Beijing and its Follow-up > Fourth World Conference > The Platform for Action, DPI Brochure

Fourth World Conference on Women

Action for Equality, Development and Peace
4-15 September 1995 - Beijing, China

Text of the DPI Brochure

Conference to Set Women's Agenda into Next Century

In September 1995, thousands of women and men from around the world will meet in Beijing for the Fourth World Conference on Women. Participants will assess how women's lives have changed over the past decade and take steps to keep issues of concern to women high on the international agenda.

Are women better or worse off? The picture is mixed: a greater proportion of women are literate, and more of them are visible at high political levels. At the same time many women are poorer than ever before, and women's human rights are being violated on an unprecedented scale. The United Nations Decade for Women (1976-85) witnessed indisputable progress in some areas, backsliding in others. "In Beijing, we will determine what can be done to eliminate gender discrimination and promote new partnerships between women and men into the 21st century", says Gertrude Mongella, Secretary-General of the Conference. "The coming generation will be entrusted with advancing the achievements of the past two decades. The pursuit of gender equity is
crucial, if the quality of life is to be truly enhanced". Since 1975¾International Women's Year and the year of the first world conference on women, in Mexico City¾there has been increasing awareness that what happens to women and their children has a profound impact on the well-being of nations.

The United Nations Decade for Women, and the third world conference on women, held in Nairobi in 1985, had as their theme: Equality, Development and Peace. In Beijing, says Ms. Mongella, "we will have to look at how that theme has fared in light of the changes the world has seen over the past decade". Ms. Mongella, who headed her country's delegation to the Nairobi Conference and has served as High Commissioner to India of the United Republic of Tanzania, was appointed Secretary-General of the Beijing Conference in 1992 by United Nations Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali.

Today, women are perceived less as passive "beneficiaries" of economic growth and social and political development and more as key players in their own right, with knowledge, skills and energy. They are active, and activists¾in the family, communities and nations¾determined to ensure a better world for their children.


At Beijing, delegates from United Nations member countries will look at recent trends affecting the status of women, with an eye to the future. They will review how women have fared in the areas of health, education, employment, family life, politics and human rights. Despite the progress that has been made during the past 20 years, disparities between North and South, rural and urban, rich and poor, continue to
concern women everywhere. "Unfortunately", notes Ms. Mongella, "progress has not been felt by women at all levels of society, particularly at the grass roots". The purpose of the Conference, she says, "is not to emphasize the differences between countries or regions, but to use our diversity as a source of strength and unity. We are
going to share our different experiences in order to take action for a better world".

The Conference will focus on persistent problems common to women from all parts of the globe. A disproportionate number of women are either unemployed or working in the informal sector of the economy; environmental degradation is hitting women hard, especially those whose predominant role is in agriculture; armed conflicts in all regions
contribute to a growing number of refugee women. Despite success in passing laws to protect women's rights and guarantee their economic and social equality, de facto discrimination persists. Violence against women¾while receiving greater attention than ever before¾continues and in some places has intensified.


In many parts of the world, girl children receive less education, less food and less health care than boys. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), one sixth of all female infant deaths in India, Pakistan and Bangladesh were due to neglect and discrimination (1986 figures).

Nevertheless, trends in education are, for the most part, encouraging. The percentage of girls and women enroled in primary and secondary schools as well as in graduate study programmes rose one percentage point between 1980 and 1988, to 45 per cent. However, despite a declining proportion of illiterate women¾from 46.5 per cent in
1970 to 33.6 per cent in 1990¾girls and women still represent two thirds of the world's illiterates, and they are becoming literate at a slower rate than are men. These figures have serious implications, since children's health and child mortality rates are affected much more by a mother's schooling than by a father's. There is concrete proof that women's education leads to fewer births, fewer infant deaths, more women in the formal labour force and greater economic growth. Yet in some 37 of the world's poorest
countries, health budgets have been halved, according to the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD), largely as a result of the recession of the 1980s.
The outlook is good for increased literacy, however. The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) predicts that only 28.2 per cent of women will be illiterate by the year 2000, due to efforts by Governments working in tandem with international development agencies and women's groups to come up with innovative ways of boosting female literacy.


