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Fourth World Conference on Women, Beijing, 1995 (UN Photo/Milton Grant).
Fourth World Conference on Women, Beijing, 1995 (UN Photo/Milton Grant).

Beijing +25: ‘There is Only Collective Action for a Collective Solution’

written by: madeleine kennedy macfoy published 6 March 2020 updated 6 March 2020

2020 is an auspicious year for women’s rights: the world will look back on what was agreed twenty-five years ago at the 4th UN World Conference on Women in Beijing, China. The Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action is widely viewed as ‘the world’s most progressive blue-print’ on the rights of women and girls. That is why there continues to be so much interest in its implementation. People - especially women and girls - want to know: has the promise of Beijing been met?

The Sankofa is an Akan symbol from Ghana: it depicts a bird with its torso facing forward and its head looking back. The Sankofa symbol reminds us that we cannot know and understand where we are or where we are going (the present and the future) without knowing and understanding where we came from (the past). As we seek to understand and assess how far we have come since Beijing, it’s worth pausing to reconsider what brought us to where we are today – the power of collective action.

Photo: Annielogue/Flickr.

Introduction

In 1995, seventeen thousand (17,000) participants gathered in Beijing, China, for the United Nations’ 4th World Conference on Women.

In her address to the Conference, Hillary Clinton – then the First Lady of the United States of America – declared:

"If there is one message that echoes forth from this conference, let it be that human rights are women’s rights, and women’s rights are human rights, once and for all.”

"As long as discrimination and inequities remain so commonplace everywhere in the world, as long as girls and women are valued less, fed less, fed last, overworked, underpaid, not schooled, subjected to violence in and outside their homes - the potential of the human family to create a peaceful, prosperous world will not be realised."

Photo: Sharon Farmer/White House Photograph Office.

Ms Clinton’s speech made the headlines in media outlets all over the world and her statement that ‘women’s rights are human rights’ emerged as a defining moment in the Conference proceedings.

That speech, given on September 5th, 1995 is doubtless a key historical moment in the struggle to place women’s rights front and centre in international policymaking.

But Beijing is not where the story of the legacy of the Conference began…

Fifty-six kilometres (35 miles) north of Beijing, in a place known as the ‘back garden of Beijing’ – Huairou province - thirty thousand (30,000) people from all over the world – mainly women - were expected to attend the non-governmental organisation (NGO) Forum on Women, which got underway on August 30th, 1995, ahead of the opening of the main Conference.

As the story goes, there was a scramble to prepare a welcome for this great influx of activists: the ‘Huairou Conference Centre’ was hastily cobbled together from a couple of schools and surrounding buildings on the edge of a small town. Because the buildings the authorities planned to erect were not completed on time, workshops, exhibitions, demonstrations, speeches, strategic planning and parties all took place in and around… tents.

There was a tent for everyone: for your specific geographical region (e.g. the ‘Africa in Beijing Tent’), for the people you worked with or represented (e.g. the ‘Grassroots Tent’) or for the most strongly contested and/or politically explosive constituencies of women who demanded a seat at the negotiation table (e.g. the unofficial ‘Tibet Tent’, which was located some distance from the main activities or the ‘Lesbian Tent’).

The NGO Forum was where the activists rolled up their sleeves and got down to the tricky business of fine-tuning which ‘critical areas of concern’ around women’s rights needed to be highlighted and crafting the progressive language that would find its way into the outcome document of the Conference.

And yet, all the hustle and bustle at the NGO Forum is not where the story of what took so many women activists halfway around the world began…

Collective Action for Collective Solutions

It has been said so often and by so many that it has become a truism: the personal is political. However, what is now a ‘feminist slogan’ was first proposed in the late 1960s in an essay written by feminist activist Carol Hanisch. She wrote that the problems faced by women - in their private lives, behind closed doors and in in the intimacy of family interactions - are not personal problems, but political problems that necessitate political solutions. She was very clear: political solutions can only be arrived at collectively. As she put it in her essay:

“There are no personal solutions at this time. There is only collective action for a collective solution.”

Photo: Frederick Noronha / Wikimedia commons

One hundred and eighty-nine (189) UN Member States adopted the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action– the outcome document of the 4th UN World Conference on women – which is regarded by many as the most progressive international blueprint for women’s rights ever adopted by an international body.

