Beijing Plus Twenty Plus One: International Law Protecting Womens Rights

“It was twenty years ago today” began a song by John Lennon and Paul McCartney, recalling to listeners that some things remain constant across time. So too in 2015 a portrait that graces the wall of academia in Virginia illustrates this point: Only by close observation could one find the sole woman nestled along the rear of the desk, seated alongside a lamp. (see photo below). It should be no surprise therefore that womens progress towards equal opportunity for employment to do the hard work of saving posterity by ensuring health and security for all in paid employment in the law is inextricably tied to implementing the Platform of Action for womens rights that was prepared by the United Nations (UN) in China in August 1995, a complex and wordy document that underwent, in 2015 a global strategic review, first in Geneva Switzerland among the regions of the world and then in New York City before the Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) of the UN.

Despite chagrin at slow progress, twenty years later, what a difference a year makes! One year after the Twenty Year review, the world sees that a speaker at the Fourth UN World Conference on Women in China is the first female Presidential Nominee of a major party in the USA, and women are taking places of leadership in academia and industry.

Key concerns discussed in the process called the “Beijing Plus Twenty Review” were designed to monitor the progress towards equal opportunity for women, governments, academia, UN agencies and non-governmental organizations. The single goal for all of these elaborate and expensive weeks of international meetings was to review long-term impacts and long-term obstacles to gender equality that have become manifest in the twenty years after the Beijing Platform for Action adopted at the UN 4th World Conference on Women in 1995. There was widespread consensus that governments and the private sector should be encouraged to finally implement the commitments undertaken in Beijing in 1995 which have not been fulfilled. And surprisingly, there was consensus that despite progress towards equal employment opportunity, many gaps remained from the standpoint of wages, accessible child care, paid maternity leave and most of all, access to training in areas such as science and math which were considered inappropriate for girls education in previous generations. 

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The so-called “Beijing Plus Twenty” regional Review meeting in Geneva was co-hosted by UNECE (UN Economic Commission for Europe) and UN Women. Representatives from 48 countries: Albania, Armenia, Austria, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Belgium, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Canada, Croatia, Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Georgia, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Iceland, Ireland, Israel, Italy, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Latvia, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Malta, Montenegro, Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Republic of Moldova, Romania, Russian Federation, Serbia, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, Tajikistan, the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, Turkey, Turkmenistan, Ukraine, United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, and USA shared consensus that governments, as part of their continued commitment to empowering women, must implement legislation, provide sufficient funds at national and local levels, and improve sex-disaggregated statistical reporting in order to monitor progress and challenges. Chairpersons were: Hijran Huseynova, Chair of the State Committee for Family, Women and Children Affairs, Azerbaijan, Carlien Scheele, Director, Gender Equality and LGBT Equality Department, Ministry of Education, Culture and Science, Netherlands. The Rapporteur was Thomas Fitschen, Ambassador, Deputy Permanent Representative of Germany to the UN, Geneva. To follow-up, Review conclusions were sent to the Commission on the Status of Women, in New York March 2015.  

Their deliberations were the first step towards evaluating for the first time, on a global level, the long term impact of the principles codified in the Beijing Platform document. Despite increased awareness and advance in legal expertise on discrimination and women’s rights, possibilities for women and girls to claim redress when their rights have been violated are insufficient. And, across many areas of law and social policy, access to high quality education with jobs remains a key obstacle to equality. The importance of access to education could not be understated, and has been the subject of several subsequent UN initiatives. For example, in Europe the Marie Curie grants and fellowships make a special effort to find, and fund research opportunities for women in sciences.

Even where women can be considered employed, they are disproportionately found in precarious employment, part-time employment, lower paid jobs or are suffering wage discrimination. In 2013, only 1 out of every 4 parliamentarians in ECE countries was a woman. Gender quotas to increase womens representation in government have been introduced in some countries, yet women remain underrepresented in key decision-making spheres throughout the ECE region, and there was consensus that the absence of female perspective influences the funding for programs and the ability to implement legislation advancing women.

