Opinion: Twenty years after the Beijing Declaration on women’s rights, progress remains slow

Posted on March, 18 2015 by Action Canada

By Sandeep Prasad and MP Mylène Freeman*
Originally published in the Montreal Gazette

At the United Nations in New York these past two weeks, government leaders, civil society and women human rights defenders have come together for the 59th annual Commission on the Status of Women (CSW). This year’s CSW is significant in that it not only marks the 20th anniversary of the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action, but it also falls in the midst of ongoing negotiations on the Post-2015 development agenda. A process that will define the future framework for global development to be implemented by all UN Member States, including Canada.

In 1995, Canada played a strong role alongside civil society and women’s groups in securing the bold and progressive Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action that promotes gender equality and the human rights of women and girls. Twenty years later, progress remains slow.

Canada, once a leader on gender equality, now ranks 19th internationally in the Global Gender Gap and 23rd in the UN Gender Inequality Index. Despite gains for women in education, health, political participation and the economy, deeply-entrenched inequalities persist.

In Canada, the percentage of women living in poverty has actually increased since the Beijing conference 20 years ago. And violence against women continues, with intimate partner violence decreasing by a mere 1 per cent. What’s more, indigenous women and girls experience three times the rate of violent victimization than non-indigenous women.

Globally, 800 women in the world die every single day due to pregnancy and childbirth complications. And some 222 million women in developing countries want to prevent pregnancy but have no access to modern contraceptive methods. The result: 20 million of 80 million unplanned pregnancies end in unsafe abortions that threaten the life of these women.

It’s not surprising then that women’s rights organizations in Canada and around the world look to the CSW to produce a strong declaration that would truly move the women’s rights agenda forward. Yet, the Political Declaration adopted during the first day of the CSW was negotiated behind closed doors, excluding many. Among those: the women’s rights caucus representing thousands of women’s rights defenders and organizations from around the world. In the end, its content was considered a major step backward by the group.

Women’s rights organizations at the CSW have a right to be included, consulted and engaged in the decision-making that will affect their lives. It’s critical that more space is created for civil society to meaningfully contribute to the process: from negotiations to expert panels and dialogues. Governments, including Canada, have an obligation to listen to their citizens. They also have an obligation to carry forward commitments made. Governments around the world will adopt a global agenda this year that will set the framework for development over the next 15 years. The new development agenda needs to include the voices of civil society and pick up the Beijing Declaration and Platform of Action with a firm commitment to guaranteeing rights that continue to be violated; particularly those related to women’s and girls’ sexual and reproductive rights.

Governments, including Canada’s, have an obligation to open up a space for civil society and to follow through on the commitments made 20 years ago: to realize women’s human rights and guarantee a life free from stigma, discrimination and violence.

Sandeep Prasad is Executive Director of Action Canada for Sexual Health and Rights. MP Mylène Freeman (Argenteuil-Papineau-Mirabel) is Vice-Chair of the Canadian Association of Parliamentarians on Population and Development. Freeman attended the Commission on the Status of Women as a member of the official governmental delegation for Canada.