“Women’s Rights are Human Rights” – a Muddy Business in 1995 at Beijing
28th September 2020
The Beijing World Conference on Women, took place in September 1995, 25 years ago! Those born after 1990 are probably too young to remember the conference and its significance. But Beijing was a true landmark event. It resulted in more than 30,000 activists, representatives from 189 nations, unanimously adopting the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action – a vision of equal rights, freedom, and opportunities for women that continues to shape gender equality and women’s movements worldwide (UN Women).
This was the event at which Hillary Clinton made the famous declaration, “human rights are women’s rights and women’s rights are human rights.” The Georgetown Institute for Women, Peace and Security recently hosted an online conversation with Hillary Rodham Clinton and Madeleine Albright where both women recalled their experience of attending the event, discussed the legacy of the Beijing Platform for advancing women’s rights globally, and identified areas where we still need to see significant progress. Their conversation merits watching in full. This article focuses on a few key moments from their discussion, which serve to symbolise the struggle women face – then and now – in working towards full equality.
First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton’s Remarks to the Fourth Women’s Conference in Beijing, China, 1995.
In marked contrast to how it is typically portrayed, and despite Hillary’s pink suit, Beijing in 1995 was not always an easy or glamorous experience. Many people wanted to shut down the message of women’s rights are human rights and the practices that obstruct women from claiming those rights. Clinton recalled how during her speech, when she was criticising certain practices towards women (some of which applied to the Chinese regime), the sound was cut off (they had initially been piping it out the conference hall into a big convention centre). Ironically, the sound was suddenly diverted into a department store in Beijing – a site where a lot of women would have been shopping. In a recent article for the Atlantic, Clinton wonders what subversive person managed to achieve that turn of events.
Furthermore, many people might not know there was actually a separate conference by and for NGOs in Huairou, a small town 30 miles outside Beijing, at which Clinton delivered a version of her speech. Both women recollected how this NGO conference was originally intended to be held in the centre of Beijing; however, Chinese officials decided to move it to Huairou in a thinly-veiled bid to make the conference as inaccessible as possible to those attending it. In order to get to the conference, the NGOs and women activists (including over 400 women in wheelchairs), literally had to wade through fields of mud to get to the conference tents! However, despite the mud and the teeming rain, Clinton and Albright said that they had never seen such enthusiastic, energised people at the event. They both acknowledged how crucial Huairou was in addition to the publicised formal work, which resulted in the famous Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action. This was because Huairou was the key moment that enabled the NGOs and activists to collectively meet and engage in action around what was being formally agreed and, critically, to bring it home to their networks, their local communities and imbed it into their work.
Women discuss the issues at the Non-Governmental Organizations Forum held in Huairou, China, Sept. 3, 1995, as part of the Fourth World Conference on Women held in Beijing. (U.N. Photo/Milton Grant)
Clinton’s and Albright’s recollections of the events serve as a microcosm of the issues women face in claiming equality. Many people (read: powerful men and patriarchal systems and institutions) are threatened by the idea of women gaining power. For example, the Chinese authorities recognised the power of the message that was being shared at Beijing, and at Huairou, and the threat it posed to their power and regime. This is the reason why they felt a need to censor, sideline, and marginalise this message. Even as both Clinton and Albright were emphasising the “pragmatic” case for women’s participation and representation, e.g. the myriad research that demonstrates that gender equality helps to grow economies (amongst other benefits), those in power still didn’t want to listen.
While many feminists are understandably exacerbated that an economic case has to be made to justify women’s inclusion (shouldn’t the fact that we make up 50% of the population and are human beings be justification enough?), the mudslinging, backlash, and censorship that women face as they seek to participate, even in the face of all of peer-reviewed scientific evidence making the case for their inclusion, illustrates the depth of the problem women face in claiming power. The patriarchal system colludes against women’s inclusion, even against its own best interests. We might think money is all-powerful but, in many cases, culture and tradition are still stronger than financial capital when it comes to keeping women subjugated (expect more on why changing culture is all-important to empowering women to claim their rights in Part 2).
The recollected events also serve to illustrate the resilience and determination of women in fighting back against the many obstacles that are put in their way. In this case, literally wading through mud – in many cases, in high heels! – in a bid to realise their right to equally participate at all level of society and be valued as citizens. Because women have traditionally not been allowed into the political fold, much of women’s organising of necessity has come at a grassroots level and from informal action, often happening in parallel to formal efforts. While clearly women need to be – and deserve to be – represented formally too, this informal action also has huge power to bring about change and deserves greater recognition and support in its own right (consider, for instance, the incredible activism of the women of Sudan and South Sudan). Further, it highlights the vital role that NGOs and grassroots activists play in translating formal commitments into action on the ground and the need to value and join up formal and informal efforts more.
The United Nations Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing on Sept. 15, 1995 (U.N. Photo/Yao Da Wei)
As both speakers emphasised, Beijing wasn’t just about having nice conversations; it needed to be about commitments and action. This included implementing the Beijing commitments on US soil. To do this, a tight “tag-team” relationship was formed between Clinton’s and Albright’s roles as First Lady and Secretary of State respectively, and other key figures in the Clinton administration. This network helped them to continue pushing for women’s participation and representation in positions of power such as the Senate and keep a weather eye to ensuring US laws at federal, state, and local levels did not impede women’s equality. Both women emphasised the perennial need for women to work collectively, help one-other to rise up through systems of power, and ensure platforms and networks exist for women to come together globally to share strategies for getting the work done. This is an evolutionary process – not something that happens overnight – and the torch needs to be passed on from woman to woman, including across political parties, because women’s rights are not a partisan issue. Both women discussed the recent setbacks during the Trump administration with dismay. However, their overall message rang loud and clear – these push-backs have to make women even more determined to challenge cultures that prioritise fiction over fact and the subjugation of women over their full inclusion, participation, representation, and flourishing as human beings.
Stay tuned for Part 2 of this article which discusses the progress made since the Beijing Declaration and the Platform for Action and where our attention must be focused going forward.
Featured photo by White House Photograph Office