Celebrating #GenerationEquality 25 Years after the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action

In 1995, Beijing was the site of the Fourth World Conference on Women, a historic gathering of decision makers and civil society organizations focused on women’s rights. It was there that governments from around the world agreed on a comprehensive roadmap to achieve global gender equality, known as the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action.

2020 marks 25 years since the adoption of this unprecedented agenda, which shapes and propels women’s empowerment policies and initiatives to this day. The United Nations will mark this milestone anniversary in September during UN General Assembly meetings. Today, on International Women’s Day, we look ahead to the September commemorations with a Q&A with EngenderHealth President and CEO, Traci L. Baird. Baird, who has worked in sexual and reproductive health and rights for more than 25 years, sat down to provide us with both a look back at the progress we’ve made on women’s rights since that watershed moment in 1995 and the obstacles that need to be overcome in the years ahead in order to advance gender equality across the globe.

Hillary Clinton at the 1995 Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing

Hillary Clinton at the 1995 Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing. Image courtesy of UN Women.

What does the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action mean to you? How did you react to its passage as someone working on women’s health issues?

At the time of the Beijing conference, I was in my first months of working for Ipas, focused on addressing the global problem of unsafe abortion. The key outcome of Beijing, for me and my work at the time, was paragraph 106(k) of the Beijing Platform for Action, which echoed governments’ commitment from the previous year’s International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD) in Cairo to address the problem of unsafe abortion. The Beijing Platform for Action went further and, for the first time, stated that when abortion is not against the law it should be safe.

The Beijing Declaration also stated that “The ability of women to control their own fertility forms an important basis for the enjoyment for other rights.” And, that to me, is the whole reason we do the work that we do here at EngenderHealth.

Of course, I was also inspired by Hillary Rodham Clinton’s statement, “Women’s rights are human rights.” This resonated with what I knew to be a fundamental truth, even though that is not how the world was behaving (or behaves now).

Why was the Beijing Platform for Action so groundbreaking? Why do you think, in 1995, the timing was right for its passage?

When these things happen, it always feels like it should have come sooner. We had been waiting for it for a long time. ICPD in Cairo in 1994 set an important stage for the Beijing Conference. At Cairo, governments set an agenda to ensure that women and children’s health issues would be addressed, and that progress would be measured toward that. Beijing took that content a step further, with governments agreeing to advance the place of women in society as a matter of rights.

What progress has the world made on gender equality since the Platform for Action was passed 25 years ago?

There’s been significant progress in the world—increases in female heads of state, parliamentarians, and other senior government officials; more female leadership of universities, non-profits, and companies—but, of course, we are nowhere near equality.

I think one of the biggest changes is heightened awareness, and that will help drive further progress. Just last week, a photo of a US government meeting on its response to COVID-19 was circulated, and the immediate public reaction was: where are the women? We now see the gaps and call them out—and many of us are working to fill them.

Another sign of progress is that we’re increasingly recognizing that gender equality is only part of the necessary goal. In the global health sector and throughout the world, we need more equality across the board. The photo isn’t just missing women; it’s missing women of color.

How has EngenderHealth aided this progress?

EngenderHealth’s role is to be at the forefront of sexual and reproductive health and rights programs. In the 25 years since the Beijing Conference, we’ve focused on rights-based contraceptive counseling and on addressing the health issues that most dramatically affect women, such as fistula, unsafe abortion, and gender-based violence. These health issues are exacerbated exactly because there are gender inequalities, and only when we address them can women claim their full health and rights. We have also been at the forefront of including men in contraceptive access, use, and advocacy, and now we implement a gender- and youth-transformative approach to our programs.

Which EngenderHealth program do you think people would be surprised to know has played a role in advancing gender equality for women and girls?

One of the tenets of the Beijing Declaration was that women and girls should be able to live free from violence. People might be surprised to know that we’ve recently done work to address gender-based violence in Malawi that included job training activities for women and girls, especially for those most vulnerable, such as women and girls with disabilities. Not only did the job training include non-traditional skills for women, such as cell-phone repair and bricklaying (which tend to pay more than traditional “women’s work”), but it allowed women and girls to earn a living so they did not have to rely on staying in or entering an abusive relationship to have their financial needs met.

What progress would you like to see made on gender equality over the coming years? Who should lead that progress?

We all need to lead this progress. I think leadership needs to come from every place, every level, and every person—from calling out an all-male panel to running for office as a woman. For example, I want to see more female leadership in the few countries where we work where women are not currently at least half of EngenderHealth’s senior staff; we are working on this now.

I would also like to see more movement to include women leaders in global health programs in the public sector, in universities, and in non-profits. Women and people of diverse backgrounds and nationalities bring immense skill and talent to the entrenched health problems we are addressing. Lastly, I hope we can all recognize that men are critical allies in these goals, and we need to support the men who are advocating for increased equality.

What does International Women’s Day mean to you? How can we use this day to raise awareness of and inspire action to advance gender equality?

I think it’s a time to celebrate and tell the positive stories of change. We want to inspire through International Women’s Day and work together across sectors, genders, and countries to transform the world that we’re in. I also would love, at some point, if we don’t need to have an International Women’s Day. Maybe, in the future, we won’t see a purpose for it and it’ll just be a remnant of the past when things were less equal. But, for now, we need to call out and celebrate this day.