Twenty-five years after world leaders adopted a road map for gender equality, known as the Beijing Declaration, many admitted Thursday that progress remains slow. A top UN official has said that men are still not willing to relinquish power.
On 15 September 1995, some 17,000 people attended the largest-ever formal gathering of women in China's capital, agreeing to adopt a roadmap to gender equality, which later became known as the Beijing Declaration.
Asa Regner, United Nations Women’s Deputy Executive Director, was there.
"It was a world conference and the negotiations were about an action plan for gender equality and women's rights to be implemented in the world," she told RFI by phone as delegates gathered on Thursday to mark the 25th anniversary of the Beijing Declaration.
The 150-page blueprint called for bold action in 12 areas for women and girls, including combating poverty and gender-based violence, ensuring all girls get an education and putting women at top levels of business and government, as well as at peacemaking tables.
"When I look at the document, I really see that the discussions were about a power shift from men to women, stating that men had more power just for being men. And the action plan is really a list of measures to make that power shift happen," she said.
Although the number of female parliamentarians has doubled since 1995, today it still stands at only 25 percent compared to men. And not a single country is on track to achieving gender parity by 2030.
"I think this is because it is a power issue," reckons Regner. "It is very difficult to let go of power and to make those with more power, let go of it."
This has translated in a wide pay gap between men and women, who take home 16 percent less money than their male counterparts. Many women are also often stuck in vulnerable jobs and lack access to financial institutions.
The current Covid-19 crisis has only added to their woes.
"Women have been hardest hit, not least because many women in the world were working in the informal sector, and those jobs disappeared with the lockdowns," explains Regner.
With no health insurance, social or unemployment benefits, women in the informal sector have been left with nothing for them and their children.
"That is a very, very bad situation for them, but also for whole societies, which were in many times actually kept together with those small amounts of money that women made every day," she said.
The United Nations has warned that thousands of women and girls are at risk of falling below the poverty line (living on less than 2 dollars per day), bringing the total of poor women to 435 million in 2021.
“Unless we act now, Covid-19 could wipe out a generation of fragile progress towards gender equality,” UN chief Antonio Guterres told delegates at the General Assembly high-level meeting on Thursday.
French President Emmanuel Macron put it bluntly, “women’s rights are under attack.”
In a pre-recorded speech played at the gathering, Macron said that progress is being undercut “starting with the freedom for women to control their own bodies, and in particular the right to abortion.”
Leading the way
France and other countries such as Mexico have taken a leading role on issues of gender equality, with Paris notably pledging to host a series of awareness campaigns in June 2021 called "Generation Equality".
The forums, which were delayed until next year because of Covid-19, will "explicitly define actions for the future in strategic areas," Regner explains.
In spite of the challenges, the UN official pointed to numerous advances in the road to gender equality.
"There has been a drop in maternal mortality rates and girls' education has improved, with more female students enrolling in school," Regner commented, downplaying the recent school disruptions caused by Covid-19.
"What we have 25 years after the Beijing Conference is a much more mature discussion around gender equality, it is much higher on the agenda – there are almost 150 countries who have good legislation against men’s violence against women for instance," she continued, urging for these laws now to be implemented so that "they work" for women.
Men's fight too
The UN official also stressed the importance of men's contribution in the fight for gender equality.
"It is important to have men engaged and we really need to welcome them into the discussion," she said.
"At the same time, we have to be clear that it is men who are normally violent against women, not the other way around (...) We both have to be welcoming, but also talk about the problems as they are."
Finally, Regner urged governments to do more to allocate funding towards gender equality, notably investments in childcare to "shift responsibility for care work to free up women's work on the labour market."
It won't happen without willpower.
"Unless we have a political leadership, also pointing out that 'this is important', 'this is the priority', 'I want this to happen'. Nothing will change," she said.