On International Women’s Day this past Monday, I attended the release of the Clinton Foundation’s No Ceilings: The Full Participation Report, which Hillary Clinton launched alongside Melinda Gates and Chelsea Clinton. Building off the momentum generated at the UN Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing in 1995, the No Ceilings report uses data collected over the last twenty years to note both the gains and gaps in women and girls’ participation globally.
This September marks the twentieth anniversary of the Beijing Conference, a landmark moment where world leaders, in effect, embraced then-First Lady Hillary Clinton’s statement at the Conference that “women’s rights are human rights.” Clinton and her family’s foundation have continued to push for women’s rights and empowerment. Full disclosure: having attended the Beijing Conference and been moved by Clinton’s speech there, I later had an opportunity to work on the Secretary of State’s Policy Planning Staff under her leadership and Policy Planning’s first woman director, Anne-Marie Slaughter.
The No Ceilings report highlights the progress women and girls have made, for example, in increased access to primary education, an overall drop in maternal mortality, and the growing recognition of the importance of women to peace and security. At the same time, it underscores the gaps that persist for women and girls, including the life expectancy of women in poor and marginalized areas, low rate of attainment in secondary education, the continuing epidemic of violence against women, overall stagnation in women’s workforce participation, and women’s exclusion from peace and security processes.
The report’s emphasis on data—and, indeed, Secretary Clinton’s focus on gender data as a way to address these issues—measures the progress of women and girls internationally and invites policymakers, academics, and activists to take stock of the women’s rights movement. Where is the movement now, and where should it head next?
Since the Beijing Conference, there has been a major push for the inclusion of women in international matters, including peace and security discussions, and this drive has elicited a promising response. Though there is still work to be done—as Ambassador Melanne Verveer noted at Monday’s event, only 4 percent of peacekeeping forces are female—policy developments such as UN Security Council Resolution 1325 on Women, Peace, and Security (and various countries’ national action plans implementing Resolution 1325) show the broad acceptance of the idea that women and women’s rights are critical to the peace and security dialogue. Yet the question remains: has the security paradigm actually changed, or are women simply inserting themselves in a male-dominated regime and culture? To what extent are women transforming the paradigm to pave the way for stemming conflicts, countering violent extremism, and establishing more sustainable peace?
And if a major goal of the women’s rights movement, at least since the Beijing Conference, has been to open up opportunities for women’s leadership—not only in peace and security matters, but in other sectors as well—what is the movement’s main objective now? Much has been said about breaking a final glass ceiling: electing a woman president. As Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf said at the No Ceilings event, “That glass ceiling is broken—by me.” However, what about the sticky floors and broken ladders to opportunity that women and girls around the globe still face? Will placing more women into positions of power help them?