Women's health has improved substantially in some areas and worsened in others. While life expectancy is greater, and fertility and infant mortality rates have fallen, there has been little progress in reducing maternal mortality rates. Each year at least half a million women world-wide die from complications due to pregnancy, and another
100,000 as a result of unsafe abortions, according to the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF). The proportion of married women in developing countries who use contraception has doubled within one generation, but an estimated 300 million world-wide still have no access to quality family planning; one fifth of all pregnancies in developing countries are unplanned and unwanted.

Even more disturbing, scholar Amartya Sen reports that based on global mortality patterns, some 100 million Asian women are estimated to be "missing", attributable largely to female infanticide and the abortion of female foetuses. Even in industrialized countries like the United States, gender discrimination in health care is responsible for
the deaths of thousands of women. Also, women now constitute 40 per cent of HIV-infected adults, and the WHO is projecting that by the year 2000, more than 13 million women will be infected with the virus, and about 4 million of them will have died. Health issues will therefore figure prominently at the World Conference in Beijing, as delegates attempt to address long-term consequences and seek common ground for dealing with the challenges. As Conference Secretary-General Mongella puts it, "the problems of women are not different from country to country or region to region. They
only differ in intensity".


Progress in the economic arena has been limited for women. Their participation in the formal labour market increased in many regions between 1970 and 1990, particularly among women with children. Women now represent 41 per cent of all workers in developed countries, 34 per cent world-wide. But while the wage gap may have closed somewhat, women still earn, on average, 30 to 40 per cent less than men for comparable work, and there are many more women than men in lower-paid jobs,
according to the United Nations publication, The World's Women: Trends and Statistics.

Levels of inequality vary from place to place, but the pattern is international. Men are more likely to have regular full-time work and to receive greater seniority and benefits. Nonetheless, women are definitely breaking through what has variously been called the glass ceiling, the bamboo ceiling or the old boy's network, honing their leadership skills and abilities to command respectable salaries commensurate with their work. In the United States, for example, women earned 72 cents for each dollar earned by men in 1990¾12 cents more than in 1985. The news is even better for women aged 24 to 35, who earn 80 cents to the male dollar, according to The New York Times, which goes on to state that one third of all working women in the United States are professionals or managers, although they comprise only 3 per cent of top executives. This trend appears to be almost universal: in 39 of 41 countries, the proportion of women managers rose between 1985 and 1991 alone, reports the International Labour Organisation (ILO), with the best record in Latin America and the Caribbean (20 per cent). And while women are entering non-traditional occupations in increasing numbers, most still work in the informal sector, with its insecure and frequently dangerous working conditions; they also far outnumber men in this sector. Known in many parts of the world to be successful entrepreneurs and traders, women have frequently been thwarted in their attempts at financial independence by lack of access
to capital and other resources, inadequate education and training, and uneven distribution of assets and responsibilities within the family.
Although they usually bear the costs of setting up informal activities, they often turn over the benefits to the male members of the family. When they do work in the formal sector, women tend to be concentrated in the pink ghetto¾clerical work, domestic service, subsistence agriculture and export processing zones, where they account for 70 to 90 per cent of all employees. And although women work longer hours than men¾up to 13 hours more, in Africa and Asia¾much of what they do is often unrecorded, undervalued or not valued at all.

Women's organizations and the United Nations have been in the forefront of innovative efforts by statisticians to identify accurately the economically active population, particularly in the informal sector, and determine how to assign an economic value to women's unremunerated domestic, agricultural and reproductive work. The Beijing Conference will showcase ongoing work to refine such statistics and ultimately to
use those data to supplement the national accounts that are used in determining policy directives.


