Two and a half years after the U.N. international conference on women in Beijing put forward proposals for government action on women’s rights, representatives of organizations from around the world are meeting here for two weeks to take stock of progress.
Even skeptics say they are impressed at the extent to which many governments have followed through on their pledges. They attributed this largely to pressure from increasingly strong local and international women’s organizations.
In a report published last week, the New York-based Women’s Environment and Development Organization says that 70 percent of 187 national governments have drawn up plans to improve women’s rights. Around the world, 66 countries have established national offices for women’s affairs, and 34 of these have the power to propose legislation.
In countries as diverse as Mexico, Germany, China and New Zealand, laws have been passed to curb and punish domestic violence. Some progress has been made on securing property rights for women in Africa and Asia, and laws have been tightened on trafficking in girls and women, according to the report, “Mapping Progress: Assessing Implementation of the Beijing Platform 1998.”
In Britain, a new Women’s National Commission has drawn up an agenda for the government based on 12 areas of action agreed on in Beijing, said Elizabeth Sidney, a commission member.
“Since Beijing,” she said, “the government reports annually to us on these 12 points, which is a phenomenal change. The government has made better child care and employment opportunities its priorities. Sidney is among those campaigning for changes in laws and regulations governing taxes and benefits to give women economic independence throughout life.
“What’s happened here could not have happened without Beijing,” said Charlotte Bunch, executive director of the Center for Women’s Global Leadership at Rutgers University. “The energy, the activity of Beijing, has not gone away.”
Bunch and others gathered here for the session of the U.N. Commission on the Status of Women said the increased involvement of private groups of all kinds had been the key to the success of the Beijing conference, and of a parallel informal convention of nongovernmental organizations.
Louise Frechette, the new U.N. deputy secretary-general, said in a speech last week that relationships between private organizations and governments had improved in many countries since the 1993 international conference on human rights in Vienna and the 1995 women’s conference in Beijing.
Many delegates went to Beijing from grass-roots organizations on money raised locally through painfully small donations - a change from the officially sponsored delegations of the past. When they returned, women said last week, they set to work lobbying governments and building networks for political action.
“The movement for women’s rights has been one of the most momentous in the history of human-kind,” Frechette said. “Crucial to its birth and its subsequent achievements was the extraordinary courage of women’s groups.” She added that new partnerships between private groups and governments had “come alive” in Vienna and Beijing.
Women from every region acknowledged last week that despite the accomplishments, much remains to be done. The focus in this session of the women’s commission has been on violence - at home, in refugee situations and in civil wars, which kill more civilians than combatants.