UNITED NATIONS - The Fifth World Conference on Women drew to a close with a reaffirmation by ministers, government delegates, first ladies and non-governmental representatives from around the world that ''women's rights are human rights''. But for many who attended the two-week conference, ''reaffirmation'' was not enough.
Eighty ministers, 1,800 government delegates, seven first ladies and 2,600 non-governmental representatives from around the world reviewed progress on gender equality over the past decade. The goals for the advancement of women set 10 years ago at the 1995 Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing were reaffirmed here in a Declaration adopted at the end of the first week.
This concise and powerful declaration is an unqualified and unconditional reaffirmation of the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action and a pledge of further action for full and accelerated implementation of Beijing, said Kyung-wha-Kang, chair of the Commission on the Status of Women (CSW).
Women came here to talk about implementation yet we've been diverted again and again by the narrow agenda of the United States.
June Zeitlin, executive director of the Women's Environment and Development Organisation
Commitments made in Beijing include the right of women to control their sexuality free from coercion, discrimination or violence, and the application of international law equally to men and women.
For many who attended the conference however, reaffirmation was not enough.
"It is an important victory that governments worldwide reaffirmed that 'women's rights are human rights' as a central message of the Beijing Platform for Action," said Charlotte Bunch, executive director of the Center for Women's Global Leadership.
But these commitments will only be empty promises unless governments turn them into concrete actions aimed at improving the daily lives of women.
In 2000, at a review meeting called Beijing Plus Five, women demanded action on lagging reforms and governments pledged to invest more in medicines for epidemics, sex education for adolescents, and in getting men and women to practice safe sex.
"Now, five years later, the Beijing platform still hasn't been implemented," says June Zeitlin, executive director of the Women's Environment and Development Organisation (WEDO).
"We've made some gains on the level of policy and law but it hasn't translated into improvements in women's lives," she said.
WEDO has produced a report entitled, Beijing Betrayed which interviews women from some 150 countries. The core of the women's critique, the report says, is that governments worldwide have adopted a piecemeal and incremental approach to implementation that cannot achieve the economic, social and political transformation underlying the promises and vision of Beijing.
"Women came here to talk about implementation," Zeitlin says, "yet we've been diverted again and again by the narrow agenda of the United States."
During the first week of the conference, the U.S. threatened not to reaffirm the Platform of Action unless text was added saying that the Platform provides no new international human rights, including no right to abortion.
When all but Egypt and Qatar refused to support the idea, the U.S. backed down and granted its support for the Declaration. But not before many hours of debate were lost.
"What we proved here is that the United States can't bully the world when it comes to women's human rights," Zeitlin said. "While we are pleased that the United States ultimately rejoined the global consensus on women's rights at this meeting, we will continue to monitor their actions to implement a women's human rights agenda."
"We must be vigilant about any future attempts to roll back women's rights at home and abroad," she added.
NGOs such as Equality Now and the Center for Women's Global Leadership complained that the deadlock over reproductive rights prevented important issues from reaching the ears of high-level government officials, who were only in attendance the first week of the conference.
Zeitlin suspects that U.S. delays were deliberate and says that the George W. Bush administration seems to be against any international laws relating to abortion. Because of hold-ups in the meeting she said, a wider discussion about why much of the Beijing platform hasn't been implemented also never occurred.
Explanations, she says, range from changes of conditions in countries to changes in the global environment since 1995, including those stemming from the forces of globalization, widening inequalities for women, increased military expenditures and a religious fundamentalist backlash.
NGOs, governments, and individuals seeking more solid commitments from the U.N. spent the second week of the conference pushing forward new resolutions, numbering 10 in all, that call for new efforts in a number of areas.
These include HIV/AIDS, assistance for Afghan and Palestinian women, the involvement of indigenous women in carrying out U.N. commitments, economic advancement for women, the creation of a special rapporteur on laws that discriminate against women, the elimination of the root causes of the trafficking of women, and the inclusion of gender perspectives in government policies and disaster response.
Consensus was reached on eight of the resolutions Friday. The ninth and tenth, regarding the creation of a special rapporteur on reforming discriminatory laws, and on economic advancement for women, were passed by a vote, with only the U.S. dissenting.
Many delegates at the conference focused on positive gains and detailed the progress that has been made over the past decade in girl's education, the economic advancement of women, increased political participation and the reform of discriminatory laws in 14 countries.
Worldwide consensus has built around the idea that empowering women is the most effective tool for development and poverty reduction, and that remaining obstacles to gender equality can be overcome, said Rachel Mayanja, Special Adviser to the Secretary-General on Gender Issues and Advancement of Women.
This coming September, at the U.N. Commission on the Status of Women, the final Declaration will become part of the U.N.'s High-Level Millennium Review, where further steps towards implementation may be called for.
© Copyright 2005 IPS - Inter Press Service