Beijing + 20 - gender equality celebrations and challenges

In 1995, China, Australia and 188 other countries adopted the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action, a comprehensive roadmap to raise the status of women. Twenty years on, what are the causes for celebration and the ongoing challenges?

While Australia can now report to the 2015 United Nations Beijing + 20 summit that there are more than two women in the Federal Cabinet, the recent attack on Paid Parental Leave, the increasing gender pay gap, and the high levels of domestic violence, give little cause for celebration.

In Beijing in 1995, Australian delegation head Carmen Lawrence told the conference: “We don’t have long. We must accelerate our action for change”.

Some of the world’s most prominent women were also present including Hillary Clinton, Benazir Bhutto and Madeleine Albright. Aung San Suu Kyi (under house arrest in Burma) — sent a video speech.

The collective message was that women’s rights are human rights and that the world needed a framework for gender equality and women’s empowerment.

After two weeks of heated debate, the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action was signed by 189 nations, including Australia. To this day it arguably remains the “most progressive blueprint ever for advancing women’s rights”.

With a focus on 12 key areas of concern — poverty, education, health, the economy, power and decision-making, human rights, armed conflict, institutional mechanisms, the media, the environment, violence against women, and the girl-child — the plan set a number of targets to progress women’s rights.

In Australia and around the world, it is now timely to reflect on the report card on a range of these issues. For most IEU members there is access to paid maternity leave and to leave to support family members in need of care. Elder care is an emerging issue and many IEU members have care responsibilities for both children and ageing relatives.

While there is a ‘right to request’ flexible work arrangements, many members find that their employers are resistant and that such arrangements can be a barrier to accessing or remaining in leadership roles.

The gender pay gap is over 18% and this gap also results in lower retirement incomes for women.

At the national level, women are increasingly affected by domestic and family violence and too often by homelessness. Cutbacks in government services have significant adverse impacts on women and their families.

Indigenous women continue to experience disadvantage in health, education and other social and economic outcomes.

At the global level, climate change, armed conflict, trafficking and sexual exploitation are damaging the lives of women and girls, as reported on by Education International of which the IEU is a member.

Beijing + 20 provides a valuable opportunity not for despondency but for a refocus globally, nationally and locally on the priority areas identified by that conference and for a new commitment to gender justice and equity.

In the words of the current United Nations Secretary General Ban K Moon, “when women advance, the world benefits”.

Pam Smith Convenor
IEU Women in Education Committee