After Beijing

December 5, 2019  • Institute Staff

Now in its seventh year, the annual Madeleine K. Albright Global Development Award and Lecture, hosted by the Institute’s Aspen Global Innovators Group, recognizes an individual whose bold vision has led to breakthrough thinking around the challenges of global development. This summer in Aspen, the 2019 prize and lecture honored Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, the UN undersecretary-general and executive director of UN Women. Mlambo-Ngcuka spoke with former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and the Institute’s Peggy Clark, an Institute vice president and the executive director of the Aspen Global Innovators Group, about a new vision for gender equality. As is custom, she also gave a lecture. Mlambo-Ngcuka looked back on the nearly 25 years since the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action, which brought gender equality into the forefront of political thinking around the world. And she explored new ways to continue the fight for change, because, as she put it, “Every part of the world needs fighters for justice in the face of attacks on human rights.”

To learn more about taking action to honor the upcoming 25th anniversary of the Beijing Platform, read the recent report, Transformative Agenda for Women for 2020 and Beyond, by Albright, Clark, and former President of Ireland Mary Robinson, on the key role that US development assistance can play in advancing gender equality.

PHUMZILE MLAMBO-NGCUKA: In 1995, there was an extraordinary moment in China: 189 countries agreed to the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action. This was the first-ever solid pledge by so many nations to agree to advance gender equality to such an extent. It became the blueprint for gender equality and an agenda for women’s empowerment across the world for the next 25 years. It became for the women’s movement what the UN Charter is to UN member states: a place of historic, consensual agreement that we can lean on in the face of disagreements and changing administrations. It instigated a global network of gender activists across every corner of the world. It set out critical areas of concern for women globally that shaped global policymaking, with women making sure that they are not victims but leaders. Women’s rights gained respect in more nations.

For example, it was after 1995 that we began to see that “the girl child” has important and different needs from boys. After Beijing, the world began to strongly champion the end of child marriage and the end of other harmful practices like female genital mutilation. After 1995, we strongly pinpointed the abnormality of under-representation of women and girls in important sectors of work and leadership. We initiated targeted empowerment interventions, including in academia, sports, and politics. And because women did so well, one woman looked like she was 10 people. That’s why sometimes there’s an illusion that there are too many women who have succeeded. But we are not done yet.

After 1995, we created women’s ministries and gender commissions. In the United States, you had a global ambassador for women and girls who drove women’s empowerment. UN Women was born. We developed a new vocabulary, like “affirmative action” and “minority rights” as critical areas to be considered when taking decisions. We began to differentiate between equality and equity. We targeted women’s health and sexual and reproductive rights. We exposed unequal pay and the place of women in economies. We generated data to illustrate the cost of discrimination. The World Economic Forum predicted that it could take over two centuries to reach pay parity at work—not under our watch! We’re now asking more women to call for equal pay in every sector.

Across the world, even the poorest countries have accepted the importance of girls’ education. Two-thirds of countries have now reached gender parity in primary school enrollment. In 2014, 13 million more girls enrolled in lower secondary school than in 2002. We’ve also seen girls graduate from college in much higher numbers in many countries, and outperform their male counterparts.

In the past 25 years, we have exposed and fought against gender-based violence and sexual violence; we have argued for the notion of consent to be recognized in law, and exposed the harm that gender-based violence inflicts on women’s health. Thank you to #MeToo for driving this point home. Back in 1995, domestic violence, frequently committed and rarely punished, was not a crime in many countries. Just in the last decade, 47 countries have introduced laws to criminalize domestic violence. But we’re not done yet: there are about 40 countries still remaining to address this. We have also worked for women to control their bodies. At the Aspen Institute, I was part of the team that worked in Malawi in order to support the work there to entrench women’s reproductive rights and health. Any collective thinking that is not shaped by an embrace of gender equality in all nations will be a setback for the Beijing Platform for Action.

The world today is not an easy global environment in which to foster gender equality. If we were to convene today as countries did in Beijing almost 25 years ago, we would not get 189 countries agreeing to gender equality. As a result, we are not opening that document for anyone to touch! The risks are just too high.

Still, there have been wins—abortion rights in Ireland, LGBTI rights in India, laws to end forced marriage, and removal of laws that are lenient to perpetrators of rape and honor killing. However, to drive forward gender equality, we need diverse allies who were not there in Beijing. We need young people, we need men and boys, we need the private sector, and we need religious bodies and traditional authorities.

Men and boys are key for gender equality. A commitment from men with power and privilege could be a major game-changer—on equal pay, on parity and inclusion of women in all areas where they are under-represented, and on the rights of the disabled and people of different sexual orientations. Men are key to ending violence against women and to the recognition, redistribution, and rewarding of unpaid care. Men are key to ending harmful practices that impact women and girls, such as forced marriages.

The anti-slavery movement did not only have slaves fighting for themselves. The fight to end colonization and racism, or apartheid, did not depend only on the people who were affected. It was a broad front, where anyone who cared to make the world better took a stand. We need more people to do that for gender equality. Men with influence can choose to make bold changes about who sits on corporate boards and who is in their political parties. They can also choose to institutionalize representation of women. And we will not reward these men—because we will not reward fishes for swimming. This is their responsibility.

As we push forward with the unfinished business of Beijing, we are calling on everybody to join us to make sure that we focus on the remaining hardcore issues for the achievement of gender equality. As Secretary Albright says in Fascism: A Warning, Nelson Mandela and Abraham Lincoln each fought with monsters, but neither of them became one. Gender inequality is a monster that we can defeat together, not by becoming monsters ourselves but by unleashing the Mandela and the Lincoln in each of us.

This transcript has been edited for length and clarity.