Four people: Emalyn, Feitshans  age 5, Jay  Feitshans, age 9[2] and one baby sitter, Lian Ferguson and Ilise Feitshans left New York City one August day in 1995 and  attended the NGO Forum of the United Nations Fourth World Conference on Women, August through September 1995 in China. And because of these efforts, Ilise  served as a delegate for the Global Alliance For Women’s Health, which is an accredited Non-Governmental Organization (NGO) of the UN. Accredited means granted a special status by the United Nations, allowing members of the organization to participate in meetings at the UN, and on rare occasions to provide information or lobby official delegates from member nations about pressing issues. This function closely resembles its antecedent in the US Congress or other legislative bodies. NGO’s frequently coalesce, in order to strategize, share information and ultimately influence the UN’s international policy decisions, in manner that also closely resembles the work of lobbyists in the USAin the Congress, any nation’s local legislatures and parliaments abroad. The meeting represented a major vehicle for exchanging information and for setting a global policy agenda to protect the health,  provide education and support women’s rights, throughout the world. 

The Beijing Declaration is the Preamble to the Platform for Action. In language that, not surprisingly harkens back to the Declaration of Sentiments of the Women who demanded suffrage a hundred years before in New York's Seneca Falls, the Preamble notes commitment to: 

“The equal rights and inherent dignity of women and men…  Ensure the full implementation of the human rights of women and of the girl child as inalienable, integral and indivisible part of all human rights and fundamental freedoms".

The 1995 NGO Forum at the UN Fourth World Conference on Women represented the first part of a two part conference, a division that was made quite confusing by the powers in charge of it. First, the NGO Forum began on August 31 1995 and ended September 8, 1995. Second, the official diplomatic delegates to the Fourth World Conference on Women met from September 4, 1995 through September 15, 1995. The second conference produced the so-called Platform Document, and also involved the famous speech in which USA First Lady Hilary Clinton proclaimed, "Womens’Rights are Human Rights”, representing the USA even though she was not, at that time, an elected official. It is worth noting, however, that there were many male diplomatic delegates tot eh second conference, and few males, other than my son Jay, in attendance at the NGO Forum. By contrast too, the there was an officially printed and electronically transmitted tangible product for the second part of the conference, but the NGO forum did not produce any written accounts or official transcripts of its work. Some people had credentials to both parts of the conference, however, furthering the confusion even more.

The NGO forum produced over 5000 workshops on policy issues affecting women concerning every imaginable topic. Some, but not all attendees, gave out written papers infromally at the workshops; others photographed each other and exchanged addresses. There was no formal list of NGO registrants, no formal message center for locating people, and most importantly, no official written product of these meetings. Nonetheless, videotapes of the NGO Forum may demonstrate that it produced invaluable reports, documents and souvenirs, even though it did not produce a treaty or a convention or other example of the Rule of Law.  

The NGO Forum's heritage reaches far back into the UN; fifty year history, that reached a critical mass at the Nairobi meeting of the Third UN World Conference on Women. There, over 300 NGO’s assembled spontaneously in tents that they had built outside of the official diplomatic meeting. It made "Nairobi "the buzzword for a watershed in UN history. Ever afterwards, NGOs were included in a new stronger role as part of the fabric of  UN deliberations. The change after Nairobi represents a new wave of democratization within international legislation and policy, as NGOs speak for people, not governments. They are not elected, but often represent the views of minorities or the oppressed as a counterweight to government. We like this result, when NGOs oppose the Abad guys in repressive regimes; but the success of the NGOs also implicitly represents an erosion in the power and influence of all governments, whose sovereignty are jealously guarded by the terms and conditions of the United Nations charter, regardless of the nature of their regimes.[1] This is an important feature of the NGO Forum and the UN Fourth World Conference on Women because this influential but threatening, (or for some governments subversive) role may explain in part why so much confusion, almost a deliberate diplomatic fog, surrounded the preparations for the meetings.[2]

 B.  What happened at the UN Fourth World Conference on Women?

There is a lot of debate about the significance of what happened at the NGO forum.  Delegates came home from China only to find  that a truly exciting and vibrant meeting to find was described in scant  news reports that appear to have concentrated on the pouring rain, bad housing, muddy tents, bacteria in food and undue surveillance rather than reporting accurately upon the real hard work of the meetings, which can be seen in our videotape. Another facet of this misunderstanding, however, cannot be laid at the feet of the media. Rather it bespeaks the intrinsically feminist approach to communication and products, compared to process and result, that lay at the heart of the NGO forum. The activities that occurred at the NGO forum: meetings, workshops, exchanges of ideas; transfer of otherwise unobtainable and possible illegal clandestine information are, according to feminist theory, characteristically female types of communication.

