The bold agenda adopted 25 years ago to achieve gender equality remains a distant goal, with women still facing poverty, discrimination and violence and failing to seriously rise in politics and business despite progress in some areas, a UN report said.
The report released on Thursday said the world for women in 2020 falls “far short” of the vision in the 150-page platform for action adopted by 189 nations at the UN women’s conference in Beijing in 1995.
That platform called for action in 12 areas for women and girls, including combating poverty and violence, ensuring all girls get an education and having women at the top levels of business and government as well as at the table in peace negotiations.
The programme also said for the first time in a UN document that women’s human rights include the right to control and decide “on matters relating to their sexuality, including their sexual and reproductive health, free of discrimination, coercion and violence”.
The new report by UN Women said the Beijing conference came “at a high-water mark of democracy and multilateralism in the world”, when advocates for gender equality were “cautiously optimistic that democratic and accountable governments would respond to women’s demands for sweeping change in laws, policies, practices and social norms across all dimensions of society”.
“Now, in an increasingly unequal world, the future looks much more uncertain,” it said. “Momentum has been lost. The world’s women and girls are running to standstill as hard-won victories have either stalled or are being reversed.”
The UN agency's executive director, Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, cited “powerful pushback” and said at a news conference that women were being squeezed into a quarter of the space that men continue to occupy.
“We have 75 per cent of lawmakers and parliamentarians being men,” she said. “We have 73 per cent of managerial positions held by men. We have 70 per cent of climate negotiators also men. And when it comes to peacemakers it’s even less, even though we know when women participate significantly it also guarantees peace that lasts longer.”
At the 1995 Beijing conference, then US first lady Hillary Clinton galvanised participants with a rousing speech that included words which have become a mantra for the global women’s movement: “Human rights are women’s rights – and women’s rights are human rights.”
Yet, the report says, “women’s rights are being eroded in the name of a return to 'traditional values’, and the institutions created to advance gender equality are being undermined”. It says women’s advocacy groups are finding it increasingly difficult to work because of restrictions and a scarcity of funds.
On the positive side, it says, over the past decade 131 countries enacted 274 legal and regulatory reforms to support gender equality. More girls are in school, although large differences remain between and within countries. Maternal mortality fell by 38 per cent between 2000 and 2017.
As for bad news, “There has been very little progress on women’s economic empowerment,” said Silke Staab, a UN Women research and data specialist.
“Globally, the gender gap in labour force participation has stagnated over the past 20 years,” she said. “Today, less than two-thirds of women are in the labour force, compared to 90 per cent of men.”
And women in the child-rearing years between the ages of 25 and 34 are 25 per cent more likely to live in extreme poverty than men, she said.
Violence against women also continues unabated, with nearly one in five women having faced violence by an intimate partner in the past 12 months, Ms Staab said. “Most countries, which is encouraging, now have laws against domestic abuse, but implementation and enforcement remains weak.”
New technology and social media are also fuelling new forms of abuse, especially cyber harassment, “for which solutions are largely absent," she said, and women in politics “are too often hounded out of the political sphere”.
Despite progress on maternal health, Ms Staab said, “women’s sexual and reproductive rights remain far from realised”. The proportion of women with unmet family planning needs has remained unchanged since 2000, she said, and 190 million women who want to avoid pregnancy lack the means to do so.
Ms Staab said change was possible, pointing to Latin America where women's labour force participation has risen over the past 20 years, and countries like Chile and Uruguay have boosted child care.
Ms Staab also praised Ethiopia and Rwanda, both countries in sub-Saharan Africa where access to family planning “remains woefully inadequate”, for making the fastest progress on women’s access to contraception.
Looking ahead, the report urges the supporting of women's movements and leadership, closing the digital divide and harnessing technology for gender equality.