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Two Steps Forward, One Step Back? Taking Stock of Progress on Gender Equality since the Beijing Platform for Action

26 Nov 2015

Two Steps Forward, One Step Back? Taking Stock of Progress on Gender Equality since the Beijing Platform for Action
This contribution is published as part of the Think Piece Series Let's Talk about Women's Rights: 20 Years after the Beijing Platform for Action. In this series, leading feminist thinkers discuss achievements in the field of women’s rights and gender equality; identify the challenges faced in implementing the Beijing Platform for Action; and consider ways of moving forward. They offer both critical insights and highlight opportunities for realizing women’s rights after 2015. Please share your thoughts on this article in the comments space below.

The year 1995 and the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action marked an enthusiastic moment for gender equality. However, taking stock of the achievements made since then makes it clear that they are under threat, and may even be rolled back. This is the unambiguous conclusion of the UNRISD Think Piece Series “Let’s Talk about Women’s Rights: 20 Years after the Beijing Platform for Action”, of which this forms the concluding piece. Here we bring together some of the main strands of argument covered by 16 feminist thinkers reflecting on the advancements and challenges in gender equality and women’s rights since 1995. They show that there have been successes: legal frameworks for the defense of women’s rights have been created and improved, and there has been progress in our efforts to combat violence against women—especially in conflict contexts and the world of work. However, we still face rigid gender stereotypes in society and institutions, lack of funding for activism, and conservative forces coupled with a lack of political will to work for further progress. Now more than ever we need to rise to the challenge to realize women’s rights.


The Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action adopted at the Fourth World Conference on Women in 1995 marked a breakthrough for gender equality and women’s rights. Inspired by the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), the Beijing Platform for Action (BPfA) made women’s rights a policy and advocacy priority across the globe. At the national level, the Platform’s 12 critical areas of concern became the framework guiding state action on advancing women’s rights and empowerment. At the international level, a number of regional and international agreements which support women’s rights have been approved on the basis of the Platform.

With the think piece series “Let’s Talk about Women’s Rights: 20 Years after the Beijing Platform for Action”, UNRISD took the opportunity to reflect on achievements, but also the challenges that hamper the full realization of women’s rights at this crucial moment in time; to take stock of the past 20 years and to look ahead. UNRISD invited leading feminist thinkers from around the world to contribute to the series, creating a platform to discuss women’s rights and gender equality. This piece is a synthesis of the 16 think pieces that were published in the series, launched to coincide with the 59th Session of the UN Commission on the Status of Women (CSW59).

The think piece series has had wide and substantial outreach. The think pieces were re-posted on a number of websites including Codesria, AWID, International Foundation for Civil Society, Gender and Development, ISN ETH Zurich and Wikigender. They were widely shared on social media, in particular Lydia Aplizar Duran's piece “20 Years of Shamefully Scarce Funding for Feminists and Women’s Rights Movements”.

The authors of the think pieces represent a variety of different regions, generations, cultures, and come from different backgrounds whether academics, practitioners or policy makers, but they all came to similar conclusions: much has been achieved, yet there is a real threat of backlash, and much needs to be done to reach true gender equality. This conclusion applies to the poorest and the wealthiest regions of the world alike, as Faiza Jama Mohamed argues for African countries, Kalyani Menon-Sen for India, and Flurina Derungs and Ursula Keller for Switzerland.

Strengthened legal frameworks, but implementation often lacking

Among the achievements, many authors concur that great advances have taken place in creating and improving legal frameworks to recognize and protect women’s rights. Human rights treaty bodies like the CEDAW Committee have played a key role in reinforcing the message that states have an obligation to both pass laws and ensure compliance with human rights treaties, as Fareda Banda argues. A landmark case of a legal framework accompanied by successful follow-up and implementation was the 2009 “Cotton Field Case”, where for the first time a state (Mexico) was held responsible for violating the rules of due process—because it failed to investigate and prosecute femicides, says Gladys Acosta Vargas.

But progress in legal frameworks does not necessarily and in all cases translate into women’s enjoyment of rights. Indeed, there is still much to be done to ensure women’s access to justice. As Jane Aeberhard-Hodges explains, when cases of sex discrimination in the world of work are taken to court the plaintiff normally wins—but only if and when women have deep enough pockets and sufficient stamina to take on what are often very costly and drawn-out trials. There is still an enormous need for judges to be trained on relevant law such as ILO standards. Jane Aeberhard-Hodges raises the question of legal aid to support women’s cases and calls for stronger involvement of workers’ organizations, as this has often proven critical in the pursuit of legal cases. Even though international and regional courts have taken a more gender-sensitive approach in addressing gender stereotypes—especially with respect to violence against women—rigid stereotypes are still widespread. In her piece, Fareda Banda emphasizes that states should challenge negative attitudes towards women based on gender stereotypes.

