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The Legacy of Beijing

By Charo Quesada

For many women, the word “Beijing” brings to mind far more than a place in China. To them, it’s a reminder of the historic moment in 1995 in which thousands of women from around the world, represented by official delegations and civil society organizations, unveiled a list of injustices, inequalities, and abuses suffered by women everywhere.

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Rosario Green.

But the conference was about more than speeches to let off steam. The Beijing delegates also launched a Platform for Action that calls on governments and international institutions to make a commitment to change. This meant taking serious steps toward radical reforms to improve gender equality and increase women’s participation in all spheres of society, from politics and economics to social and cultural issues.

The challenge of Beijing did not disappear into a vacuum. “In the last 10 years,” according to a recent report from the Office of the U.N. Secretary-General, “many countries have passed new laws and implemented judicial reforms intended to reduce discrimination and violence against women, and improve their economic and social status.”

In Latin America and the Caribbean, one of the most notable improvements has been the increased presence of women in legislatures and government offices. On average, the number is up 10 percent throughout the region, as a result of the adoption of gender quota systems. The Latin American and Caribbean countries have also ratified international agreements to end discrimination, promote gender equity and protect women from all types of violence. Many countries have modified their national legislation and regulations to comply with the commitments they have taken on, or they are in the process of doing so.

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Mala Htun.

More debits than credits. The task set out by the women attending the Beijing conference was so difficult, complex and broad in scope that its “balance sheet” never ends up in the red no matter how much the numbers are adjusted. “States have failed to meaningfully implement the obligations they accepted,” Louise Arbour, the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, said on March 8, the anniversary of the conference. “Despite the great strides in standard setting to protect women’s human rights, women’s human rights continue to be violated on a regular basis in every country of the world.”

Similar views were expressed by prominent women leaders from Latin America and the Caribbean at a March 8 seminar organized by the IDB and entitled “A Decade After Beijing.” “We are still very far behind, even with all the commitments we have made,” Rosario Green, formerly Mexico’s minister of foreign relations and also a former advisor on gender issues to the U.N. Secretary-General, said at the seminar.

Green and other speakers at the event agreed that the challenge is that new gender-equity laws cannot be enforced without additional resources and deeper change. “In order to meet all the commitments to be equitable, the current political and economic structure must be transformed,” said Costa Rican congresswoman Epsy Campbell. “Power is too concentrated, and countries are adopting macroeconomic and national policies that don’t take these agreements into account.”

A number of feminist speakers laid the blame for slow progress in areas that affect women on an individual level—education, health, access to economic opportunity, participation in political decision-making and enjoyment of the most basic human rights—on the lack of political will to make them happen. Progress in the political arena “has been more symbolic than real,” said Mala Htun, a professor at the New School University in New York. “The inclusion of women in political positions does not mean that women’s issues are being addressed.” Added Campbell, “The challenge is for men to help make these changes happen.”

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Susana Villarán.

Lives are in danger. Not complying with international human rights agreements endangers women’s lives on a daily basis. Ongoing violence against women everywhere in the world (particularly in armed conflicts), the growing impact of HIV/AIDS, human trafficking, and the lack of sexual and reproductive rights are just some of the ongoing threats.

One out of every three women is a victim of domestic violence, according to the World Health Organization. “In our region, this problem has dramatic consequences for public health, for the economy and for society,” said Susana Villarán of the Human Rights Commission of the Organization of American States (OAS). “It is a product of unequal power relationships. If anything is feeding this phenomenon, it is that so many cases are going unpunished. Most of them never get out of the preliminary investigative stages. It’s a very serious issue.”

Villarán criticized the lack of resources and the fragility of the institutional framework, noting that “the scant public investment in this area shows that governments are not giving much priority to women’s issues.” In 2004, an official investigation in Guatemala showed that 1,168 women had been murdered there since 2001. From January to September 2004, the figure was 352. “These killings are meant to set an example,” Villarán said. “The body is left in a place that encapsulates a message of terror: send women back inside, get them away from public spaces where they don’t belong.”

Even though U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan has said that “policies that support equality for women are important to preventing conflicts and achieving reconciliation once the conflicts have ended,” the peace processes do not include women—even though women bear the brunt of war-related violence, according to Rosario Green. She cited studies indicating that 80 percent of people who become refugees or are displaced by violence are women and children.

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Virginia Camacho.

Maternal mortality is a tremendously challenging issue, and it is crucial to arrive at a political commitment to promote and guarantee effective public policies. “Every year, 23,000 women in the region die from causes related to pregnancy or childbirth, all of them are preventable,” said Virginia Camacho-Hubner of the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO). “The causes of death are basic: hemorrhages, infections, hypertension. Minimum prenatal care is not provided. Very few people have the proper training to deliver babies. Women are dying because society still has to decide whether it’s worth the trouble to save their lives,” she warned.

Don’t give up. Beatriz Paredes, associate professor of economics at the University of Utah, discussed the basic role by rural Latin American and Caribbean women who work a “triple shift”—job, housework, and husband and children—but still don’t know their rights. “We have to create financing strategies for rural women,” she emphasized. The important lesson for Latin American women, Campbell noted, is “to be able to manage their resources while living in poverty.”

Enrique V. Iglesias, president of the IDB, offered the Bank’s commitment to the issue of gender equity and praised the extremely important role played by women’s organizations in the struggle for equality. He also noted that the IDB was the first multilateral institution to document the cost of domestic violence, and he emphasized that this issue has a continuing presence on the Bank’s agenda.

As the 10th anniversary of Beijing takes place, a U.N. commission will examine and evaluate current problems. This commission is expected to recommend such actions as improving women’s access to health care, including HIV/AIDS prevention and treatment, and maternal health care; raising public awareness of women’s human rights; getting more women into decision-making positions in government and civil society; expanding women’s economic opportunities; preventing violence against women, including human trafficking and ending impunity for attackers; and reducing armed conflicts, while increasing women’s participation in conflict prevention and resolution, and in peace processes.

“Women are not only more aware of their rights; they are more able to exercise them,” Kofi Annan said in a statement regarding the 10th anniversary of Beijing. “Study after study has taught us that there is no tool for development more effective than the empowerment of women.”

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