A Fifth UN World Conference on Women in 2015? Learn More and Share your Opinion!
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FRIDAY FILE: A discussion about the implications of the proposed UN Fifth World Conference on Women in 2015 is urgently needed among feminists and women’s rights activists from all regions of the world.
There are diverse opinions about the organization, hosting and purpose of the proposed conference, which have not been broadly debated.
By Susan Tolmay[i]
The proposed 5th World Conference on Women
On March 8 2012, International Women’s Day, the President of the United Nations General Assembly H.E. Mr. Nassir Abdulaziz Al-Nasser (Qatar) and the Secretary-General H.E. Mr. Ban Ki-moon jointly proposed convening a Fifth UN World Conference on Women (5th WCW) in 2015. In their announcement they stated that convening such a world conference is important to look closely not only at the implementation of the Beijing Platform for Action but also at the emerging issues and the enormous changes taking place in the world which are having “both positive and other implications for women.” Their proposal will now have to go before the 193-member states of the General Assembly (GA) for discussion during the 66thsession of the GA in September.
The proposed 5th WCW would take place twenty years after the 1995 Fourth World Conference on Women held in Beijing - where the landmark Platform for Action (BPfA) was adopted. The 1990s was a decade marked by strong global mobilization on the part of social movements- including the feminist movement- that sought to advance women’s human rights and gender equality as well as other key agendas for social justice within the fields of population and development, the environment, and human rights. Women’s human rights advocates from all regions actively participated in the UN Conferences of the 1990’s at Rio, Vienna, Cairo, Copenhagen and Beijing. These processes and outcomes were key to securing international policy frameworks that would, if properly financed and implemented, advance women’s human rights and achieve gender equality.
So far, reactions among women’s groups, networks and campaigns to another world conference have been mixed. Before the announcement in March, there was no systematic consultation with civil society, GA member states, or UN Women, and there are widespread concerns about the necessity, effectiveness, and relevance of international conferences.
Further, 2015 is the deadline for the achievement of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) and when a new development framework to succeed the MDGs will be agreed. In the Rio+20 Summit that finished last week in Brazil, member states agreed to launch a process of negotiation for a set of Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) by 2015. A parallel but connected UN process called ‘The Development Agenda Beyond 2015’ has already started, and feminists and women’s groups have had limited engagement so far.
Positions expressed to date
The 5WCW’s Campaign led by Jean Shinoda Bolen (San Francisco, USA) is mobilizing support for a 5th WCW that ‘address(es) new and emerging issues affecting women and girls since the Beijing Conference in 1995, to build upon and not re-open previous UN documents’. Their position is that a 5WCW is necessary and could act as ‘as a rallying point that would raise consciousness and network women worldwide and at a time of transition’
Soon Young-Yoon, current Chair of the NYC NGO CSW Committee, expressed her personal opinion of an alternate proposal[ii] for ‘the UN to create a new model for a global event—one that does not focus on generating a global consensus document at a conference, but on implementation of promises already made’ through a global campaign, anchored in five regional conferences, using the full power of new information technologies and social media to establish a new global media network’. The campaign she proposes has two goals:
To galvanize a powerful constituency to “scale-up and speed-up” implementation of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) and the Beijing Platform for Action.
To strengthen communications infrastructures and skills of stakeholders, including youth and young women leaders, national machineries and UN bodies and interregional networking, for 2015 and beyond.
Reflections from discussions at the recent AWID Forum
AWID asked the Gender Equality Architecture Reform Campaign (GEAR Campaign) to facilitate the caucus meetings held at the 2012 AWID Forum on this matter. The discussions raised the following concerns:
The amount of resources- time and money- that a UN world conference requires, given that UN Women is not yet adequately funded and many women’s rights organizations are in financial crises. It might be strain on the women’s movement capacity to take this on now, when there are so many critical local and regional struggles.
A commemoration of Beijing+20 should emphasize progress and challenges to implementation, increased access to resources, and accountability for existing international agreements on women’s rights and gender equality.
Lack of participation among women’s rights organizations, and civil society at large, in this process to date. Women's rights organizations demand full participation in all aspects of the Conference preparation, design, and program if it comes to fruition, including where it is held and what the main outcomes are.
Any Beijing+20 events need to feed women’s voices and feminists perspectives into the larger UN-post 2015 processes, including the review of the MDGs and the proposed SDGs.
Any events planned for 2015 should add focus, resources and energy to women’s rights organizations, not drain or divide them. A 5th WCW or other event that would keep women busy on the sidelines would not be helpful as women seek to influence other relevant processes of the UN’s work.
The possibility of backlash on previously agreed international commitments on women’s rights and gender equality if a conference is held with inter-governmental negotiation of a new platform in the current geopolitical climate where anti-women’s rights forces are currently strong.
Participants at the AWID caucus brainstormed alternatives to a conference that would call for implementation of the Beijing Platform for Action and bring attention to advancing women’s human rights without risking negotiated text. These options include:
To hold a UN-Habitat World Urban Forum Model with partnerships and engagement with local government working closely with civil society leaders and producing an outcome document as a set of recommendations from the chair;
To strengthen the Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) to make it more effective;
To hold a celebration session on the 20th Anniversary of the Beijing PFA as a High Level Plenary Session of the United Nations General Assembly;
To hold a pledging Conference with commitments made to implement the Beijing Platform of Action or a Political Declaration by Member States following civil society consultations.
All of these options are without holding negotiations that could re-open existing agreements and potentially generate a serious backlash, at a moment when women’s rights and gender equality are seriously being questioned by some UN member states. For example in the very recent Rio +20 negotiations governments challenged the recognition of the role of women in sustainable development and the final outcome document did not include reproductive rights. Feminists working to influence the negotiations had an uphill battle to ensure that governments reaffirmed Cairo and Beijing conferences’ agreements. This process that just ended is a good example of the geopolitical context that we might face in 2015.
Tell us what you think!
The announcement of the potential 5thWCW challenges all of us to share our analysis, hopes, positions and ideas. Voices that have spoken so far tell stories of concern, uncertainty and caution but also nostalgia for a ‘Beijing-like’ process, the need to re-energize our movements at the global level, and hope to advance women´s rights and feminists agendas. For some, it offers opportunities to revitalise long term struggles and add relevant issues that can respond to current crisis and challenges at regional, national and local levels. For AWID, it is critical to provide information on the proposed conference and the diverse views expressed as well as to create a space to debate the issue.
We invite you to reflect on the road ahead as we approach the celebration of the 20th anniversary of the Beijing Conference. Share your comments and proposals on how best to celebrate the Beijing Conference and continue to advance women’s human rights and gender equality globally. Tell us your thoughts, reactions and positions on this debate and help us broaden the voices and perspectives that are contributing to this conversation.
[i] The author thanks Lydia Alpizar, Charlotte Bunch, Alexandra Garita, Alejandra Scampini, Anna Turley and Zonibel Woods for their contributions to the article.
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