Amplifying women's voices
By Stella Jegher, Amnesty International Switzerland
This International Women’s Day, we look back 20 years to a historic UN meeting in Beijing that saw world leaders make bold commitments to women’s rights. Stella Jegher, Chair of the Amnesty International Women’s Human Rights Network, sheds light on how Amnesty made a difference to the debate then – and continues to do so now.
Twenty years ago, in the autumn of 1995, the city of Beijing witnessed a historic moment for women’s rights: People from all over the world travelled to China for the UN's fourth World Conference on Women. Five thousand government delegates from 189 countries, thousands of journalists and over four thousand NGO representatives gathered for the official Conference in Beijing.
Fifty kilometres away in the town of Houairou, 35,000 people met at the largest ever NGO meeting on women's human rights. As one of the NGOs allowed to attend both meetings, Amnesty was able to bring the demands of women's organizations in Houairou to the UN conference in Beijing.
Twenty years ago, in the autumn of 1995, the city of Beijing witnessed a historic moment for women’s rights
Together they made history, creating the most comprehensive and progressive political agreement on women’s human rights ever endorsed by the international community: the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action.
It was a historic moment for Amnesty, too. It was the first time that we were even allowed into China, let alone hold a press conference there - an opportunity that we used to raise awareness about the huge human rights violations in the country. It was also the moment to raise our profile in defending women’s rights.
As both a worldwide movement of people and a highly respected and experienced human rights advocacy organization, Amnesty had a pivotal role to play in ensuring that the concerns of grassroots women were heard at the government level - and represented in the Platform for Action.
Women’s human rights take centre stage
However, bringing women’s human rights into the Beijing Platform for Action was not a given. It was only two years since the international community had acknowledged women’s rights as human rights at a conference in Vienna. Yet, several governments and pressure groups already wanted to go back on that statement. Issues like a total ban on all forms of violence against women were again highly contested.
As a result, Amnesty demanded that the international community renew its commitment to the universality and indivisibility of women’s human rights. State violence against women, women’s human rights in armed conflict, violence such as female genital mutilation occurring in the private sphere and in communities, as well as the protection of women activists, were other priorities on which Amnesty tried to influence the outcome of the Beijing Conference.
After months of preparations and 10 days of intense negotiations, the international community came up with “a document that Amnesty International can do business with to hold governments accountable”, in the words of our then Secretary General Pierre Sané. The next step was putting the Platform into action.
From words to action
Within a few years, we launched Stop Violence against Women, which became one of our most comprehensive and successful global campaigns. Many of the issues we campaigned for during those six years were directly linked to the promises governments had made at Beijing. We continued to work closely with women human rights defenders, writing reports and developing bold activism around many forms of violence against women, contributing to concrete progress in legislation and policies.
However, the challenges are still there, and the most contested issues with regard to women’s human rights are still the same. First and foremost, the right of every woman to make informed decisions about her own body and to have a say in the laws, policies and programmes that affect her life are still questioned. That is why, in 2014, Amnesty launched the My Body My Rights campaign, highlighting sexual and reproductive rights as core elements of all women’s human rights.
Sexual and reproductive rights will feature prominently in a UN meeting in New York this March to review progress since Beijing. However, there is still a big push by conservative governments and powerful interest groups, including religious groups, to relegate women to the role of wives and mothers, to stifle their voices on political issues, and to keep them isolated from important roles in society.
Twenty years after Beijing, Amnesty still has a pivotal role to play in amplifying the voices of women and translating grassroots demands into the language of diplomacy. With a much broader understanding of the situation of women and girls in so many countries, with our collective experience and sound partnerships with grassroots movements, and with 20 years more experience in lobbying for women’s human rights, we are perfectly positioned to make women’s voices heard.
Sexual and reproductive rights are human rights. Learn more about our My Body My Rights campaign to protect our sexual and reproductive rights.