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The Proposed Fifth World Conference on Women – A Time to Take Stock and Demand Implementation

FRIDAY FILE: Discussion about the implications of the proposed United Nations (UN) Fifth World Conference on Women in 2015 reveals diverse opinions on the challenges, opportunities, purpose and conditions for the proposed conference, but with some common threads.

By Susan Tolmay[1]

On March 8 2012, 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 a Fifth UN World Conference on Women (5th WCW) in 2015. Following the announcement, AWID produced a Friday File with the aim of sharing information on the proposed conference and some of the diverse responses to the proposal, and inviting readers to share their views and broaden the contributions to this important debate. This Friday File provides an overview of the diverse opinions expressed by the approximately 60 readers from all regions of the world who responded to the call for comments.

The overall view shared by readers is that the landmark 1995 Fourth World Conference on Women, held in Beijing should be celebrated, but there are calls for innovation and alternatives to the traditional UN conference model and for this process to be linked to the post-2015 development agenda.

Common concerns and challenges

Many readers echoed some of the concerns raised by women’s rights advocates immediately after the announcement of the proposed conference, including limited resources and the possibility of backlash on previously agreed international commitments on women’s rights and gender equality. The current context of rising fundamentalist forces – evident for example during the last Commission on the Status of Women, which failed to adopt agreed conclusions at its 56th session and Rio +20 which saw the omission of women’s sexual and reproductive rights from the final text mean that this is not the time to hold global political negotiations on women's rights.

For many, cost continues to be a barrier to their participation in global UN conference spaces. In a context where women's rights organizations are struggling to survive due to limited funds and with very limited support from their governments, it is difficult for large numbers of women’s rights advocates to reach these conferences and many question the allocation of scarce resources to a conference. As one reader said, “Comparing the costs of the organization of such a conference, with the equivalent use of this money to implement concrete actions on the ground, make me think that a new conference would not be really effective”.

Readers also raised concerns about representation, consultation and participation by women of all identities and called for broad engagement with women at all levels and in all their diversity, saying, “A conference without ensuring the widespread presence of organized women's movements and feminists (could) mean the legitimation of a coup against (women’s) rights” and “…the greatest challenge is lack of inclusion of the women at the grassroot(s) who are the real practitioners of the policies but are never given the opportunities to tell the real truth of what is happening on the ground.”

Other readers questioned how strategic it is to hold a 5th WCW in 2015 when member states will have completed negotiations for a new set of Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), Ideally any conference on women should happen prior to the process on the Development Agenda Beyond 2015 with the purpose of evaluating the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) and Beijing Platform for Action (BPfA). This would provide an opportunity for the outcome of the 5th WCW to inform the development agenda beyond 2015.


For other readers the potential benefits of a 5th world conference outweigh the known risks, and “If governments are trying to roll back women's rights, we need the conference to challenge them”. Some pointed to the success of the Fourth World Conference on Women as one of the most successful of the UN conferences and the impact that the Beijing Platform for Action (BPfA), despite its limitations, had on putting women's rights into the public policy discourse.

“There is a very large gap between the idea, the will, capacity and implementation”. Views were unanimous about the need to move from simply talking to taking action. “What we need is a greater commitment, a renewed vigour to meet the goals established; commitment of resources and efforts to achieve changes on the ground, more than mere reiteration.” Readers felt strongly that it is time to take stock, to celebrate what has been achieved, as well as look at the remaining challenges to the advancement of women's rights nationally, regionally and globally. The purpose of any conference should therefore be to examine the actions taken by member states to achieve commitments made and hold Governments accountable, providing an opportunity to re-strategize on those areas where member states have not yet taken action. The focus should be on implementation, with member states submitting status reports on ratified resolutions and agreements, presenting strengths, challenges and lessons learned to guide discussions and plan a way forward. In order for these processes to be effective and as participatory as possible, some readers suggested pre-conferences or public forums to be organized from grassroots to national, sub-regional or regional levels to strategise on the implementation of BPfA.

Given the changes in the landscape for women and women’s rights in the 20 years since the Fourth conference in 1995 many readers also felt it is important to reflect on the successes and challenges of the women’s movement globally since Beijing, including the voices of grassroots women, LGBTQI persons and youth in particular. “The 5thWCW could give strength to the women's and feminist movements if there's a sustainable process of reflection and dialogue from the local to the global”. It is essential that women's organizations and feminists work to articulate a global agenda for women's rights based in deepening the commitment of States and the international community to this agenda. Others saw the conference as an opportunity to build stronger networks as a way to strengthen our collective voice and to address some of the problems faced by women across the globe, “It makes a statement, builds solidarity, creates new networks among women all over the world, and rekindles old ones.”

The role of the UN should be to give a global view of the progress and challenges in the fulfillment by governments and the UN System of all commitments to women’s rights and gender equality, and not just for Beijing, but other UN Conferences, including Rio, Vienna and Cairo. The UN should utilize the time, energy and money to strengthen implementation of the BPfA and CEDAW and the women's groups working to achieve that goal. It will also be key to strengthen UN Women and its processes so that it can effectively safeguard the interests of the women across the globe.

Conditions for the 5th WCW or other Beijing +20 commemoration

Many of the readers who responded to the call for comments were clear about one thing –feminists and women’s rights advocates should take the leadership role in the proposed 5th WCW and there must be more space for women's organisation to actively participate in this process. Strong views were expressed about the absolute need for inclusiveness and participation of women and girls of all walks of life from all regions, in particular young women and rural women who have historically been left out of these spaces. “The greatest challenge is lack of inclusion of the women at the grass root who are the real practitioners of the policies but are never given the opportunities to tell the real truth of what is happening on the ground. I support the 5WCW but please let it not be an affair of select few otherwise it remains a mere mirage for women and development”.

Readers highlighted the importance of hearing young women’s thoughts on the adequacy and relevance of the BPfA for their generation as well as the need to hear their views on other challenges they face and to make their demands known, “We need to harness the energy of young women who are on the front lines of women's issues, and a 5th WCW is a great way to do this.”

Many expressed the view that a conference must be an opportunity for rural women’s organisations that are working directly with grassroots women, in particular women and girls living in poverty, to participate. By facilitating a process for discussion at local level prior to the conference there could be universal participation in preparation for the conference.

There were calls for an alternative model to the traditional UN Conference, and a proposal that a global campaign to celebrate Beijing+20 would be a better use of resources. Questions were raised about the effectiveness of UN meetings, such as the recent Rio+20 in which more than 40 000 delegates participated, but with questionable and limited results on key women’s rights as well as in other several areas related to environmental sustainability. A few readers suggested the creation of national or regional forums or conferences, whose chosen representative would be funded to participate at the world conference which should be audio-streamed online to ensure broad participation by women from all countries and regions. Another suggestion was to dedicate a specific space to discuss women’s issues in all UN conferences:“Why not insist on having in each international conference, a specific space dedicated to women's issues?”

What is clear from readers’ comments is that the process should begin as soon as possible to ensure that there is universal participation of women and girls before 2015.

Discussions about the proposed conference have been taking place in various fora. Read more below:

We hope you will continue participating in this important discussion by posting comments to this Friday File and to AWID’s Facebook page

[1] This Friday File was written by Susan Tolmay but is a summary of the comments received in response to a call by AWID for readers to share their views on the proposed 5th World Conference on Women