What should the world do next for equal rights for women?

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Marco Werman: Let’s get back to that meeting in New York I mentioned earlier, the one marking 20 years since the landmark World Conference on Women in Beijing in 1995. The World’s Jeb Sharp joins me in the studio, and Jeb, you’ve been speaking with people who were at that meeting in Beijing 20 years ago. Remind us what it was all about.


Jeb Sharp: It was the fourth big UN World Conference on Women. It was delegates of member countries of the UN and grassroots activists really concertedly trying to get womens rights at the top of the international agenda, and they did in Beijing in 1995. As one Brazilian feminist put it to me, she said “Women became the protagonists.” She said “Women’s rights became human rights,” which had not been a given until then. Then there’s that famous clip of Hillary Clinton in “˜95 saying “Women’s rights are human rights, and human rights are women’s rights once and for all.”


Werman: Symbolically I remember how important the Beijing conference was but practically what came out of it?


Sharp: A document came out of it and it was considered quite revolutionary and visionary, and it laid out the goals and the pathway towards achieving equality for women. I spoke to Joanne Sandler, the former deputy director of the UN agency UNIFEM, and she was in Beijing. Here’s how she described why this document was so key.


Joanne Sandler: Everybody who was there signed or ratified or agreed to a document that basically committed them to preventing unsafe abortion, for example; recognition of sexual rights, women’s economic rights, the issue of violence against women as a public rather than a private issue, the issue of women’s political participation and the recognition of the abysmal failure of societies to give women their equal place in legislatures, in corporate boardrooms.


Sharp: Marco, when she says “everybody,” she’s talking about almost every country in the world.


Werman: It is pretty amazing--holding people to this accord. But now we’re hearing that while there’s been a lot of progress in 20 years, the pace of change has been actually excruciatingly slow. So, what happened?


Sharp: What’s really interesting is that this document is considered so powerful and yet on some level it just didn’t have teeth. They never put in timelines, targets, mechanisms for accountability, and I think there was a feeling that they would at another conference. Well, Beijing was the fourth World Conference on Women--there never was a fifth. There never was a time when they added all this stuff. What’s really fascinating now is the political climate that the UN has changed so much, that there are some people who are actually relieved that there hasn’t been another conference, at least recently, because they actually feel a conference like that, where you’re trying to get member states to agree, could roll back advances in women’s rights.


Werman: The political climate at the UN, how does that affect the progress of change for women?


Sharp: Well, back then in the early “˜90s when this was being formulated, it was post-Cold War, the Berlin Wall had come down, there was all this sense of possibility and peace dividends. Think now--think 9/11, Iraq War, all the dissension, the polarization that we see now, the extremism. That climate affects women’s rights and the women’s rights agenda as well. It’s really hard to get member states to agree.


Werman: So, it’s a very contradictory picture, isn’t it? We know what to do, it’s just that these battles were supposed to have been won long ago.


Sharp: Yeah, and actually Joanne Sandler, who you heard a minute ago, has this very conversation with her mother. Listen to this.


Sandler: My mother has watched me work on women’s rights for 30 years, and at 85 she says to me “Why do you keep working on women’s rights? Women are in the lead all over the place now. Every single day we see powerful women on television, we see powerful women heading up institutions. Isn’t the battle over?”


Werman: Another generational shift.


Sharp: Yes. Joanne Sandler there; she clearly doesn’t think it’s over, even if her mother does. And she’d like to see another generation get a shot at something like Beijing, younger men and women getting together, having a transnational conversation about the agenda going forward. Maybe not Beijing +20 but something like Beijing 2.0. We’ll see.


Werman: The World’s Jeb Sharp. Thank you.


Sharp: Thanks a lot.