The Beijing Platform for Women, 15 Years Later
The U.N. Discusses Women and the Economy
In September 1995, representatives of 189 governments and more than 2,100 non-governmental organizations (NGOs) met in Beijing, China, to create a new agenda for women's empowerment and equality. The official conference and parallel NGO forum were the largest in U.N. history, attracting over 50,000 participants and observers. The conference also produced the Beijing Platform for Action, which still stands as the most wide-reaching international commitment to women's rights. I.M.O.W. Global Council member Patricia Licuanan served as chairperson of the main committee of the Beijing conference, which drafted the platform for action. Licuanan is president of Miriam College in the Philippines.
It has been nearly 15 years since the United Nations Fourth World Conference on Women (FWCW) was held in Beijing, China, in 1995. Every five years, the U.N. conducts a review (Beijing+5, Beijing+10) of the Platform for Women approved at the initial conference, identifying gains and gaps in its implementation as well as promises kept and promises broken. Civil society organizations are an important part of this process, holding their own reviews as well as participating actively in the U.N. process at the regional as well as global levels. In March 2010, the Beijing+15 review will be held at the 54th session of the UN Commission on the Status of Women (UNCSW) in New York.
In anticipation of Beijing+15, I want to reflect on the issues of women and the economy, including progress made since 1995 and the challenges ahead. Let us first go back to Beijing and the promises we made there.
The economy was a major area of concern at the FWCW. In its analysis of women and the economy, the Platform for Action identified the following key issues:
Feminization of Poverty. The majority of the world's poor are women. While poverty affects men, women and households as a whole, women bear a disproportionate burden because domestic labor is divided along gender lines: household management, caring for children and elderly, and other aspects of family welfare. Women often have to manage consumption, work harder to make ends meet, and run the household--all with increasingly limited resources.
Unequal Access to and Control over Economic Structures. Across societies, women lack economic opportunities, independence and access to resources such as credit, land ownership and inheritance. In most parts of the world, women have little or no representation in high-level economic decisions about financial, monetary, commercial and other economic policies as well as tax systems and rules governing pay.
Differential Impact of Policy on Women. Too often, women's contributions and concerns are ignored, whether in the analysis of economic structures (such as financial markets, financial institutions and labor markets); in economics as an academic subject; in taxation and social security systems; or in families and households. As a result, many policies and programs continue to contribute to inequalities between women and men. Broad-level economic policies fail to consider how women and men are impacted differently.
Under-recording and Undervaluing of Women's Work. Women are active in a variety of economic areas, which they often combine, ranging from wage labor to subsistence farming and fishing to the informal sector. Women contribute to development not only through paid work but also through unpaid domestic and community work, such as caring for children and elderly, preparing food for the family, protecting the environment, volunteering assistance to disadvantaged groups and the like. Women's contribution to development is seriously underestimated, and thus its social recognition is limited.
The economy-related strategic goals of the Beijing Platform for Action fall into four major categories: (1) Gender-sensitive development strategies and macro-economic policy; (2) Equal access to and control over economic resources; (3) Gender-based methodologies; (4) Education, training and other support services.
One area where we have seen significant gains is in the economic resources available to women. In many parts of the world, women now have increased access to savings and credit services, micro-credit schemes and livelihood programs. There are also more attempts to bring women into managerial positions, to end occupational segregation, to improve women's working conditions and to promote gender-responsive recruitment.
We have also made major gains in the education and training of women, particularly in relation to economic participation. These include a focus on providing rural women with equal opportunities for training in new technologies and in organization and management skills (particularly financial management). Women entrepreneurs are also networking more, in both traditional and non-traditional economic activities, and women are working together to help strengthen partnerships between small, medium and large enterprises.
Since Beijing, more gender-disaggregated data on poverty (as well as all aspects of economic activity) have been collected. Benchmarks were developed to make it easier to assess economic performance from a gender perspective. However, these methodologies are not yet widely used.
Action has been slowest in the area of development strategies, particularly macro-economic policy. As a result of economic globalization, some trends have exacerbated inequalities between women and men. As many countries embrace free trade and "open" economic policies, one wonders if market-oriented development promotes gender equality, and if economic liberalization empowers women. In the post-Beijing world it's clear that market-driven development does not guarantee equitable development, and instead may actually bring about unequal growth between men and women.
Indeed, in 2010, Beijing+15 must confront the dark side of globalization and the market economy. It must also address the current financial crisis and its impact on women. This impact has been particularly severe in three major areas: first, in loss of jobs and decreased real wages and benefits; second, in the reduction of social services as government budgets are used to rescue bankrupt firms; and third, in increased work burden and stress resulting from unpaid responsibilities in the household and community.
The economic message of Beijing+15 is that we need to make economic stimulus packages work for women and communities in the short term. In the long term, governments have to use the financial crisis as an opportunity to move from profit to provisioning, and must create a new financial and economic architecture that includes a gender perspective. Only then will a balance be established between the production system and not-for-profit activities; only then will the welfare of people and the planet come before the growth of the financial market.