Two Steps Forward, One Step Back

May 4, 2010 • Politics and Economy • Views: 1472

by Diana Saverin:

In 1995, Chinese police vigilantly patrolled the streets of Beijing during the UN World Conference on Women. These sorts of conventions had been known to attract protests, and the Chinese were sure to be prepared. Yet something was different about this conference. Armed only with blankets, these policemen or “modesty squads” were on the lookout for lesbians and other foreign women whom they feared would streak naked through the streets.

The 1995 Beijing conference was heralded by policymakers and legislators alike as a turning point in the women’s movement. It was then First Lady Hillary Clinton set the tone of the meeting with her claim that “women’s rights are human rights.” The conference enacted the landmark Beijing Platform for Action, which mandated progress on poverty alleviation, education, health, violence, conflict, the economy, and more for women. The women’s movement had the UN on its side.

A morning panel at the 2010 United Nations Commission on the Status of Women. (Saverin/TYG)

This March at the UN headquarters in New York, the Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) met again to review progress since this hopeful moment for the women’s movement. The conference was a madhouse: a buzz of different languages, a slew of panels, hour-long lines for registration, and constant schedule and venue changes gave the conference a chaotic atmosphere. But outside the UN, the streets were silent. There were no protests. The tone of this conference was different: subdued, disappointed. Progress, the attendees agreed, had been too slow. “Two steps forward, one step back,” was the refrain to one another in the panels and hallways.

What changed between 1995 and today, when NGOs across the world and journalists such as Nicholas Kristof are calling for an “international women’s movement,” but conferences trying to organize such a movement ring with criticisms of their own inefficacy?  Understanding the disparity requires a brief look at the history of the CSW. At its first gathering in 1946, the Commission declared its goal:

To raise the status of women, irrespective of nationality, race, language or religion, to equality with men in all fields of human enterprise, and to eliminate all discrimination against women in the provisions of statutory law, in legal maxims or rules, or in interpretation of customary law.

The Commission has been working to remove lingering sexism from legislation, assist women in the workplace, change women’s role in the family, and improve access to education since that first gathering more than half a century ago. In 1975, it declared the International Women’s Year, and organized a global conference of 6,000 NGOs and 133 governments to honor the occasion. These actions led to the 1979 enactment of the human rights document “The Convention for the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women” (CEDAW), which remains prominent today.

The UN subsequently held World Conferences on Women in Mexico in 1975, Copenhagen in 1980, Nairobi in 1985, and famously, Beijing in 1995. While there has not been another World Conference on Women since 1995, CSW conferences have continued to be held annually to monitor CEDAW compliance and allow different attendees to listen to different countries make reports. At the five and ten year anniversary of the Beijing conference, though, CSW focused efforts on reviewing progress on the Beijing Platform for Action, calling the CSW for those years “Beijing+5” and “Beijing+10.”


To explain the gap between these positive initiatives and the lack of progress sensed at the most recent conference, Tamera Gugelmeyer of the Sisterhood is Global Institute, who has attended CSW every year since her involvement in the movement, explained that “the Bush era restricted women’s rights.” Lydia Alpizar of the Association for Women’s Rights in Development reported anecdotes from the Bush era of nuns splashing “holy water” on NGO workers in between workshops in response to support for controversial issues, namely reproductive rights. Loretta Ross of the reproductive justice collective SisterSong remarked that the use of nuns was a political move by the Vatican, arguing that “by using nuns, they put women against women’s rights.”

These women are not the only ones who have found fault with the Bush administration’s handling of women’s rights. The UN itself has also been willing to point to flaws. Yasmine Hassan, who has worked at the UN’s Division for the Advancement of Women, claimed that President Bush used to go to extreme measures to block women’s rights: “his administration actively sided with Saudi Arabia and the Vatican to oppose any initiative that would lead to reproductive rights.” Coupled with the lack of follow up to Beijing, several NGOs boycotted the conference in 2005. There was fear that the government would, as Ross noted, “roll back the agreement….We wouldn’t give them the opportunity to change the progress we made.”

While the United States does not solely drive the international women’s rights agenda, it plays an important role. US President Barack Obama’s administration has strengthened American support for raising the status of women worldwide with his creation of the first Global Ambassador for Women in Melanne Verveer. Verveer assured that the administration is “taking an active role in creating a new composite entity directly charged with formulating women’s concerns at the UN to create an effective voice for women.” But, as Ross pointed out, “Obama inherited so much from Bush” that such progress will be difficult.

There are political and bureaucratic elements to the difficult problem of progress. Politically, CEDAW is difficult to pass on a global scale because if a particular movement in a country is unmotivated, its government can make reservations in the document, rendering it ineffective. The US, in fact, is unable to present at these conferences because the Senate has yet to pass CEDAW. As Ross noted about this unfortunate dilemma, given the struggle for “a majority for health care reform, can we really get it for women’s rights?”


Many in the movement are not enthusiastic about this conference’s aim to, as Verveer described, “measure progress” on the Platform for Action. Hassan bluntly noted, “the Platform for Action has not been implemented. During Beijing+5 and Beijing+10, nobody was enthusiastic because there was hardly any progress. Everybody wants to make changes, but nobody has the power.” Ross argued the Platform “works in developing countries because women can hold governments accountable for the promises they made,” even though “it doesn’t work in the United State because we have a jaded idea here of documents compared to developing nations that get to use them.” Verveer described the progress as “hit or miss.” Hassan reiterated, hitting on the larger theme: “For every two steps forward, we’ve been taking at least one step back.”