The invisibility of women extends beyond their economic roles. Frequently living on the margin of established society, poor women, migrant women and women refugees are even more vulnerable than men living under the same circumstances.

Poverty is one area where women's situation has taken a dramatic turn for the worse, given that women are living longer and have less support from families, husbands and fathers. This is due to a general rise in male migration as well as overall unemployment trends. The number of rural women living in poverty nearly doubled over the past 20 years, and today women constitute at least 60 per cent of the world's 1
billion rural poor. Experts concur that extreme poverty, combined as it frequently is with discrimination, causes the deaths of millions of girls and women, especially the elderly. Poverty is also apparent in the fact that there are more and more female-headed households¾about one fifth of all households world- wide¾and the figure is rising. In rural areas of Africa and the Caribbean, the proportion is higher.

Women also make up nearly half of the international migrant population, according to the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA); many female household heads are migrant workers. And although these women generally send more money back home than do their male counterparts, they tend to suffer double, triple or four-fold discrimination, based on their sex, birthplace, class and acceptance of their subordination as natural or inevitable. According to the Fund's Executive Director, Dr. Nafis Sadik, the human rights of women migrant workers and refugees¾particularly their vulnerability to sexual exploitation and abuse, and their lack of access to reproductive health services¾are now receiving increased attention.


Women's access to political and economic power is not commensurate
with their influence in other spheres of life; they constitute a
minority in the corridors of power and decision-making both nationally
and internationally. But world events, and the three previous United
Nations conferences on women, have politicized them to an extent
unprecedented in history. Largely as a result of the United Nations
Decade for Women, many Governments have established special offices for
women's issues, included women as a key component in development
policies and taken steps to increase the numbers of women decision
makers. Women activists have been acquiring the managerial and
negotiating skills needed to move from the town square to the bargaining
table, from the spectator's gallery to the convention centre, in the
words of Sharon Capeling-Alakija, former Director of the United Nations
Development Fund for Women (UNIFEM).
Again, however, the progress is uneven: the proportion of women
parliamentarians world-wide dropped from 12.5 per cent in 1975 to 10.1
per cent in 1993. As of November 1993 there were six female heads of
Government, and only eight of the 184 Member States of the United
Nations had women Permanent Representatives. Women's representation at
the Cabinet level is less than half that in national legislative bodies,
and close to 100 countries have no women in parliament at all.
Of course there are exceptions. In 1993 the Seychelles held the
record for the highest percentage of women parliamentarians¾45.8 per
cent, according to the Inter-Parliamentary Union¾and the Nordic
countries are consistently high as well: in Finland, women comprise 39
per cent of all parliamentarians. In the United States, 1992 was termed
"the year of the woman", because of the unprecedented number of women
winning elections and, with the new Administration in 1993, political
appointments. It is notable that the developing countries have a better
record of women's parliamentary representation (12 per cent) than the
industrialized nations (9 per cent).
At the international level, including the United Nations, while
the situation remains discouraging, more women than before hold top
positions. At the end of 1993, six of the most influential positions in
the United Nations system were held by women, and the Secretary-General
has committed himself to achieving a 50-50 ratio of women in
professional posts by the year 2000. In 1975, women occupied 16 per
cent of such posts in the United Nations secretariat; as of June 1993,
31.3 per cent. They now constitute roughly 25 per cent of all civilians
engaged in peace-keeping operations, as opposed to 5 per cent in 1970.
The United Nations proclamation in 1975 of International Women's
Year and of the United Nations Decade for Women inspired women to take
charge of many areas of their lives. In response to critical levels of
pollution, deforestation and desertification, for example, women¾who are
the main providers of food, fuel and water for their families in most of
the developing world¾are now recognized as being at the forefront of
environmental preservation efforts. The women's movement, working
closely with bilateral and multilateral aid agencies, has played its
part in formulating the new paradigm for development which has emerged
over the past 10 years: more centred around people than economics, it is
by definition women-centred as well, because of the crucial and
versatile roles women play in the economic and social development of
their communities. At the same time, gender analysis and gender
planning have emerged as tools for development specialists who focus on
the relations between women and men in all areas. As such, they will
figure prominently in the assessments being undertaken for Beijing.
The gender perspective has already had an impact on the
restructuring of the United Nations. Early in 1993 a new department was
created¾the Department for Policy Coordination and Sustainable
Development¾whose responsibilities include overseeing both the Beijing
Conference and the World Summit for Social Development, which will be
held in Copenhagen in March 1995. Under-Secretary-General Nitin Desai,
who heads the department, stresses that one of its major tasks is "to
ensure the integrated development of policy, part of which is looking at
economic, social and environmental issues through the lens of


