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Report on the Official United Nations Women's Conference in Beijing

The United Nations Fourth World Conference on Women, with the theme "Equality, Development, and Peace" was held in Beijing, China from 4 to 14 September 1995, at the Beijing International Convention Centre. The aim of the Conference was "to draft the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action aimed at accelerating the implementation of the Nairobi Forward strategies with a view to realizing our common . . . objective of gender equality." I was an official delegate to the Conference from Zimbabwe.

During the preparations and the drawing up of the list of participants, I insisted on registering under "Re-evaluation Counseling," which raised a lot of eyebrows as I was easily accepted in my old role and organisation. This gave me an opportunity to put RC on the map in government circles. (The list had to be vetted by the Cabinet and approved by the President.)

Method of Working at the Official Conference

The Conference was run by means of special committees. There was the Main Committee, chaired by Patricia Licuanan (Philippines), which had the overall responsibility of running the Conference and adopting the agreed-upon text, under the guidance of the Bureau, consisting of three Vice-Chairs (Irene Freudenschuss Reichl of Austria, Zelmira Regazolli of Argentina, and Natally Drozd of Belarus) and the Rapporteur (Celma Ashipala of Namibia).

Two Working Groups were established to work on specific chapters of the document. The Chair invited Nana Ama Yeboa of Ghana to chair Working Group One and Irene Freudenschuss Reichl of Austria to chair Working Group Two.

It was agreed that the deliberations of the Working Groups were going to be issued as non-papers in English for adoption by the Main Committee.

The Working Groups were also free to form Informal Contact Groups for resolving controversial paragraphs in order to come up with some agreeable text.

In addition to the Main Committee, the two Working Groups, and the Informal Contact Groups, there was the plenary, where heads of delegations and other dignitaries presented concerns and recommendations.

The Zimbabwe official delegation divided itself into several teams. The teams included human rights, health, institutional building and resource mobilization, education, and the plenary sessions. As much as possible, each team had to participate in the Informal Contact Groups as well as in other groups, like the Africa Group, when they were discussing sections of the official documents relevant to the team's responsibilities.

Major areas of discussion

The major aim of the negotiations was to develop a text acceptable to all the delegations. Some areas which raised a lot of discussion and were resolved through Informal Contact Groups were:

  • the definition of women's health
  • factors contributing to unequal access to resources and opportunities
  • access to nutrition and health
  • de jure human rights
  • barriers to enjoyment of human rights
  • ratifying of human rights treaties and CEDAW
  • establishing human rights institutions
  • protocol regarding eliminating discrimination
  • negative images of women
  • equal participation
  • freedom of the media
  • sexual rights
  • review of punitive measures for illegal abortions
  • equal inheritance
  • women and family
  • religion, spirituality, and belief
  • militarization

Areas that were rather controversial related to:

  • new and additional resources
  • reproductive health
  • social values and religion
  • the definition of the word "family" and parental rights
  • equality in inheritance
  • use of the word "universal"
  • freedom of the press
  • bank credit
  • war crimes
  • domestic violence
  • human and Lesbian rights
  • parliamentary representation
  • literacy

Major Achievements of the Conference

The achievements included:

  • The agreed-upon text on parental rights takes into account the rights of the child, balanced by the responsibilities and duties of the parent, with the best interests of the child paramount.
  • The health chapter places women's heath in their own hands, free of violence and coercion.
  • The word "universal" was removed when used to describe human rights to make allowances for any cultural differences.
  • Agreement was reached on a provision that calls for the valuing of women's unpaid work in policy considerations.
  • Many governments put the concerns of young girls and unsafe abortions on top of their agendas.
  • The women's movement managed to bring women's issues into the mainstream dialogue.
  • The Beijing Platform for Action has been described as "the strongest statement of consensus on women's equality, empowerment, and justice ever produced by governments."
  • The final declaration moves the world a step closer to the goal "to achieve global recognition . . . that giving women power involves not only their ability to control fertility but . . . that women's rights are human rights."

Way forward for Zimbabwe

The Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action are full of pertinent ideas for Zimbabwe. It is extremely important for government and civil society to put the ideas into action in order to address the situation in Zimbabwe. The follow-up could include:

  • Drawing up a plan of action
  • Establishing a monitoring team consisting of representatives from government, NGOs, chur-ches, the private sector, professional bodies, and workers' organisations
  • Running review workshops at national and provincial levels
  • Setting up a mechanism for liaising with the leadership of the participating organisations
  • Coordinated publicity of activities
  • Last, but not least, holding more RC workshops.

Issues raised by women or about women must be part of the mainstream dialogue on national development.

While the Beijing Conference was regarded as a women's conference, the implementation of the results is part and parcel of general development. Women should be able to "enjoy" the world as equal "citizens" with men, irrespective of the cultural settings. In Zimbabwe, it is necessary for all development agencies to identify the positive aspects of the cultures in Zimbabwe in order to develop a nation proud of its cultural richness, rather than apologize for ethnic differences.

Our Zimbabwean delegation was "top heavy," and it seems they were scared that too many people from the NGOs would rock the boat. Our delegation was composed of civil servants, the ruling party members of parliament, and staunch party supporters. I was a fish out of water! Our government eventually put its signature on the Platform for Action, and yet some of the issues are illegal and will remain illegal in our country. It's got no shame (Zimbabwean slang meaning "they should be ashamed").

The plight of women is becoming increasingly difficult. The health situation is deteriorating, and the decision makers do not bat an eyelid when subjecting women to all sorts of oppression for their own good. The few legal rights given to women are good on paper but not in practice.

The caucuses brought out the might, arrogance, and dictatorship of the First World and on the other hand, the internalized oppression of the Third World. The First World by far outnumbered the underdeveloped countries acting on the Platform for Action. There is so much poverty that women in the Third World are struggling to survive.

Melphy Sakupwanya
RC Regional Reference Person for Africa
Harare, Zimbabwe


Last modified: 2020-07-17 20:50:52+00