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Women´s Issues After Beijing
Platform for Action of the Fourth World Conference on Women
Positions - Networks - Results


Chapter II

Sex, Gender and Empowerment


The Platform for Action: Agenda for the World-wide Elimination of Gender Apartheid

The Fourth World Conference on Women (4th WCW) in Beijing set a new record in the history of UN-conferences on the 50th anniversary of the organization: more than 7,000 delegates from 189 countries convened in the capital of the People´s Republic of China. A new record was also achieved in respect of participation at the NGO Forum in Houairou: more than 2,000 organizations were represented by more than 31,000 women participants, of which some 4,000 were involved in the consultations of the 4th WCW.

Largest world conference on the 50th anniversary of the UN

The Forum of Non-governmental Organizations (NGOs) from August 30th to September 8th, 1995, ended with the slogan "take Beijing home with you". Organizational responsibility for this international clearing centre of women´s concerns was in the hands of the "Conference of Non-governmental Organizations with Consultative Status with the Economic and Social Council (CONGO). This Forum was an international meeting place for the exchange of opinions and experiences with some 5,000 events. The meeting was largely meant to influence the final wording of the Platform for Action. This form of lobbying by NGOs has accompanied all international conferences since Nairobi. The Platform for Action reflects the analyses and demands by NGOs (above all, women´s organizations) from all parts of the world.

NGO-lobbying until the very last minute

The Platform defines itself as "an agenda for women´s empowerment" which aims at "accelerating the implementation of the Nairobi Forward-looking Strategies for the Advancement of Women and at removing all the obstacles to women´s active participation in all spheres of public and private life through a full and equal share in economic, social, cultural and political decision-making. This means that the principle of shared power and responsibility should be established between men and women at home, in the workplace and in the wider national and international communities".

Empowerment programme for social justice

Women´s empowerment is an essential condition for social justice and a fundamental prerequisite for equality, development and peace and also for "a people-centred sustainable development". Empowerment means a commitment to a qualitatively and quantitatively transformed partnership between women and men "so that women and men can work together for themselves, for their children and for society, to meet the challenges of the twenty-first century".
The Platform takes stock of the situation world-wide in twelve critical areas of concern, which establish the basis for a global agenda for social justice by drawing up 54 strategic objectives and 535 actions to be taken. The figures do not say much about the large diversity of activities that Governments have agreed upon. Generally, actions to be taken are related to a group of agents, international institutions, national governments and specific NGOs, which in turn are called upon to become involved in a whole host of activities (e.g. "review, adopt and maintain"). Each action incompasses a whole set of activities. Altogether, several thousands of empowerment missions have been agreed in Beijing.

Twelve global problems in the focus of the Platform

Roughly one fifth of the draft was on the negotiating table in brackets - because still controversial - before the Conference started. It was called "holy brackets" because some parts of the text, for example in respect of "gender" and "reproductive health", met opposition by the Vatican, some Islamic countries or other governments. In a tough negotiating marathon during the Conference the draft was turned into a consensus document.
The hotchpotch nature of the Platform reflects the complicated process of negotiations between the UN, the Governments and the NGOs. The Final Document is an expression of a global communication and participation culture in its strong and weak points. For the first time, so many women with their hopes, aspirations, demands and claims were given a voice in one document which they had worked out together: a feminine stock-taking and agenda of unique authenticity. The slogan of the NGO Forum in Houairou "Look at the world through women´s eyes" has become reality in the Platform for Action, women´s views are the main feature of the document.

A document of feminine authenticity

The Beijing Agenda keeps pace with the standards set by the previous four UN-world conferences: the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, the Vienna Human Rights Conference, the World Population Conference in Cairo and the World Social Summit in Copenhagen. The results of these conferences provide the frame of reference for the Final Document of Beijing. All five conferences together describe the global challenges and formulate missions that will determine the survival of all humanity.

Beijing confirms the catalogue of missions for the international community

The Habitat-II Conference in Istanbul in June ´96 added the component of social and environmentally-sustainable settlement and town development to the international agreements. The empowerment concept of Cairo and Beijing was incorporated in the Istanbul Plan of Action.
Whether the Platform for Action is implemented depends not only on Governments and on whether they keep their solemn pledge to take equality seriously: what really counts is that women themselves are willing to speak up for their rights.

Rights have to be fought for

"Since Beijing we have known the price of continued gender apartheid", said the Norwegian Prime Minister Gro Harlem Brundtland in her final speech. She reminded the audience of the fact that rights are not granted, but must be fought for. She does not see a single country in this world where essential demands of the Platform have been realized.
The Norwegian head of Government puts her money on the persuasive power of affirmative action and tells an encouraging story to illustrate this: when she was elected head of Government fifteen years ago, it had been a cultural shock to many Norwegians. Today, four- year olds ask their mother: "Can a man also become head of Government?"


Sex, Gender and Empowerment

In the preparatory phase of the 4th WCW, a controversial debate took place about the meaning of the term "gender". This argument prompted the Commission for the Status of Women (CSW), as the UN body responsible for the world conferences on women, to set up an informal working group with the task of looking into the use of the term and of clearing up existing linguistic problems.
The working group reached the conclusion that the term "gender", which is frequently quoted in the Platform for Action, is used in UN-terminology in much the same way as is accepted and applied in general usage. The term was used in this sense in many UN-documents before the Platform for Action. The working group therefore concludes that a reinterpretation or supplementation of the meaning of "gender" for the Beijing Platform is not necessary. This clarification has been attached to the official Congress Report in the annex.
The Graeco-latin linguistic root of "gender" (Genos/Genus) comprises a large semantic diversity of identity-generating features related to family law (family, lineage, clan), to international law (tribe, people, nation) and to natural law (species, class, kind) . The Latin word "sexus" defines gender as the corresponding biological orientation (male or female). The English word "gender" has kept alive the semantic identity-related features of the original word; in Anglo-American usage the word "sex" has also retained the biological component of "male" or "female".
The gender perspective of the Platform for Action illustrates the need for women´s empowerment. Empowerment is a linguistic innovation of the verb "to empower". The majority of dictionaries published in 1996 do not yet include "empowerment".The previous world conferences on women talked of "advancement of women" only. In the Declaration and Platform of Beijing the terms "advancement" and "empowerment" are frequently used interchangeably, seven times in the Declaration alone.
Women´s empowerment is the crucial term which supports and holds together the concept of the Platform. Women´s empowerment, as used in the Platform, expresses the expectation that equal participation of women through empowerment will make the world more peaceful, equitable and able to develop sustainably. These hopes are the inspiration of the Platform.
The term, which created such a stir when first used at the World Population Conference in Cairo and which was initially also very controversial in the International Women´s Movement, means, in its Cairo definition, that women have the right to full and responsible control over their fertility and that they need alternatives to child-bearing by improving their economic, social and cultural opportunities. Originally, empowerment implied opposition to any form of direct or indirect fertility control against women´s will.
In the Platform for Action empowerment becomes a comprehensive concept with the aim of enabling women to claim all their rights in all spheres of life. Empowerment is directed against any form of gender-based use of force. The opposition to any form of violence, like the claim to sustainable development, runs like a red thread through the whole Platform.
On the one hand, empowerment is an end in itself which emanates from the dignity of the human person. On the other hand, women´s empowerment is the critical instrument with which to realize peace, material justice and a sustainable development world-wide.

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© Friedrich Ebert Stiftung | technical support | Net Edition mv&ola | Oktober 1997