This year marks the 20th anniversary of the Fourth World Conference on Women, held in Beijing in September 1995. At that time, representatives of 189 governments set forth a series of commitments enshrined in the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action. This document is considered to be the most progressive articulation for the advancement of women’s rights. The Platform for Action addresses 12 critical areas of concern that, 20 years later, seem to be more relevant than ever: women and the environment, women in power and decision-making, the girl child, women and the economy, women and poverty, violence against women, human rights of women, education and training of women, institutional mechanisms for the advancement of women, women and health, women and the media, women and armed conflict.
The main focus of the 59th session of the UN Commission on the Status of Women (March 9–20, New York City) will be a review of the progress, or lack thereof, of the Beijing Platform for Action. It will also serve as a moment in which to address the opportunities for achieving gender equality and the empowerment of women in the Post-2015 Development Agenda. The world today is in many respects far more precarious that it was in 1995. Global climate change has become one of the most urgent issues of our times, and its devastating effects are already impacting populations and ecosystems around the globe. However, the negative impacts of climate change take a disproportionate toll on women. Inequality is another factor that holds much greater prominence today. In fact, the world is more unequal today than it has been at any point since World War II. And once again, women are among those who suffer the most.
In his report to the upcoming Commission, the UN Secretary General acknowledges that progress in many of the Beijing Platform’s 12 critical areas has been unacceptably slow, especially among the most marginalized women and girls worldwide. Violence against women and girls remains a global pandemic. Persistent conflicts, the world financial and economic crises, volatile food and energy prices, food insecurity and climate change have intensified inequalities and vulnerability, with specific impacts on women and girls.
Women’s Rights are Human Rights
At the Beijing Conference in 1995, then First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton said, “If there is one message that echoes forth from this conference, let it be that human rights are women’s rights and women’s rights are human rights once and for all.” The Beijing Platform for Action makes it clear that the full and equal enjoyment of human rights and fundamental freedoms is essential in working towards gender equality. It called on governments to promote and protect the human rights of women, through the full implementation of all human rights instruments, especially the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), to ensure equality and non-discrimination under the law.
CEDAW, or the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, was adopted by the UN in 1979, and is the most comprehensive international agreement on the basic human rights of women. It is the only international mechanism that comprehensively addresses women’s rights within political, civil, cultural, economic and social life. The treaty has helped overcome barriers to combating discrimination throughout the ratifying countries, by decreasing sex trafficking and domestic abuse, ensuring the right to vote and ability to work. Only seven nations have not ratified CEDAW: the United States, Sudan, South Sudan, Somalia, Iran, and the two small Pacific Island nations, Palau and Tonga. Perhaps, with some sustained pressure, President Obama will bring the treaty to the Senate for ratification before his term ends.
DSI at CSW
Once again, we are happy to welcome sisters from Dominican Sisters International to New York for the Commission on the Status of Women. We will be staying at Mariandale Retreat and Conference Center, enjoying the gracious hospitality of the Dominican Sisters of Hope, and we will travel into the city each day on Metro North. The sisters who will join us represent the five continental areas of DSI:
- Emmanuela Okofor (Nigeria) representing Africa;
- Maureen O’ Connell (Australia) representing Asia Pacific;
- Sandra Ede (Brazil) representing Latin America/Caribbean;
- Marjolein Bruinen (Netherlands) representing Europe;
- Bernadine Karge (Sinsinawa) representing North America
We will also be joined by Sisters Marie Therese Clement, Coordinator of DSI; Celestina Veloso Freitas, Justice Promoter for DSI; and Pat Farrell, executive director of the Dominican Sisters’ Conference (DSC). My Dominican Volunteer, Kelly Litt, and I are looking forward to a very busy and rewarding two weeks!
And as we gather as Dominican Sisters here in New York during this Commission, we will be mindful of the condition of women in war-torn parts of our world, particularly Iraq, where the Dominican Sisters of St. Catherine of Siena choose to remain in solidarity with their people. Thanks to the moving eyewitness accounts of our sisters Dusty Farnan, Arlene Flaherty and Marcelline Koch, and our brothers Brian Pierce and Timothy Radcliffe, we have a deeper appreciation for this tragic situation which cries out for justice. We do, indeed, have family in Iraq—and in Syria, and in Jordan, and in the Democratic Republic of Congo, and on and on and on… So, in solidarity with all those who suffer, may each one of us re-commit ourselves to doing whatever we can, wherever we are, to make our world a more just and peaceful place—where human rights are realized, and Earth flourishes.