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2015 and Beyond

hrc_1995_Clinton2015 marks the 20th anniversary of the United Nations Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing, China, a watershed event for supporters of women’s empowerment around the globe. Twenty years later, the impact of the Beijing Platform continues to reverberate. The conference produced the Beijing Platform for Action, undoubtedly the most influential statement on women’s empowerment to date.

Barbara Howell, Bread for the World’s government relations director in 1995, attended the Beijing Conference. She had also attended two of the three previous U.N. Conferences on Women, in 1980 and 1985 in Copenhagen and Nairobi, respectively. But in Beijing, Howell was struck by an atmosphere of excitement many times more intense than the mood at the earlier conferences. The tens of thousands of women who had traveled there from around the world resolved to “bring Beijing home.”

Barbara Howell tried to bring Beijing home as well, but back in the United States, she encountered a public that was mostly indifferent to the spirit of Beijing. The women Howell spoke to who had not attended didn’t feel any more empowered than when she’d seen them last. Men listened politely but were no more interested in supporting a new era in gender relations than they had been before.

Faustine Wabwire, who is now a policy analyst with Bread for the World Institute, was an adolescent living at home in Kenya at the time of the Beijing Conference. What she remembers is the derogatory treatment of Kenyan women who had attended the conference upon their return. It wasn’t until she was in college, associating with other ambitious young women, that she understood finally how the women who had been at Beijing saw the conference much differently.

2015 brings another moment of opportunity to press for women’s rights in the context of a new global agreement. At the end of 2015, upon the expiration of the MDGs, member states of the United Nations are expected to adopt a framework that will serve as the successor to the MDGs and include new global development goals. Much as the MDGs were the focus between 2000 and 2015, the new goals (whose anticipated name is the Sustainable Development Goals, or SDGs) will set international development priorities through at least 2030.

The Beijing Conference and all it stood for belong to 1995—although its goals remain alive. As we look to this new opportunity, it is time to get serious about empowering women and girls. We laud the progress of girls attending primary school at the same rate as boys—and yet we overlook the one in nine that are pulled out of school and forced to marry. We understand how important women farmers are to feeding the world—and yet we act indifferent to how much time they have to devote to drudgery. We do what we can to empower them with policies and programs, while resisting the fundamental nature of the problem, the discrimination they face. Let’s seize this opportunity to get it right for women here and now and for future generations who will live in a world without hunger.