The 1995 Conference will adopt a "Platform for Action", analyzing
obstacles to women's advancement and recommending steps for overcoming
them. Both that document, and the preparatory work leading up to the
Conference at the national and regional levels, are intended to mobilize
society to meet the challenges and demands of the next century.
While much of the Conference will be dedicated to planning for the
future, as reflected in the Platform for Action, delegates will also be
making a critical assessment of the past¾of areas in which advances, or
setbacks, have been made since 1985, when goals to the year 2000 were
established at the Nairobi Conference. Known as the Nairobi Forward-
looking Strategies for the Advancement of Women to the Year 2000, those
goals were an appeal for government strategies to address the impact on
women of government policies in areas such as employment, education,
industrial investment, housing, transportation and the environment.
The Platform is intended to speed up the process of making the
Forward-looking Strategies a reality, by proposing actions to be taken
by policy makers and by women and men at the grass roots. The proposed
actions will have realistic and quantifiable targets; the average woman
could either undertake them herself or ask her political leaders to do
so. They will focus on ten critical areas of concern: poverty;
education and health; violence against women; the effects of armed or
other kinds of conflict; economic participation; power-sharing;
insufficient mechanisms to promote women's advancement; human rights;
mass media; and environment and development.
The goals of the Forward-looking Strategies, which are intended to
be implemented by the year 2000, are deliberately ambitious. In the
legal domain, they include equal rights for women, the abolition of
slavery and prostitution, establishing a legal minimum age for marriage
and punishing female infanticide. At the social policy level, the
Strategies call for access by all women to maternity leave, maternal
health care, family planning, nutrition and education, as well as for
increased national health budgets. Governments are asked to develop
incentives for the provision of child care and to start campaigns for
equal sharing of domestic responsibilities. The percentage of women in
politics and management is to be increased, and there is a call for
legislation to prevent violence against women and eliminate female


Violence, rape, torture, humiliation, anger and anguish are
all too familiar to women around the world. But as Ms. Mongella
observes, "The silence of the world community in the face of women's
rights violations has been almost deafening". She feels it is crucial
that the Conference help people see that "women's human rights are the
same, and have the same value as men's human rights".
One of the major achievements of the past 10 years has been the
support by a growing number of countries for the Convention on the
Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, which legally
binds them to achieve equal rights for women in all fields¾political,
economic, social, cultural and civil. First adopted in 1979, it has now
been accepted by 133 countries. However, many of those countries have
placed reservations on key provisions that they view as conflicting with
their religious or cultural practices, especially with regard to
marriage and family law¾an area notorious for discrimination against
Women's human rights have also gained increasing recognition in
recent years as the focus of women activists has expanded from economic
development and equality to encompass more immediate and personal
threats against women's well-being. Violence against women, for
example, was not even mentioned in the 1979 Convention because it was
not generally recognized as a human rights problem. Now, however, it is
receiving urgent attention, in part because the Nairobi Forward-looking
Strategies helped people to see the close connection between violence at
the personal and international levels. Today many women's rights watch
organizations are energetically engaged in getting women's human rights
onto the international and national agenda.
Women's non-governmental organizations (NGOs) attending the 1993
World Conference on Human Rights in Vienna aggressively lobbied
delegates to include references to women's human rights in the final
document adopted there, the Vienna Declaration and Programme of Action.
They helped draft the Declaration on Violence against Women, which is
expected to be adopted by the United Nations General Assembly in 1993.
This ground-breaking document is the first universal legal instrument
aimed specifically at combatting violence against women and putting that
abuse on the map of international human rights legislation.
At Vienna, women's groups were widely viewed as the best organized
and most influential in official proceedings. Through that conference,
as through the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development
in Rio de Janeiro and the three previous world conferences on women,
women have learned they can have an impact¾not only on policies in their
own countries, but also on international legislation.
That potential will again be unleashed at the Beijing Conference,
which, coming after a series of major world conferences, will mark the
culmination of more than two decades of work on human rights, population
and social development. It will draw on the momentum created by the
first three women's conferences¾a momentum that generated important new
laws, increased funding for projects aimed at improving women's lives,
led to the creation of numerous new women's networks and galvanized the
women's movement in general. It led many countries to create national
bodies and appoint individuals mandated specifically to improve¾and
monitor¾the status of women.


