Worldwide Women

Beijing+5 Looks at the Global State of Women’s Rights

Thousands of women will soon be arriving in New York City from around the world as the United Nations General Assembly holds a special session to measure the progress nations have made since the Fourth World Conference on Women, which was held in Beijing in 1995. Organizers expect close to 10,000 delegates and activists to gather for the upcoming meeting, known as "Beijing+5."

The UN's special sessions draw representatives from its 188 member states and usually only a small crowd of activists. But Beijing+5, which will be held at the UN from June 5 through 9, will also attract thousands of activists from nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), who will lobby delegates and sponsor a wide range of public events.

Nearly 40,000 women showed up at the Beijing event, smashing the record for the largest turnout for a UN conference. In Beijing, delegates produced a "Platform for Action," which tackled a wide range of issues from genital mutilation to pay equity to girls' self-esteem. Meanwhile, activists met to swap strategies, seek out new allies, and try to influence the document's contents.

China 1995, Fourth World Conference on Women: A Moroccan activist at the NGO forum
China 1995, Fourth World Conference on Women: A Moroccan activist at the NGO forum

The Platform for Action is not a binding treaty but is intended to establish international standards for the treatment of women. The official purpose of the upcoming special session is to produce another, shorter document—known as the "Outcome" document—which is partly a progress report and partly a plan for further action.

"Women from all around the world will be here demanding that the global force women accumulated and showed in Beijing continues to exist," says Charlotte Bunch, executive director of the Center for Women's Global Leadership at Rutgers University. They will be "using this document to hold the feet of their governments to the fire."

Much of the activity connected to Beijing+5 will occur outside of the United Nations. Between June 1 and 9, activists will be holding more than 125 events around New York City, ranging from panels to performances to a women's film festival. The list of speakers for Beijing+5, including both the UN meetings and the NGO events, features Hillary Clinton, Queen Noor of Jordan, UN Secretary General Kofi Annan, and UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Mary Robinson, as well as Jane Fonda and Meryl Streep.

One of the most talked-about signs of progress is the recent surge of Indian women into the political arena. Women now fill 30 percent of local council seats in India, and there is a push in parliament to reserve one-third of its seats for women. Women's power and decision making was one of the 12 issues addressed in the Platform for Action.

Despite some signs of progress, other problems persist. For example, poverty continues to disproportionately affect women. Of the 1.5 billion people around the world who live on $1 or less a day, most are female. And since 1995, life for some women has grown far worse. As AIDS has swept across Africa, its effect on women is demanding more attention from Beijing+5 participants.

Though the Platform for Action will not be rewritten at Beijing+5, the battle over its contents continues as participants debate the wording of the sentences in the Outcome document. This battle will likely grow contentious in its final days. Tensions were evident at the Beijing+5 planning meeting held in New York City in March. Adorning the lapels of a few hundred anti-choice activists were buttons broadcasting what they believe should appear more often in the document. The first week, they wore red buttons that said "Motherhood"; the next week, they had on blue buttons that said "The Family." Led by the Catholic Family & Human Rights Institute, which is based in Manhattan, these activists insist that the document should emphasize the traditional definition of family and women's roles as mothers.

As women from around the world descend on New York City for Beijing+5, the state of women's rights in the U.S. will also receive scrutiny. "There will be a certain amount of what I call 'positive competition' as countries look at what's going on in other places and get ideas to bring back home," says Linda Tarr-Whelan, U.S. ambassador to the UN Commission on the Status of Women. One area in which the U.S. lags behind is the number of women in political leadership. Women compose 12.9 percent of Congress, and the U.S. ranks 51st in the world in female political representation. From the women coming to the U.S. for Beijing+5, Tarr-Whelan says, "there are many things for us to learn."

Highlights from Beijing+5.
All events free unless otherwise noted. Information subject to change.

Symposium on Future Directions for Human Rights. Testimonies on innovative practices for women's human rights organizing around the world. Speakers will include Mary Robinson, UN high commissioner for human rights; Charlotte Bunch, executive director of the Center for Women's Global Leadership; and Florence Butegwa, Ugandan human rights activist and lawyer. June 4, 12:30 - 6:30, Columbia University, Alfred Lerner Hall, 2920 Broadway, 732-932-8782 or

Girls as Their Own Advocates. A keynote address from Carol Bellamy, executive director of UNICEF, followed with presentations by girls and adults on female genital mutilation, armed conflict, and negative media stereotypes of girls. June 4, 9:15 - 4, UNICEF House, 3 UN Plaza,

Next Page »