Progress and Resistance: The Global Press for Gender Equality


gender equality

“The education and empowerment of women throughout the world cannot fail to result in a more caring, tolerant, just, and peaceful life for all.” — Aung San Suu Kyi

The United Nations, other international agencies, and many national governments have made considerable progress in adopting policies, laws, and treaties that promote gender equality and the empowerment of women. The ECOSOC (Economic and Social Council) Commission on the Status of Women is just one example of international initiatives to advance the role and recognition of women at all levels of society.

Eleanor Roosevelt, a pioneering advocate for women, in addressing the inaugural session of the U.N. General Assembly, described the crucial role women played in making victory in World War II possible: “This new chance for peace was won through the joint efforts of men and women working for the common ideals of human freedom at a time when need for united effort broke down barriers of race, creed, and sex.”

In many ways, World War II was a watershed for the empowerment of women, particularly in Western society. As hundreds of thousands of men went off to war, women were forced into the manufacturing workplace as never before. In addition, countless women served in the military itself, in every function from nurse to bomber pilots. This greatly transformed women’s perceptions of themselves as well as society’s perception of what women could achieve.

With the creation of the U.N. Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) in 1946, and the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which explicitly sets forth the principle of equality of women, the U.N. system began its work on behalf of women by emphasizing the legal basis for the promotion of women’s equal rights. Vital to the codification of women’s legal rights was gathering accurate factual information about the nature and scope of existing discrimination against women in law and in practice. This critical responsibility has continued until today.

The 1970s and ’80s were an active period for the U.N. in terms of new initiatives for women and their full integration into economic development efforts, including elimination of illiteracy, equal pay for equal work, health and maternity protection, and increasing the number of women participating in public and government life at all levels.

The International Women’s Year was declared in 1975, the same year that the U.N. system held its first World Conference on the Status of Women, in Mexico City. One outcome of the Conference was the proclamation of the U.N. Decade for Women (1976–1985). The Plan of Action for the Decade provided member states with guidelines for the advancement of women, including equal access to entry-level education and training, the enactment of legislation guaranteeing the political participation of women, increased employment opportunities, and improvement in health services. Sanitation, housing, nutrition, and family planning, challenges of migrant women, proper treatment of female prisoners, and measures to combat forced prostitution and trafficking were also addressed.

The Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) was adopted in 1979. CEDAW is considered the international bill of rights for women and provides governments with a national action plan to achieve women’s equality. Building upon the U.N.’s previous work relating to women’s human rights, CEDAW incorporated provisions of the many treaties relating to women drafted in the U.N.’s earlier years. CEDAW mandates that women are free to make choices not only in political and legal spheres but in the private sphere of marriage, home, and family, as well.

The 1990s saw a whole series of International Conferences devoted to issues of development and environment, beginning with the U.N. Conference on Environment and Development in 1992.

In 1993, the World Conference on Human Rights in Vienna affirmed women’s rights as human rights, emphasized how women’s rights were a key element of the overall global human-rights agenda, and stressed the importance of addressing the specific problem of violence against women.

In 1994, the International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD) was held in Cairo. It set forth a program that included issues of gender equality and equity, the empowerment of women, the ability of women to control their own fertility and the elimination of all violence against women. Acknowledging how discrimination on the basis of gender often starts at the earliest stages of life, the conference called upon governments to take effective action to end discrimination against female children. Governments were also urged to prohibit female genital mutilation, prevent female infanticide, end trafficking of girls, and the use of girls and young women in pornography and prostitution.

In 1995, the World Summit for Social Development in Copenhagen acknowledged the vital role of women in poverty eradication, productive employment, ending social disintegration, building just societies and mending the fabric of society. That same year, the Fourth World Conference on Women was convened in Beijing. Governments at the Beijing Conference adopted a new global blueprint for the advancement of women, called the Declaration and Platform for Action. The Platform for Action identified 12 critical obstacles for the world’s female population, appointed a Special Adviser on Gender Issues and Advancement of Women, and established an interagency committee on the empowerment and advancement of women. The strategy of gender mainstreaming was mandated and promoted by the special adviser. The function of gender mainstreaming is to ensure that gender equality is the center of analysis and of policy decisions.

As the 1990s drew to a close, the U.N. embarked on a series of reviews looking back at the results of this decade of conferences. In 2000, the five-year review of the Beijing Conference was conducted by a special session of the U.N. General Assembly (UNGASS). It became evident during the preparatory process for this review that a significant group of governments had changed their opinion about the outcome of that meeting, and it appeared doubtful that reaffirmation of Beijing would take place at all. Attempts to roll back the advances of Beijing seemed to be in the works. Due to the efforts of women’s human-rights advocates and activists, and male colleagues representing governments that were in favor of reaffirming Beijing, the Beijing outcomes were maintained. However, like several other conferences, it demonstrated a very different political climate than what prevailed only five years earlier.

Also in 2000, the U.N. convened the Millennium Summit, where 147 heads of state and governments adopted the Millennium Declaration, which included the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) covering the world’s main development challenges. Goal 3, to “Promote gender equality and empower women,” is a crosscutting goal that applies to the other seven, which include: eradicate extreme poverty and hunger; achieve universal primary education; reduce child mortality; improve maternal health; combat HIV/AIDS, malaria, and other diseases; ensure environmental sustainability; and develop a global partnership for development.

Despite the U.N.’s significant record of accomplishment, cultural, religious, and individual gender attitudes continue to define and often limit the role and freedom of women, not just in traditional societies, but in some more “advanced” ones, as well. Finding the keys to unlock personal and individual attitudes toward gender roles remains elusive, because they are closely linked to cultural, societal, and religious factors that help to determine how both men and women define their roles and their attitudes toward each other, particularly in the context of marriage, reproduction, and child-raising.

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