Working Towards Gender Equality 25 Years after the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action

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UN Photo/Milton Grant

In 1995, Beijing was the site of the Fourth World Conference on Women, a historic gathering of decision makers and civil society organizations focused on women’s rights. It was there that governments from around the world agreed on a comprehensive roadmap to achieve global gender equality, known as the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action.

2020 marks 25 years since the adoption of this unprecedented agenda, which shapes and propels policies and initiatives to this day. In commemoration of this anniversary, EngenderHealth President and CEO Traci L. Baird — who has been working in sexual and reproductive health and rights for more than 25 years — sat down to provide us with both a look back at the progress we’ve made on women’s empowerment since that watershed moment in 1995 and the obstacles that need to be overcome in the years ahead in order to advance gender equality across the globe.

At the time of the Beijing conference, I was in my first months of working for Ipas, focused on addressing the global problem of unsafe abortion. The Beijing Platform for Action acknowledged the impact of unsafe abortion and — for the first time in such a global statement — asserted that when abortion is not against the law, it should be safe.

The Beijing Declaration also stated that “The ability of women to control their own fertility forms an important basis for the enjoyment for other rights.” That, to me, is the cornerstone of our focus at EngenderHealth: addressing gender equality in and through our sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR) programs. Our vision is for a gender-equal world; SRHR are critical for making that vision a reality.

There’s been significant progress in the world — increases in female heads of state, parliamentarians, and other senior government officials; more female leadership of universities, non-profits, and companies — but, of course, we are nowhere near equality.

The gender gaps in global leadership have come under scrutiny during the COVID-19 pandemic, when we see clearly that women are disproportionately affected by shutdowns and the economic downturn, while also underrepresented among COVID-19 task forces and decision-making bodies.

Another sign of progress is that we’re increasingly recognizing that gender equality is only part of the necessary goal. In the global health sector and throughout the world, we need more representation and participation, particularly recognizing and respecting intersecting identities. At EngenderHealth, for example, we develop and implement policies and practices that prioritize a diverse, equitable, and inclusive workforce, considering gender as well as age, race, ethnicity, disability status, sexual orientation, parenting status, and more.

EngenderHealth’s role is to be at the forefront of sexual and reproductive health and rights programs. In the 25 years since the Beijing Conference, we’ve focused on rights-based contraceptive counseling and on addressing the health issues that most dramatically affect women, such as obstetric fistula, unsafe abortion, and gender-based violence. These health issues are exacerbated exactly because there are gender inequalities, and only when we address them can women claim their full health and rights. We have also been at the forefront of including men in contraceptive access, use, and advocacy, and now we implement a gender- and youth-transformative approach to our programs.

We all need to lead this progress. I think leadership needs to come from every place, every level, and every person. At EngenderHealth, for example, I want to see more female leadership in the few countries where we work where women are not currently at least half of EngenderHealth’s senior staff. We are working on this now and are committed to ensuring that women leaders are represented on our global senior management team, which we measure and document annually.

I would also like to see more movement to include diverse women leaders in global health programs in the public sector, in universities, and in non-profits. Women and people of diverse backgrounds and nationalities bring immense skill and talent to the entrenched health problems we are addressing. In the US, women of color, in particular, bring important lived experiences as individuals affected by both racial and gender disparities. Globally, we need to value the role of young leaders, as well as people from different educational and social backgrounds.

I also hope we can all recognize that men are critical allies in these goals, and we need to support the men who are advocating for increased equality.

Crises, such as pandemics, exacerbate existing inequalities and disproportionately affect women and girls and other underrepresented groups. We know that gender equality is not possible without the realization of sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR), so it is critical that we continue to protect and advance SRHR throughout the remainder of the pandemic and its recovery.

We must integrate gender-based violence services into COVID-19 response plans, address the economic fallout that most affects women, and collect age- and sex-disaggregated data. Most of all, we must insist on women’s equal representation in all COVID-19 response planning and decision-making.

A global organization expanding access to sexual and reproductive health and rights services and information in multiple countries around the world.

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