1. Why should the UN care about women’s voice and political participation?

The UN should care because the women’s movement helped create it. Eleanor Roosevelt chaired the Universal Declaration of Human Rights drafting committee and made sure that that everyone was entitled to the rights and freedoms “without distinction of any kinds, such as race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status.”

I also have a practical argument. If you want to speed-up and scale up progress on any development issue — from ending poverty or fighting climate change to gaining a competitive edge in the world market — you need women’s voices and leadership. Women often see different problems than men, and they have diverse experiences to contribute to solutions.

2. How does the UN help encourage women’s collective action and participation?

I don’t want to romanticize what the UN does for women’s political participation. It can obstruct and turn a deaf ear. But women have turned to the UN for justice when governments weren’t listening. For example, the use of rape as a weapon of war was ignored until women took the issue to the UN to galvanize world opinion. Now we have numerous Security Council resolutions to help set new norms and standards for military forces. That opens the door for women’s leadership in conflict and post-conflict situations.

The UN also helps set NGOs and governments on the right development path. When I was with the WHO in New Delhi regional office, our women’s advisory group to the Director General convened the first NGO-government consultation on women and HIV/AIDS in the region. That encouraged women’s NGOs and governments to get involved with HIV/AIDS prevention.

The UN channels funds to women and girl’s leadership without political or religious strings attached. When I worked for Unicef, I saw how the UN supported water projects, home gardens and other income-generating projects—all led by women. The ILO, UN Women and other agencies also help the most vulnerable groups of women and girls with disabilities and indigenous women.

3. How have the UN conferences helped women’s leadership?

I would like to quote an impact study with survey results, but we don’t have that data and probably never will. What is clear is that each of the four conferences accelerated social change. We didn’t have any ministries of gender or women’s affairs before the 1975 world conference in Mexico. And legal rights for women–even with the fundamentalist backlash—have expanded faster after the UN conferences.

The UN can change more than national laws. It can change how women see their own potential and identity. Granted it is often hard to identify a direct link between a UN event to the individual—but I have seen it work. At the NGO Forum in Beijing, nearly 30,000 women stripped away differences of age, culture, religion, language and race to proclaim a single identity as “women.” Youth leaders danced the “hokey pokey” together and sang songs of unity. It seemed like a mystical experience for many—one that empowered them to be more assertive leaders at home. That kind of collective identity is the political mainstay of the international women’s movement today.

4. Why do you think the Beijing Platform for Action (BPfa) is still the standard policy guide on gender equality and women’s empowerment?

When I read the BPfA, I see the faces of millions of authors, not just government delegates from 189 countries. During the NGO Forum ’95, I worked as the NGO Liaison between the Forum and the UN Secretariat. Together with the UN we launched a participatory process that took nearly three years to complete—through local, national and regional consultations. In China, women from the commune level to the national levels met to discuss the BPfA.

5. What would you change?

I would add more emphasis on the implementation of the BPfA to go hand-in-hand with the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW). The political section on “inequality in sharing of power and decision-making between men and women” makes good recommendations, but we are losing ground on basic human rights like political freedoms. Those are legally binding in CEDAW.

UN consensus documents are also stronger when we leverage their meaning through changing times. We have to make CEDAW and the BPfA relevant in the so-called “post-2015” development agenda that includes challenges like climate change, food security, and internal and ethnic conflicts. We also have to let the world’s women know how UN agreements can be useful locally. That is what “Beijing +20” in 2015 needs to do.

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