Summer Opened with Small Victories, Setbacks at UN

In this, the first of five essays taking stock of this incredible Women's Summer, a key leader in the international women's rights movement assesses the pragmatic Beijing + Five session where women fought hard against the forces of backwardness.

Charlotte Bunch

Women who were in New York at the beginning of this, the Women's Summer, were not celebrating as much as we had hoped we could.

We came together to help the United Nations assess the condition of women's lives around the globe-to take the measure of our progress five years after the U.N.'s Fourth World Conference on Women held in Beijing.

There, 188 governments made a broad range of promises to uphold the human rights of the three billion people who are female, and our delight at that time was incandescent. Five years later, our mood is different. The original Beijing Platform for Action survived reactionaries' assaults upon it in New York, and the General Assembly rightly noted some progress. Women are working hard to make the Beijing commitments a reality, but the obstacles are many.

To women's credit, women are on the agenda worldwide, in every field of study and in every area of public life. Abuses and neglect that once were ignored as routine are now under challenge everywhere, and that is major progress. The proof of change is the list of fights we're waging: against domestic violence, genital mutilation, trafficking in humans and every kind of humiliation we once were told was just life, just a woman's lot.

There's more. We are fighting for our rights to an education, reproductive and other health care choices, rights to property, land, inheritance, rights to political participation, equal pay and an equal voice in decision-making-all these inalienable rights were once denied us without a second thought. Not only are we on the agenda, we are transforming that agenda and the change is going to be permanent.

It is a revolution for women. Inevitably, there has been resistance. At the U.N. in New York, a few countries that do not want women to make real progress paid us a back-handed compliment by working hard to water down the Beijing commitments, pledges that women worldwide have been pressuring their governments to honor.

While the conservatives and reactionaries did not succeed in changing that platform, they did weaken proposals for actions that governments should undertake at this time, adding qualifying phrases like “where appropriate,” or saying parties should “consider” certain actions.

Many specific dates and numerical targets were removed from the draft, making it harder for us to measure progress and hold governments to their commitments.

The final document should have broadened the definition of “family” to reflect reality-that there are different and valid types of families-but it did not. It should have given explicit support for safe and readily available abortions so as to reflect the reality of and compassion for the thousands of women who die because of illegal abortions. But it did not. And it should have included more rights for gays and lesbians, to reflect the reality of all rights for all humans, but again, it did not.

The human rights underpinnings of the Platform for Action also came under attack, in part because women have begun to use human rights more effectively in this decade. Some obstructionists objected to using human rights instruments to guarantee the platform's promises to women. But if “human rights” does not apply to women-half the world's population-what real meaning can it possibly have?

The reality of women's lives has made us energetic and vocal in pressing our governments to keep their promises. In some ways and in some places, women's lives have never been better-with longer life spans, healthier families, better education and more opportunity in every sphere. But in other places, and especially for poorer women, improvement has come slowly if at all, and women are the first to lose ground in any local controversy or economic hard times.

Where poverty, disease and military conflict have spread worldwide, women have suffered disproportionately, their gains have been canceled and millions of women have died.

We remain determined. Women produced over 100 alternative reports challenging governments' rosy “national reports” to the U.N. gathering, telling the unvarnished truths about what these governments have and have not done. We held symposia, workshops and conferences to share our experiences and learn from one another about what has worked and what has not. And we came away with a document that did not back down on the fundamental truth that women's rights are human rights.

The Beijing Plus Five conference took strong stands against the trafficking in women and girls, against domestic violence, including marital rape, and against so-called “honor killings.” It also demanded more attention be devoted to combating racism, to the ways that globalization adversely affects women and to the devastating HIV-AIDS epidemic.

The document, in short, could have been better, but could also have been a great deal worse.

We are most heartened by the young women at this gathering, for their energy and vision guarantees a future for women's human rights. Half the earth's people-three billion of us-are under 25, and even the most reluctant and truculent decision-maker knows that if the planet is to survive, young people must be educated and given the options today that will allow them to make responsible choices tomorrow about childbearing, caring for the environment and earning a living.

This can only happen with a full partnership between women and men-legally, economically, politically and socially. Gender equality, development and peace go hand in hand.

Nearly 15,000 of us came to New York to make this very simple point: Women have become a global force for change that will transform this new century. And we will not be turned back.

Charlotte Bunch is executive director of the Rutgers University Center for Women's Global Leadership. Visit their website at: