A long journey to equality: Gender equality advocates look back on the Fourth World Conference on Women

Date: Monday, January 18, 2021

These activists were at the Beijing Conference, an experience that shaped them in their quest to build a gender-equal world. Photos: Personal archives (left hand side & upper right corner), UN Women Turkey (lower right hand corner)
Activists who were at the Beijing Conference, an experience that shaped them in their quest to build a gender-equal world. Photos: Personal archives (left hand side & upper right hand corner), UN Women Turkey (lower right hand corner)

Twenty-five years ago, more than 30,000 activists, global leaders and government representatives from 189 countries debated and adopted the most comprehensive agenda ever on gender equality and women’s empowerment – the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action.

It remains the most comprehensive global policy framework and blueprint for action. It is a source of guidance and inspiration for realizing gender equality and the human rights of women and girls, everywhere.

Today we are looking back and going forward, celebrating the power of the women’s movement, and calling for nothing less than bold, decisive actions to secure women’s rights as human rights, once and for all.

To commemorate the 25th anniversary of the Fourth World Conference on Women, held from 4-15 September, 1995, we invite you to be inspired by the stories of activists from Europe and Central Asia. They were at the Beijing Conference, an experience that shaped them in their quest to build a gender-equal world.

Selma Acuner, Turkey

Selma Acuner. Photo: Personal archive.
Selma Acuner. Photo: Personal archive.

Selma Acuner is a gender equality expert, activist and researcher on women’s human rights, children’s rights, and anti-discrimination policies in Turkey. In the 1990s, she was appointed as the General Director of the National Machinery on Women and as the policy advisor to the Prime Minister on gender equality and EU accession. Acuner has also acted as chief advisor to the Ministers for Women’s Affairs.

“We, women from all parts of the world, worked together with enthusiasm to achieve a visionary outcome document for realizing women’s rights for an equal future and a peaceful and inclusive world.

While the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action was adopted after lengthy and heated discussions, it still stands as a landmark road map, which anchors gender equality and women’s rights in the political agenda across the world. Despite some shortcomings on advancing women’s sexual and reproductive health and rights, and the acknowledgement of the deeply structural nature of the inequalities experienced by women, it was a paradigm shift.

It was promising to witness world leaders acknowledge the demands and diverse voices of the transnational feminist movement, based on long years of struggle, and to see them stand up for women’s rights as human rights side-by-side with the world’s women.

Despite the challenges, much has been achieved in women’s rights and gender equality after Beijing. The power, knowledge, resilience and richness of the transnational women’s movement is now an irreversible fact.”

What’s next? “There has been good progress in the normative work, but laws and policies remain ineffective due to the lack of gender-responsive and accountable institutions to implement these legal and policy reforms. We call on governments to show political commitment and leadership in implementation.

We, as the women’s movement, will continue mobilizing, organizing for our rights and equality. We will safeguard the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action, which still stands as a progressive global reference document of commitments for all policy makers and women’s movements all around the world. It is high time for all actors, including civil society, states and international organizations, to work together collectively, and with determination, to eliminate the pushbacks confronting progressive policies on women’s empowerment and gender equality.”

Mira Djangaracheva, Kyrgyzstan

Mira Dzhangaracheva. Photo: Personal archive.
Mira Dzhangaracheva. Photo: Personal archive.

Mira Djangaracheva is an independent expert on sustainable development and gender equality. Formerly she was a Member of Parliament, Vice Prime Minister and Minister of Labour and Social Protection in Kyrgyzstan.

“At Beijing we learned about the United Nations international conventions on women’s rights, the processes of their ratification and implementation, the importance of institutional mechanisms to advance women’s interests, the system of reporting, monitoring and evaluation in the field of gender equality. As an independent sovereign country, Kyrgyzstan launched the process of translating all these standards into national legislation and institutional development. It was a unique opportunity for our parliament to ratify five main United Nations conventions, including the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW). By ratifying the CEDAW Convention, we laid the legal and institutional foundations for the acceptable protection and guarantee of women’s rights.

At that time, I knew how far this step would expand our understanding of the concept of human rights in relation to women's rights and help more people to see the inextricable link of these rights with democracy and country’s future. I realized that the document would become an impetus for the birth of a powerful women's movement in Kyrgyzstan and would serve as a guarantor for future generations of women in ensuring and realizing their rights.”

What’s next? “For 25 years women have not gathered at a forum like Beijing. Younger generations have grown up unaware of the history or tools for adapting women's rights issues to development strategies. New challenges have emerged that need to be addressed globally, regionally and nationally. One of these is the COVID-19 pandemic, which has severely affected women, their incomes, employment, access to education and decision-making. This applies to our country struggling to include support for women in the development agenda for the post-pandemic period, which also applies to the global agenda and national development strategies.

Time passes, public and political figures come and go. A new generation of young people is growing up, who may not have time to learn about the event, the people involved in it, the processes in the formation of a sovereign state and public consciousness. Kyrgyzstan today is a full-fledged participant of the movement associated with the global processes in the field of the development of women's rights. We need a strong catalyst to shake up women and their partners across all sectors and segments of society. To revive the Beijing Conference, we need strong leaders who can change a stagnant situation and inspire a new generation of women.”

Lepa Mladjenovic, Serbia

Lepa Mladjenovic (third from left) at a lesbian panel in the Beijing Women’s World Conference NGO Forum, 1995. Photo: Personal archive.
Lepa Mladjenovic (third from left) at a lesbian panel in the Beijing Women’s World Conference NGO Forum, 1995. Photo: Personal archive. 

Lepa Mladjenovic is a feminist activist living in Serbia. She is a long-time member of the lesbian and anti-war movements. In 1990, she co-founded the SOS Helpline for women survivors of violence in Belgrade and networks against violence against women, particularly sexual violence in Europe. She now works as a counselor with women who are experiencing trauma of sexual violence and lesbophobia.

“Two weeks at the Beijing Women’s NGO Forum were the most exciting time in my life. I was attending workshops with women’s testimonies on trauma of sexual violence in wartime. In September 1995 there was still a war in Bosnia and Herzegovina, and some of us, anti-war feminists from the post-Yugoslav countries, were insisting on the politics of women’s solidarity beyond nationality working together and constantly embracing each other throughout the conference.

In the afternoons I was active in the lesbian tent organizing the international Lesbian Rights are Human Rights campaign. For the first time many lesbians were together. We were so excited to meet, talk, and learn feminist politics of the lesbian movement from each other. At that time ‘lesbians’ were not known as a phenomenon in most continents, feared and hated, which meant we had a lot to do.”

What next? “During the pandemic it became obvious that face-to-face women’s meetings were no longer possible. We need platforms where we can meet, talk, feel and embrace each other - these conditions precisely inspire our political activism.”

Bozgul Dotkhudoeva, Tajikistan

Bozgul Dotkhudoeva (on the left), at the Fourth World Conference on Women in 1995. Photo: Personal archive.
Bozgul Dotkhudoeva (on the left), at the Fourth World Conference on Women in 1995. Photo: Personal archive.

Bozgul Dotkhudoeva worked as the Deputy Minister of Education, Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Education in Tajikistan. She was also the Chairperson of the Women's Union of the Republic of Tajikistan. Dotkhudoeva has received numerous awards for her work in gender equality and human rights.

“It was one of the first international high-level conferences where the Republic of Tajikistan was represented as an independent sovereign state. At that time, Tajikistan was still struggling with civil war, but despite the difficulties, the status and indicators of promoting women's role in the Republic of Tajikistan were higher than in many countries participating in the conference. We were happy about that and believed that the independence gained would spark a new impetus for promoting positive gender policies in the country.

We were particularly inspired because this process was held under the auspices of the United Nations. This most recognized international organization supported and promoted, to this day, the principles and vision of the 17,000 participants of the World Conference in Beijing and the several billion women of the planet whom they represented.

And, although 25 years have passed, I still cannot forget a participant from Afghanistan, with her touching story of how famine and war was killing children and women in her country. At the same time, conference participants were inspired by speakers from developed countries who told about achievements in the field of gender equality in their countries. This aroused our admiration and desire to work for the benefit of our countries.

When I remember the Beijing World Conference on Women, I am proud that my participation in the development and adoption of the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action changed the lives of women and girls in Tajikistan. It also became a trigger for achieving equal rights, freedom and opportunities for women in all parts of the world.”

What’s next? “To solve the existing challenges, first it is necessary to create conditions for women and girls to study and develop, especially for those living in mountainous and inaccessible, rural areas. If full secondary education is possible everywhere, it will already be a huge incentive to promote the role of women and girls as well as gender equality. Currently, girls who have completed secondary school have access to higher education through the President's annual quotas for higher education in the country's leading universities. It is also very important to promote gender policy in society, work with men and eradicate established stereotypes.”

Zeliha Ünaldı, Turkey

Zeliha Ünaldı. Photo: UN Women Turkey.
Zeliha Ünaldı. Photo: UN Women Turkey.

Zeliha Ünaldı is the Programmes Manager of UN Women in Turkey with more than 20 years of experience in the field of gender equality and women’s empowerment. Previously she worked as the Gender Specialist of the Resident Coordinator’s Office in Ankara where she provided technical and policy support for the UN Country Team in Turkey.

“If I started the story with the following sentence, it would not be wrong: “I got on a train and my life changed.” Twenty-five years ago, I got on the Trans-Siberia train going from Warsaw to Beijing to participate in the Fourth World Conference on Women. I was a postgraduate student and research associate in the recently established Middle East Technical University (METU) women’s studies programme.

We were together with more than 200 women from 29 different countries, representing non-governmental organizations, who were determined to change the world. All those emotions we went through during that eight-day journey can be summarized by the quote of the renowned feminist Sue Vinson: “We are many but one, look at the world through the eyes of women”. That was also the main theme of the overall Beijing Conference as well as the civil society forum.

Being one of the 189 countries that have committed to the Beijing Declaration, the Turkish government initially took all the actions it had committed to. One of them was to remove the reservations in the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) and make amendments to its domestic law in accordance with CEDAW, as well as in accordance with the Beijing Declaration. Later on, as a result of the efforts of the women’s movement in collaboration with the government, the Turkish government amended its civil code, criminal code and labor law.

But the COVID-19 pandemic has shed light on the fragility of many of these achievements in Turkey and across the world. Studies show that women’s participation in the labor force has been affected more than men’s during the COVID-19 period and this also applies to the levels of poverty.

To eliminate the risks, there are important issues we must discuss in detail in the anniversary of Beijing, among them is the spirit of the 1995, namely: “being many but one”.

What’s next? “We need to rejuvenate this spirit of unity by reaching as many women, men, girls and boys as possible. Because, especially in such times where we are shaken by the crises, we believe that we need this unity and solidarity more than ever and in a more committed way. We will continue working to share this spirit with women and girls, men and boys who did not have the opportunity to get on that train.”

Read here: Expert’s Take: “The COVID-19 pandemic has shed light on the fragility of the achievements of the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action” by Zeliha Unaldi.

Olena Suslova, Ukraine

Olena Suslova (on the left) with her daughter at a Regional Civil Society Forum on Beijing+25 in Geneva, 2019. Photo: Personal archive.
Olena Suslova (on the left) with her daughter at a Regional Civil Society Forum on Beijing+25 in Geneva, 2019. Photo: Personal archive. 

Olena Suslova is a human rights, gender and peace activist and researcher. She has worked as a trainer on gender, peace culture, and conflict resolution in Ukraine as well as abroad. She founded the NGO Women’s Information Consultative Centre in 1995. Suslova has published about 50 books, research studies, and manuals on gender issues.

“After 25 years, I can confidently say that I have never participated in a similar event. This was a groundbreaking event, which was very important for Ukraine and for all former Soviet Union countries. For me it was a non-stop discovery, 24 hours a day.

The Beijing Conference gave very clear perspectives and guidance about driving institutional change. It was much like a wheel with a high level of inertia. If it is a big wheel, at the beginning you may feel that it does not move. But, once we continue moving the wheel, it will move faster.

Globally we started to reflect on what changed and what did not change as a result of the Fourth World Conference on Women. I realized that everything is possible. The feeling of empowerment is fantastic. I saw the power of women supporting women. At the same time, we are at risk of losing some values of sisterhood and horizontal communication, and may transform into feminist bureaucrats, which is not in line with our feminist principles.”

What’s next? “We have to continue moving the wheel. If we face barriers that we cannot tackle now, we must go around them and keep moving. We must avoid any backwards step towards a time when gender equality was seen as impossible.”