The Time for Action is Now – Beijing +25 and Women’s Rights
27th October 2020
2020 is an election year in the United States. We are standing at the precipice of change in many respects. This year, we (Americans) have a choice to determine the path our country will be on not only for the next four years but for the foreseeable future that extends beyond the next presidential term. A crucial group that will be impacted by the results of the American election is women and girls. Which path will we choose? Additionally, this year marks the 100th anniversary of the Nineteenth Amendment guaranteeing women’s right to vote; why aren’t we hearing more about this?
These important developments aside, 2020 also marks the 25th anniversary of the Beijing Declaration supported by former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton at the United Nations Fourth World Conference held in Beijing, China. The Georgetown Institute for Women, Peace and Security commemorated this landmark event in a webinar, Beijing+25: Commemorating a Watershed Moment for Women’s Rights, including participants Ambassador Melanne Verveer and Secretary Madeleine Albright. All three women recounted their stories of the conference and of serving as women in foreign policy. The webinar was notable in the candor with which all three shared their experiences, recollections of the atmosphere, and the literal physical and logistical challenges they faced in attending and delivering their message. Secretary Albright amusedly shared anecdotes regarding their difficult reception in China. Cab drivers had been given sheets to put over the naked women apparently expected; at the hotel, someone fogged up their bathroom mirrors; and the Chinese government turned off the sound during Clinton’s speech. The conference location itself posed an obstacle to women’s rights: Albright recounted how the government put the conference in a far away, muddy location, which also proved difficult to access for people with disabilities and other participants. Albright also mentioned how someone present asked her “where is the country of lesbia?” because they were confused about people talking about lesbians.
What was striking about the event’s description was that women, as late as 1995, could face harassment and physical hurdles to participating in an event in foreign policy, especially women of privilege, social standing, and high political rank in the United States. Additionally, some anecdotes illustrated the difficulty faced in protecting not only women’s rights, but ensuring women’s participation in foreign relations and institutional goals. Albright recalled that during the establishing of the new war crimes tribunal, the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, she also lobbied to ensure that there were female judges on the bench and to prevent rape from being used as a weapon of war. Clinton made a point of mentioning rape being used as a weapon of war in her speech: “Even now, in the late 20th century, the rape of women continues to be used as an instrument of armed conflict.”
First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton’s Remarks to the Fourth Women’s Conference in Beijing, China, 1995.
Albright recalled that when she first become US Ambassador to the UN in February 1993, she asked her assistant to invite the other female ambassadors to her apartment for lunch: this was one of the first times she had not had to cook lunch herself – after she had become an Ambassador. At the time, there were 6 other female ambassadors to the UN. They formed a caucus, the “G7”. When considering the progress that women have made towards equality, it is easy for younger generations to forget that our mothers and grandmothers’ generations had to climb over obstacles to fight for women’s rights, and it is easy to ridicule and to dehumanize them if their views are different from ours. The act of remembering is crucial, not only to appreciate their efforts in pushing the envelope on women’s rights but in appreciating our own ability to live in a more equal society than that which held back our mothers and grandmothers. It is also crucial to understanding why our mothers and grandmothers may have views on issues of gender and sex coming to the fore in today’s political debates. Albright pointed out not only the moral dilemma of excluding women and girls from foreign policy and political participation but the pragmatic reasons behind empowering women, who constitute roughly 50% of the population.
The event also launched a report, Beijing +25 Accelerating Progress for Women and Girls. In the forward, Clinton pointed out that while we are at a watershed moment for women and girls, Beijing was a watershed moment as well (p. vi). The Beijing conference was revolutionary because of its focus: women and girls. It provided a platform for women to demand change and equal rights in the presence of representatives of 189 countries and women from around the globe. It underscored women’s historic demands for reversing ancient, deeply-entrenched misogyny and structural oppression with the following mantra, which is as relevant today as it was in 1995, if not more so: “women’s rights are human rights.” Secretary Clinton, wearing a pink suit, delivered these words. In 1995, I was 11 years old and remember looking up to Secretary Clinton and other women of my mother’s and grandmother’s generations. I also remember seeing them face constant criticism, ridicule, and harassment in the media and in everyday life due to their reproductive capabilities. The fact that Secretary Clinton boldly asserted this represents a monumental achievement on behalf of women and girls in the never-ending fight for equality. In 1995, Clinton argued that we need to break the silence regarding abuse of women, such as female genital mutilation, in her forward to the report. In 2020, Clinton reignited the call for structural and institutional abuse of women to be addressed, noting that “in some countries, there is not even a word for rape. In most, a culture of impunity thrives, allowing the subjugation, humiliation, and silencing of women who have been sexually harassed or assaulted in their homes and workplaces.” (p. vi)
In Beijing, conference Chair Gertrude Mongella (R) with (L-R) WEDO’s Bella Abzug and Madeline Albright, then U.S. Secretary of State (U.N. Photo)
One of the points also raised by Clinton in the report is how to counter backlash against strides made towards gender equality and fostering democratic inclusion and accountability. The report argues that men who benefit from the status quo may resist gender equality, and it argues that: “Political violence against women activists, political leaders, and demonstrators has emerged as a prevalent form of backlash […] Women most often faced violence when serving in positions of authority, reflecting resistance to women in power.” (p. 26) As the election draws near, it is important to remember that these issues, which have been showcased almost every day during the past several years in national headlines, are issues upon which we will be voting as we submit our ballots. Indeed, the 2016 presidential debates between Clinton and President Trump perfectly illustrate how male privilege and violence against women were quite literally utilized to block a woman from political office. Clinton recalled this experience:
“It was the second presidential debate and Donald Trump was looming behind me. Two days before the world heard him brag about groping women. Now we were on a small stage and no matter where I walked, he followed me closely, staring at me, making faces. It was incredibly uncomfortable. He was literally breathing down my neck. My skin crawled.”
The fact that a woman of Clinton’s stature in the American political echelons could openly face harassment and intimidation – acts of violence – on national television during a presidential debate – in 2020 – is staggering. In any other circumstances, Trump’s behaviour may have incurred criminal liability, but there he was, a presidential hopeful, unabashedly engaged in the act of harassing a woman who surpassed him in legal education and governmental and political experience. And he could get away with it.
Secretaries of State Hillary Clinton and Madeleine Albright keynote Beijing +25: Commemorating a Watershed Moment for Women’s Rights on Sept. 10 (Georgetown Institute for Women, Peace and Security)
In a way, the participants’ personal recollections about their experiences in Beijing in 1995 overshadowed the actual launch of the report, and it captivated my mind and imagination far more. This is not saying that the report is not important – it is. However, a consistent source of fuel for my fire is that women could and still can be treated as objects of ridicule, harassment, and derision for having the audacity to demand that “women’s rights are human rights”, to demand respect, to demand inclusion –and to demand equality.
Clinton made a call to action in 1995.
The time for action is now.
Featured photo by UN