whether the Commission would adopt a statement or declaration at the conclusion of the session, Ms. Kyung-Wha Kang said she hoped for a “distinct and powerful outcome document” of a sort, but the language was still being negotiated, so she could not be too specific.  Following a query, she acknowledged that the United States’ delegation had proposed an anti-abortion clause to the text.  And, while it was not her place to comment on any of the language being considered, she urged all delegations to show as much flexibility and cooperation as possible, so that, in the end, the Commission could adopt a document to which all could agree.

To further queries, she said that any outcome document from the session would be a reaffirmation of the commitments made at Beijing.  To the question that some delegations felt that the declaration would create new human rights, she stressed that it would be a policy document and should be seen that way.  It would not be an attempt to add to what was agreed at Beijing.

Asked to give some country-specific examples of progress, Ms. Hannan said that there had been very uneven progress within regions, so it was difficult to give an overview.  For example, looking at political decision-making, Rwanda had the highest number of women’s parliamentarians at the moment.  But, at the same time, that country still faced challenges and obstacles in relation to other areas.  Examples of regional progress included efforts under way in Europe to improve the participation of women in the science and technology fields, and the many regions which were working on women and peace and security initiatives.  But again, some of the countries within those regions would still face challenges.

Asked about the key obstacle to women’s advancement, Ms. Kyung-Wha cited the overwhelming prevalence -- “wherever you go” in almost all countries -- of all forms of violence against women.  “I don’t think we can ever have gender equality if women continue to suffer the many manifestations of violence, domestic or otherwise”, she said.  On gender equality within the United Nations system, she said the Commission still looked forward to the “50/50” representation goal.  So, while appreciating the progress that had been made thus far towards that end, “We are not content”, she said.

* *** *