Beijing + 25: a milestone for women’s rights

Caroline Sweetman Blog

Lina Abou Habib, G&D editorial adviser and guest editor for our new issue, writes:

It’s my pleasure to welcome you to this very special issue of Gender & Development, marking 25 years since the UN convened its milestone Fourth World Conference on Women at Beijing, China. Listen to the podcast on the issue here.

Known to many of us, affectionately, as simply ‘Beijing’, this was not only a UN Conference. It was a huge gathering of activists from all parts of the globe, the culmination of decades of global feminist activism for a better world, an inclusive world – a world of rights, entitlements and human dignity for all. From Beijing came new connections, new initiatives, new organisations, changing the landscape of women’s rights activism forever.

In this issue, feminist activists from both the global South and the global North chart the journey towards that landmark date in 1995; share memories of how they shaped the Beijing conference and the NGO Forum at Huairou; and lobbied global power-holders to account to produce the Beijing Platform for Action. The BPfA is rooted in its time, yet remains largely unrealised – and one of the most powerful articulations of women’s rights ever. Beijing made news headlines around the world, creating an unprecedented global recognition that ‘women’s rights are human rights’.

But after we all went home – what happened afterwards, to realise that vision? Sure, governments opened women’s ministries, and talked about ‘gender’, but was this more than lip-service? Feminism, women’s rights, women’s empowerment – all have been taken up by power-holders and distorted to fit their existing agendas. The radical economic, political and social changes called for by feminists haven’t been seen. When the idea of producing a special issue to mark ‘Beijing + 25’ was suggested by G&D’s International Editorial Advisory Board, we knew we wanted to focus on the distance the world’s women have to travel from 2020 into the future, to realise the Beijing vision.

As we pass this quarter-century marker, feminists are intensifying our activism, gathering strength in all our diversity, and pushing for our shared goal of realising women’s rights at last. We are holding the world’s leaders to account – and yes, recognising successes – but also challenging the many roll-backs and reversals seen in the past decade in particular. We ask ourselves and each other, how can we make Beijing + 25 a transformative moment? And how can we strengthen the international women’s movement with – and for – the next generation of feminists? 

Plans for Beijing + 25 – aka, the Generation Equality Forum – have included national, regional and  global encounters between feminists of different identities, ages and locations, global events, online activism, data-gathering and movement-building. Generation Equality is a civil society-centred initiative, convened by UN Women in collaboration with the governments of Mexico and France. In addition, a number of initiatives have emerged directly from civil society. Melissa Upreti and Soon-Young Yoon’s article here explores one of these: the Feminist and Women’s Movement Action Plan (fwMAP). This aims to powerfully hold governments and the international community to account on the pledges made to women at Beijing in 1995, amid the backlash against women’s human rights we are currently experiencing. 

As this issue was finalised earlier this year, the COVID-19 pandemic struck. We had just enough time in our schedule to ask writers to update their articles to include how the virus has altered plans to mark Beijing + 25 – as well as sharpening feminist visions of the changes the world desperately needs to see. As you can see in this issue, Beijing + 25 plans are shifting – in real time, as I write – to adapt to our changed world. COVID-19 has meant many feminist initiatives and strategies around Beijing + 25 have been forced to morph, regroup, go fully online. Official face-to-face events are pushed forward into next year, as Beijing +25 becomes Beijing + 26.

As we go through the COVID-19 pandemic, feminists worldwide are researching, mapping and calling out the impact of the virus on women’s rights and gender equality. They are responding to and supporting women affected by violence, abuse, poverty and the demands on them as carers, producers, health and education providers. The pandemic is highlighting the need for an economic, political and social system founded on wellbeing, equality and justice. We have yet to see the change the world needs.

At Beijing, feminist economists called for a transformation of the global system. Could this now be the moment, a quarter of a century on, to see that shift, as we survey the damage wreaked by COVID-19 on human lives and our broken neo-liberal economic system? In their article in this issue, Valeria Esquivel and Corina Rodríguez Enríquez highlight the priorities for now as activists challenge governments to refocus ideas of development around people and the planet, not profit.

The selection of authors for this issue was an arduous process. As always, Gender & Development is keen to provide a space for authors from the global South, especially those with few opportunities to publish in international journals and enter policy debates. It is also a foundational value of this journal to ensure diverse feminist voices are included. For this issue, it was particularly important to us to bring in multi-generational feminist voices: from feminists who were part of the Beijing conference in 1995, to those whose feminist activism began after the conference and was influenced by it, to the young and emerging generation of feminists – especially from the global South – for whom the Beijing conference may seem simply irrelevant, a chapter in history. 

This issue of the journal includes all these voices. It brings in rich and textured insights into global, national and local processes of struggle for rights and equality. It highlights inter-connectedness, the importance of learning, and the multitude of creative ways and means that feminists have developed, the world over, to further their agenda.  Young feminist activists are fighting today’s battles in a radically changed world of climate crisis, globalisation and increased outrage at unrealised battles for justice on the issues of race, sexualities and gender identities – among many others. Ulemu Kanyongolo, founder of Malawi’s Young Feminist Network, reflects on these issues in her article here.

The 25-year journey from Beijing to Beijing + 25 is also, in many ways, the journey of G&D journal itself. As a member of the editorial advisory group for this unique journal, I am proud that we have all contributed much to what quickly became a shared feminist project in the years after Beijing. G&D has grown and blossomed into a world-renowned international feminist project. In choosing and unpacking each theme for the past issues of the journal, we have created spaces of knowledge where feminist scholars and practitioners from all over the world are able to reflect, analyse, learn, share, and most importantly, push boundaries of both thoughts and action.