The story of how the world got to that major milestone in Beijing began a very long time before 1995 and has its roots/routes in many different parts of the world - women have long histories of taking collective action to find collective solutions. As the UN Secretary General António Gutteres recently said in a speech on ‘Women and Power’:“ women have been fighting for their rights for centuries”.

There are many examples of women’s collective action to secure their rights, through time and across regions:

In 1848, at the Seneca Falls Convention, women in the United States of America petitioned for their civil, social, political and religious rights.

Photo: Joseph/ Flickr

In 1924, the Egyptian Feminist Union picketed the opening session of the Egyptian parliament after the new Constitution failed to grant women the right to vote.

In 1927, the All India Women’s Conference was convened for the first time, and in 1929, the Aba’s Women Revolt in south-eastern Nigeria forced the British colonial authorities to drop a planned tax on market women.

In 1975,during the Icelandic Kvennafrídagurinn(Women‘s Day Off) women went on stike [numbering over one tenth of the population] and did not go to paid jobs or do any housework or childcare work for an entire day to demand equal pay.

In 1977, the Abuelas de Plaza de Mayo(‘Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo’) in Argentina led the painful task of finding children who had been ‘disappeared’ by the country’s dictatorship.

Photo: Amy Mayer/Impact Visuals.

In 1993, Education International(EI) was founded. EI represents the organisations of teachers and other education sector personnel. EI is the world’s largest, most representative global sectoral federation of unions, with more than 32 million education union members in 391 organisations in 179 countries and territories.

Workers in the education sector are predominantly women. According to 2018 data from the UNESCO Institute for Statistics (UIS):

In an interview to commemorate EI’s twenty-fifth anniversary in 2017, EI Founding President, Mary Hatwood Futrell pointed out that from the very beginning, at the founding EI World Congress in 1993, there was a concern to ensure that women were represented and able to speak up at all levels and within all EI structures. As she explained:

“Part of what we were trying to do…at the Congress was to make sure that the women delegates understood the EI structure, understood what the issues were and that they had a voice that they could stand up on the floor in Congress and speak just like the men could speak. We also strongly encouraged at the regional and local level that women …have a strong voice within those regions and within those locals. One of the things we pointed out: most of the teachers around the world are women and yet you’re saying that we are the majority (60-75%) and yet we don’t have a voice? And we said: we are professionals, we are members we are equal to everybody else and we should have a voice.”

The Collective Power of the Education Union Movement

Trade unions, by definition, exist to harness the power of collective action. Education unions mobilise workers in the education sector and use their collective power to defend and promote the universal right to education for all students and the universal right to decent work for all education workers.

The Beijing Platform for Action identified twelve (12) ‘critical areas of concern’ and highlighted ‘strategic objectives’ under each area ‘for the advancement of the rights of women and girls’. The Beijing Platform for Action also detailed the actions that are to be taken by key stakeholders for its provisions to be implemented. In effect, when the 189 Governments signed the Beijing Platform for Action, they pledged to take action themselves as governments, and pledged that key stakeholders, including trade unions, would also take action to implement the platform.

Education unions’ contributions – at the national and international level - towards the implementation of the Beijing Platform for Action can be highlighted in relation to the Strategic Objectives of several critical areas of concern highlighted in the Platform for Action.

The examples of the work done by EI and its member organisations in different parts of the world since the Beijing Platform for Action was adopted in 1995, which will be outlined in the second blog of this series, show the power of taking collective actions in order to reach collective solutions and the critical difference that the collective bargaining done by education unions has made to the advancement of women’s rights within the education sector.

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2020 marks the 25th anniversary of the adoption of the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action(BPfA) at the 4th United Nations World Women’s Conference held in Beijing in 1995. The BPfA remains the most progressive blueprint for achieving women’s rights ever agreed by Governments at the global level. In commemoration of this important milestone, this is the first in a special EI Beijing +25 Blog Series on Worlds of Education; the last blog in the series will be published on International Human Rights Day (10 December 2020).

[1] The only region in which women make up less than 50% of teaching staff in the primary sector is sub-Saharan Africa (45.49%).

[2] It’s important to note the wide regional disparities: in sub-Saharan Africa just 29.94% of secondary teachers are women, 45.56% in Northern Africa, and 44.66% in Southern Asia.

[3] There are also wide regional disparities in the tertiary education sector: in Northern Africa women make up just 39.92% of the teaching corps, and 38.07% in Southern Asia – no data are available for sub-Saharan Africa.

The opinions expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect any official policies or positions of Education International.