But the Conference will also mark a new beginning in the long
process of improving the status of women. Veterans of the three
previous United Nations conferences on women think the 1995 event will
differ from its predecessors in significant ways. In 1975, 1980 and
1985, certain political issues influenced, even dominated, the
discussions and decisions. The Cold War, the question of Palestine and
apartheid in South Africa dominated the agenda the as divisive political
issues. With recent developments, however, there is a new opportunity
to focus more specifically on gender issues.
"We have to recognize that there is no women's agenda as such",
exhorts Ms. Mongella. "There is just one national, one global agenda.
But women will put different emphases and different priorities on the
issues based on where they come from and where they want to go. The
result will be that societies will be different, but built equally on
the visions of men and women".


Preparations for Beijing are already under way at the global,
regional and country levels. Ms. Mongella, the Conference Secretary-
General, feels that preparations at the national level are especially
crucial, as they are likely to have the most immediate impact on
people's lives. All sectors of society should be a part of the process,
she says, from Governments, NGOs, the private sector and the media to
individual women and men of all ages. "Preparations should be a process
of national reflection and reach the women at the grass roots, whose
voices are seldom heard".
Both nationally and regionally, Governments and NGOs are preparing
reports on the situation of women since 1985, assessing obstacles and
progress as well as stimulating broad national debate. These reports
will be discussed at five regional preparatory meetings, scheduled to
take place in 1994 in Indonesia, Argentina, Austria, Jordan and Senegal.
At the same time, many of the issues to be debated in Beijing will
also be considered at other upcoming international conferences,
including the World Summit for Social Development (Copenhagen, March
1995). At the International Conference on Population and Development
(Cairo, September 1994), women's role drew considerable global
attention. The 50th anniversary of the United Nations (1995) will
provide yet another opportunity for highlighting women's issues.
NGOs will play a vital role at the Conference and at a parallel
NGO Forum. Planning for this event is progressing under the auspices of
the Conference of Non-Governmental Organizations in Consultative Status
with the Economic and Social Council (CONGO). As with previous United
Nations conferences, the Beijing Forum is being planned as an event open
to all. It will take place at the Beijing Workers' Sports Service
Centre, a site close to the Beijing International Convention Centre
where the World Conference will convene.
Gathering and disseminating information on the situation of women
will be one of the most important activities of the Conference and its
preparatory meetings. In addition to the Platform for Action, the
Conference will consider a second, updated edition of the United Nations
publication The World's Women: Trends and Statistics; the 1994 World
Survey on the Role of Women in Development; and an update on the
implementation of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of
Discrimination against Women.

For further information, contact: Department of Public Information, Room
S-1040, United Nations, New York, NY 10017 USA
tel: (212)963-1742, fax (212)963-4556, or the Division for the
Advancement of Women, Room DC2-1220, United Nations, New York NY 10017,
USA, tel (212)963-5086, fax (212)963-3463