In this female mode of verbal communication, process IS the product.[3] The goal is education through communication, without providing documentation of the process or the work, much the same way that a young mother or grandmother might convey important unwritten information to their precious child. This process of communication is the hallmark of childrearing, which until recently was if not exclusively, then at least traditionally, the heart of women’s empowerment domain. This approach, feminist theory correctly posits, takes a long-term approach to learning and sharing ideas through unwritten communication. So too, these goals of communication for exchange of ideas are not precisely quantified; they remain long-term rather than easily achieved. Children for example, learn to speak by imitating their mothers as best that they can, but not in one or two days. Another very significant feature of  process-oriented communication described above is that is develops a profound common bond between the participants. This makes "just talking" not only the heart of the process, but thereby turning our communication into a prized result.

The NGO forum became the means for communication that united many women from every part of the world, as we discussed many common issues that ought to play a greater role in the international policy agenda, especially health issues, education for women and child care. In contrast to the NGO Forum, diplomatic delegates produced an official document, whose significance will fodder perennial debate among legal scholars and historians. The differences between these parts of the same whole are underscored by one visual image: in contreast to the NGO forum where women wore colorful sari, kimonos, t-shirts or dashikis, as of September 3rd, there was a increasingly steady incoming stream of  handsome, well-groomed men in silk suits with designer ties, who came as caretakers and participants in the second part, and who performed, official documented tasks. Tight security around those diplomats had a chilling effect on meetings. They also had a vast cadre of secretarial staff to transcribe and record their every word. Yet, I learned by presenting three workshops the NGO Forum, when thousands of women come together in any given place to exchange ideas about their situation and strategize about improving the world, and securing world peace for their children and parents and partners, language barriers and differences of experience become interesting but unimportant. It is a powerful, dynamic time when such petty differences melt away.

C. PERRENIAL ISSUES addressed in the Beijing Platform for Action have not been solved despite government efforts, which are insufficient according to the data discussed at the Review. For example, discriminatory stereotypes influence the educational choices of women and restrict their future employment opportunities in science and technical areas. Gender-based violence penetrates all areas of life and affects women of all ages worldwide today. Women in the safety and health professions are especially key in shaping programs that can target the prevention of such violence, and provide support for women who have been victims of violence, whether that support comes from resources in the workplace, the community or at home. Women in the safety and health professions also can play a key role in mentoring, by informing male colleagues men about the inaccuracies of professional sterotypes, or by mentoring to help women enter the STEM professions. Despite policy efforts undertaken over the last two decades, the ill-health caused by violence against women continues to exist in every country. All these factors lead to a persistent gender pay gap and sharply lower pension payments for women as compared to men. Many countries reported significant legislative progress, nonetheless there was strong consensus that education for women is the linchpin for climbing out of disempowerment by obtaining well paying jobs. This notion was underscored at the Global Symposium at Barnard College, Columbia University New York City “Women Changing the World”, a parallel event to the UN activities, and live streamed across the globe. At Barnard College, speaking at a panel discussion Queen Noor of Jordan underscored these key points, noting that human rights and education to promote those rights remain important for women around the world. Better education in the gap-areas of science technology engineering and math are one way to ensure that the existing gaps will diminish, rather than increase.

An emerging health issue is the projected gender gap in pensions and retirement income. Unequal pensions will redefine the feminization of poverty because: Men work full time and in large percentages "max out" for pension rights, By contrast, Women more often hold lower paying or precarious employment, lose jobs or abstain from work for caretaking of partners, older family and children, and have lower paying jobs due discrimination and lack of pay equity. In this aspect of preventing new health disparities, the safety and health and environment professions have a key role to play protecting the health for all.

But, overall the year since the twenty year review has shown progress in areas of employment which may have been overlooked in the past.


The question whether there is a clear and strategically manageable way forward was the obvious next agenda item. Women and men must work together to overcome stereotypes and proactively seek the opportunity to provide inquisitive young ladies with educational advancement, even in the face of cultural opposition in the workplace, in academia or at home. There are no immediate plans for a Fifth UN World Conference on Women, because it was agreed that so much remains to be done regarding the implementation of the roadmap and pathway set forth in Beijing twenty years ago that no new document is needed. 

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