Changing the law does not change society though, adds Fareda Banda, and she points out how social norms challenge gender equality. Gender norms are often politicized on the basis of culture or tradition, but they are part of the social world, rooted in social institutions and individuals’ consciousness, say Raewyn Connell and Rebecca Pearse. Norms are not static, but dynamic and they change as the social world changes. Also, there are norms and traditions that support gender equality, just as there are those that hinder gender justice. Yet, as Connell and Pearse show in their piece, gender inequality norms are difficult to change. This argument is also taken up by Donna Pankhurst with reference to the debate on women and armed conflict. Gender inequality norms, and with them stereotypes of masculinity and femininity, challenge women’s rights—for example where violence is considered an exclusively male behaviour in conflict contexts—despite the reality that there are many men who are non-violent and victims of violence. It is also widely known that women are not only victims but also actors in war.

More attention to women in contexts of crises, but a short-sighted view

In the domain of women and armed conflict, the BPfA together with CEDAW were key to paving the way for the groundbreaking UN Security Council Resolution 1325 (2000) and subsequent Resolutions on women, peace and security. These instruments further women’s and girl’s protection in times of war, and stress the importance of women’s meaningful participation in conflict prevention and resolution. The suffering of women and girls increases during war and in contexts of humanitarian crises, where they face heightened vulnerability to multiple forms of violence. Yet, in her analysis of the relevant Security Council Resolutions, Donna Pankhurst concludes that effective implementation of the Resolutions will not be possible as long the causes of gender blindness and direct violence against women are not understood and addressed. Meredeth Turshen complements Donna Pankhurst’s argument noting that gender is a missing dimension in the vocabulary of the political economy of war. Literatures are disconnected, she says, and look primarily at gender-based violence on an interpersonal level, whereas in fact there is a need for deeper understanding of women’s roles in the informal economy of war with all its “shaded ambiguities in the lives of women and men trying to survive in war zones” (Meredeth Turshen). The current short-sighted view of women and armed conflict also obscures the responsibilities of the North for the detrimental impacts of structural adjustment and austerity programmes that have hollowed out state capacities and resulted in the decline of public goods and services, further exacerbating the fragility and insecurity experienced by women in many conflict-affected and protracted crisis contexts. Like Donna Pankhurst, Meredeth Turshen says that unless the wider context of conflict is taken into consideration, the Beijing Platform’s objectives on women and war will not be met and violence against women and girls in conflict-affected contexts will continue unabated.

In her piece on gender praxis in emergencies, Anu Pillay criticizes the fact that gender transformative issues of voice, choice, safety and accountability are stuck in the humanitarian-development divide. Transforming gender inequality typically has little, if any, room in the short-term, life-saving approaches employed in immediate humanitarian crisis response, whereas it is more clearly integrated into the subsequent long-term development phase. Gender mainstreaming in humanitarian contexts, she argues, has failed to resolve the issue, having become depoliticized in its attempts to gain traction. For practitioners pursuing the feminist political project of gender equality, this poses a dilemma.

According to Anu Pillay, “resilience” has the potential to bridge the humanitarian aid—development assistance divide. As a people-focused concept, gender integration cannot but be a critical component in resilience programming, as it is impossible to build resilience without addressing gender issues. In the current debate on the schism between development and humanitarian aid, the gender perspective—as the embodiment of a commitment to human well-being—could play a crucial role in building resilience and bridging the gaps between these two areas both in conceptual and operational terms.

Authors also point out that much has been achieved when it comes to addressing violence against women and girls. Marai Larasi notes that much more is now understood, described and addressed in this area, and Fareda Banda emphasizes the importance of civil society, human rights activists and development agencies within the UN and at the regional level in pushing states to take action on violence against women. And while many successful initiatives may have been created, Marai Larasi also notes that states have generally failed to prioritize prevention, which is in direct opposition to the obligations to prevent violence against women and girls that they signed up to in the BPfA.

More action but shamefully scarce funding

Another achievement has been the establishment of gender machineries, such as creating gender focal points in various government ministries in order to oversee gender mainstreaming and the implementation of commitments made under the BPfA. But in the case of Africa, the overall impact has been less significant than initially envisioned due to scarce resources, notes Faiza Jama Mohamed. Indeed, a major problem in the drive for gender equality has been the scarcity of resources, a challenge also for modern economies such as Switzerland, state Flurina Derungs and Ursula Keller. Gladys Acosta Vargas points to the widely criticized fact that a severe lack of funding hampers the implementation of gender policies at the national level. It is well-known that women’s rights movements and organizations are key drivers of change which can sustain and defend human rights and gender justice, and hold states accountable for issues such as violence against women, paid and unpaid care work, and the lack of women in leadership positions, emphasize Andrea Cornwall and Jenny Edwards. Yet research by AWID in 2010 revealed that women’s rights movements have remained severely underfunded. The median budget for the 740 women’s organizations around the world surveyed by AWID was as low as USD 20,000, compared to USD 1,442 billion for Save the Children International for example, and USD 2,611 billion for World Vision International. Financial commitments were not secured in Beijing and are still missing in the CSW59 political declaration, emphasizes Lydia Alpízar Durán. The financial situation for young women’s organization is even worse, according to young feminist leader Ruby Johnson.

Not only at the political level, but also in everyday life, women face financial constraints affecting their well-being and restricting the enjoyment of their rights. Though there is no robust evidence to prove the “feminization of poverty”, data from different regions of the world show that women earn 75-80% of men’s salaries, and that only about 15% of landowners are estimated to be women. Female-headed households are more vulnerable to poverty because their asset bases are less robust and diverse than those of male-headed households, and because of the “feminization of responsibility and/or obligation” in regards to care, according to Sylvia Chant. She argues that gender inequalities in earnings, income, power or privileges need to be made more visible in order to be addressed, which would also highlight a more diverse array of gendered disadvantages.

Slow advances and serious backlash

The issues reviewed so far show slow advances and enormous challenges ahead—a rather bleak picture that matches Anne Marie Goetz’s analysis of the conservative forces operating prior to CSW59. Backlash forces, she notes, are strong, and make her wonder in her provocative piece whether there is a new “cold war” on women’s rights. She warns that the achievements made in terms of gender equality are under threat, fuelled by a conservative turn since the financial crisis of 2008. Promises made by states—for instance of rape crisis centres in India after the highly mediatized 2012 gang rape case—are being rolled back, says Kalyani Menon-Sen. Diverse conservative forces were also at work at the CSW59, where a review of progress made in the implementation of the BPfA was undertaken and where government ministers negotiated and approved a political declaration that gender equality should be achieved by 2030. But almost a thousand women’s rights activists and organizations signed a statement criticizing their exclusion from the negotiating table and the general lack of transparency of the negotiations. They also stressed the political declaration’s failure to renew commitments, heighten ambitions and allocate resources to the advancement of women, and its failure to recognize the new threats that women are experiencing (Anne Marie Goetz, Gladys Acosta Vargas).

Backlash could generate wind into the sails of young feminists in the fight for gender equality, though. Ruby Johnson argues that young women can make strong contributions due to their diverse backgrounds and knowledge of technology. By using art, social media and sports as key tactics in their work, their contributions can make development more responsive, grounded and sustainable. Ruby Johnson calls for a collective re-imagination of aims and activism across generations and movements to leverage a critical mass. Andrea Cornwall and Jenny Edwards support this call with their think piece that emphasizes the need for stories of change as sources of inspiration. New media serve women and girls in many novel ways and regions around the world to raise their voices, and increase attention and awareness. In the case of violence against women and girls, innovative technology and tools help victims to seek help and advice, notes Marai Larasi. She says that high profile events and celebrities can help scale up campaign outreach and awareness. But regretfully, while being useful in some ways, social media also create a space used by men to stalk, harass and victimize women and girls.

Now more than ever

Our think piece authors identify three remaining significant challenges to gender equality: widespread misogyny on all levels (Donna Pankhurst, Anne Marie Goetz); discordant gender definitions and continued stereotyping (Fareda Banda); and strong, increasing and unconventional backlash forces (Andrea Cornwall and Jenny Edwards, Anne Marie Goetz). They perceive strong regressive trends whereby even progressive politicians are reluctant to foster women’s rights; political actors hestitate to risk political capital in engaging with women’s rights; and the rights agenda has been “condemned as alien and culturally destructive” by conservative forces ranging from former socialist to theocratic states, says Anne Marie Goetz. Indeed, many regions have experienced a rise of fundamentalist ideologies, violent extremism and conflicts with and between non-state actors that pose severe challenges to the achievements of the BPfA. And countries in both the global North and South have been undergoing major economic and political transformations as a result of crises in global security and the economy that are negatively affecting women’s enjoyment of their rights.

It is therefore difficult to close this piece with an optimistic note. Perhaps Gladys Acosta Vargas’ statement can serve as an encouraging concluding observation—and an appeal: more women than ever are raising their voices and demand women’s human rights. And international treaty bodies, political actors, UN agencies and social movements need to rise to the challenge to realize women’s rights. Now maybe more than ever in the last 20 years.

    Andrea Kaufmann is Gender Expert in the UNRISD research programme Gender and Development.
    Valeria Esquivel is Research Coordinator of the UNRISD research programme Gender and Development.


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This article reflects the views of the author(s) and does not necessarily represent those of the United Nations Research Institute for Social Development.