These conferences also pose bureaucratic obstacles to progress simply because the issue of the status of women has such a massive scope. At the end of the day, it is difficult to unify around the wide range of opinions on what should be the UN’s agenda for women’s rights. At this year’s conference, the problem of trafficking continually came up as a priority issue. While the conferences may cultivate important opportunities to influence the UN’s actions, the plurality can interfere with efficiency. At a regional breakout session for Africa, one woman approached the microphone and asked, “Are we together? Are we listening to each other, or just waiting for our time to speak?” This pointed question struck an important note with the attendees. Every delegate remained deeply embedded in her own passions and opinions on the women’s movement, which blocked any real consensus.

Despite the UN’s call for progress, women face gender-based obstacles within that international body as well. Ross of SisterSong noted that, “as women, we usually lose when decisions go through the Security Council.” Hassan, who worked at the UN for several years, described it as “a big bureaucracy that has the potential to be a good place for the women’s rights movement to put pressure…but the UN talks more about women than it takes action. It doesn’t put its money where its mouth is.” She echoed that the challenges facing those working for women’s rights in the UN are plentiful as “gender is not prioritized. The highest head post for a women’s rights position is an assistant secretary general, when every other unit, such as UNICEF, gets higher positions.” Offices working on women’s rights “are understaffed and included in few meetings.”

As panels debate the use of affirmative action around the world, many do not point out that affirmative action for women exists already in the UN because of their lack of leadership positions. Emma Sabin, the Vice President of Catalyst, remarked that “gender parity [at the UN] was only reached at entrance positions” and that for the past ten years, progress has been “stagnant.” Abigail Ruane, who is currently writing her dissertation at USC’s School of International Relations on the framework of women’s rights in the UN since its inception, said that “the UN is being used as a way to implement women’s rights around the world, and it doesn’t implement those rights. Further, there have been limitations of women within the UN since the beginning. They’re talking a big game about women’s leadership, but what are they doing in their own house?… One of the reasons women don’t get rights is structure; the UN is not set up to give them the resources they need. UNIFEM, CEDAW, CSW… they’re all underfunded.” UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon spoke at the Commission, and promised that a goal of his tenure is to get positions of leadership for women within the UN.


Despite hurdles faced by women within the UN and within CSW, the conference does give attendees the valuable opportunity to make connections that would be impossible otherwise. Gugelmeyer of the Sisterhood is Global Institute viewed the Commission as a good time to “network with women from other countries and learn about new organizations.” Sushil Bhardwaj, the Vice President of the International Federation of University Women, also remarked on the benefits of the “interactions between the NGOs, and the ability to get to know different aspects of the movement… Expectations can be too hard to reach. The UN has lots of promise, but it’s more than they can do… It’s the lip service of politicians.”

The attendees, then, take their battles into their own hands. One of the most moving moments from the conference was a woman from Planned Parenthood in Morocco explaining how a 15-year-old girl had come into their office pregnant, saying that she did not realize that what she had done was the way people get pregnant. This led the organization to launch new campaigns to educate young women about sex. In response, the panel floor opened up, and women from all over the world conveyed the prevalence of such limited communication about women’s issues. Several spoke emotionally about coming from a place where it is hard to say what they think and expressed gratitude for the UN for providing a forum for women to express themselves and shed light on these stories that are so often kept in the dark. “Just being here,” one woman from Kenya said, “is a first step.”

Throughout the conference, unlikely success stories engendered hope that this scattered body could produce change. In Norway, the government does not recognize companies unless they have at least 40% of women’s leadership. Because of affirmative action in the Rwandan Parliament 56.1% of the body is now made up of women. Elsewhere change is slow and often does not meet the Platform for Action’s goals; Verveer described the Platform as an “unfinished work.” The UN will always be a bureaucracy, and the other important actors—people on the ground implementing UN mandates in ways appropriate for individual communities—are just as crucial for the status of women to improve.

Several women are speaking out today in favor of another World Women’s Conference. They are using the fifteenth anniversary of the Beijing conference to remind the UN of its unfulfilled promises on the Platform for Action. Author Jean Bolen has circulated her “5WCW” petition for a Fifth World Conference on Women, which now has just short of 9,000 signatures.  Sisterhood is Global, Gugelmeyer’s organization, is tentatively planning a virtual world conference for October 2010 that would be “logistically easier, cheaper, and more accessible to organizations.”

Major donors in the women’s movement believe that 2010 is another year for women, given the hopeful political and social climate. Despite this energy, many remain worried about what Gugelmeyer described as the “logistical nightmare” of another conference, which Ross noted is a “multi year process that takes time… and depends on Obama’s getting a second term.” Verveer believes that another conference “may not be the most effective way to create change,” and that instead, targeting younger people, a region, or a specific issue would be more valuable.

Clearly there is a desperate need for a more specific and focused mission. A global movement aimed at aiding and empowering half of humanity is, no doubt, difficult to organize. As one major donor described, “this is women’s hour, but none of us know what the women’s movement is.”

Diana Saverin ’13 is in Berkeley College. Contact her at

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One Response to Two Steps Forward, One Step Back

  1. […] Istanbul a few days before. She worked with UN Women, the new streamlined UN body. I had written a Globalist article about the making of such a body, and attended a conference about women’s rights at the UN […]