Twenty years ago, more than 30,000 activists and officials from across the globe convened in Beijing for the UN Fourth World Conference on Women. This gathering was a watershed moment in the global movement to advance women’s rights. Civil society representatives overcame obstacles reportedly erected by the Chinese government in order to join together to advocate on behalf of women. Then-First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton, who led the U.S. delegation to the Beijing Conference, famously declared that “women’s rights are human rights,” giving voice to a rallying cry that is still echoed in world capitals and local communities today. And officials from 189 nations adopted an ambitious Declaration and Platform for Action to address issues related to the full participation of women and girls—from health and education, to political and economic participation, to the enduring scourge of gender-based violence—which continues to guide regional and international efforts to advance gender equality.
Earlier this fall, at the United Nations, heads of state from 74 nations gathered for a Global Leaders’ Meeting on Gender Equality and Women’s Empowerment to mark the twentieth anniversary of this landmark agreement and recommit to the vision outlined two decades ago. At this meeting, world leaders heralded significant progress in the status of women and girls. Indeed, much has been accomplished since the adoption of the Beijing Platform 1995: the gender gap in primary education has virtually closed on a global level. The rate of maternal mortality has been halved. More nations have constitutions and laws on the books to prohibit discrimination and violence against women. And recognition of relationship between women’s empowerment and economic growth and stability has grown.
Yet while the status of women and girls has certainly improved—thanks in no small part to the tireless work of civil society leaders and officials who gathered in Beijing—significant gaps still remain. Though more girls are attending primary school than ever before, access to secondary education remains a persistent challenge, especially in Sub-Saharan Africa, where less than a third of girls are enrolled, and in South Asia, where less than half attend. According to the World Bank, women’s labor force participation has actually dropped on a global level, from 57 to 55 percent. Women remain underrepresented in leadership positions, holding just 22 percent of seats in national parliaments. And women’s security remains imperiled: an estimated one in three women globally has been subjected to physical violence, and women remain excluded from peace and security processes.
Two decades after the Beijing conference, it is clear that progress is possible—and equally clear that there is more work to do. What remains lacking twenty years post-Beijing is the financial support and political will required to implement the Beijing platform and the legal improvements it has inspired in nations and communities around the world. It is only when governments, multilateral organizations, philanthropic institutions, and the private sector muster the resources and will to elevate issues related to gender equality and ensure implementation of new legal and regulatory frameworks that we will finally realize the promise of the Beijing conference.
What has unquestionably changed since 1995, however, is the unprecedented growth in the evidence base demonstrating a strong relationship between gender equality and progress in a range of other areas, including economic growth, health, education, and peace and stability. This awareness creates an extraordinary opportunity to accelerate the pace of change and highlights what is at stake: not only progress for women, but progress for us all.