In 1995, then-First Lady Hillary Clinton declared that “it is time for us to say here in Beijing, and for the world to hear, that it is no longer acceptable to discuss women's rights as separate from human rights."
In the 20 years since that watershed speech, women’s rights have become a cause célèbre embraced by the development community, the political class, popular culture and business leaders across the globe. From the White House to the World Bank to the board room of Coca-Cola, talk about the importance of the role of women has been easy to find.
But the question of whether women’s realities have evolved alongside their rhetorical prominence remains a pressing one. And now the former Secretary of State says she is gathering a group of actors to offer a progress report on whether the rhetoric matches the on-the-ground reality facing women in the world—and, if not, how best to band together to fill the gaps that remain.
“We agreed to an ambitious platform for action, that called for, and I quote, "The full and equal participation of women in political, civil, economic, social and cultural life,’” Clinton said to a ballroom crowded full of NGO leaders, women’s activists, political leaders and CEOs. “In many countries, laws that once permitted the unequal treatment of women have been replaced by laws that recognize, at least on paper, their equality. The international community has come together to sign conventions and approve resolutions promoting the rights and status of women and girls.”
Continued Clinton, “Yet we know, and we just heard examples, that for all this progress, we're still a long way from the goal of full and equal participation.”
The reality is that women still make up two-thirds of the world’s poor. There are more than 70 million child brides across the globe. Access to capital, markets and networks remain significant business obstacles facing women entrepreneurs. And complications from pregnancy represent the largest killer of girls aged 15-19.
“It’s time for a full and clear-eyed look at how far we have come, how far we still have to go, and what we plan to do together about the unfinished business of the 21st century: the full and equal participation of women,” Clinton said before going on to outline her plan to convene “partner organizations, international institutions, governments, businesses, NGOs and others, to evaluate the progress we've made in time for the twentieth anniversary, in September 2015, and to work to chart the path forward, to achieve that full and equal participation.”
The idea, say those involved, is to bring all the players in the fight for women’s empowerment together to see what difference all the time in the spotlight really has made in the lives of women worldwide. Times have changed since Beijing: technology exists in ways that no one even considered in that era long before smart phones, SMS, social media and widespread internet use. And so has the global economy. There is now greater recognition than ever before that women’s participation in the global economy matters to much more than women.
There is no question that the former Secretary of State has the power to gather that few others possess. The spotlight continues to shine on her every move post-Foggy Bottom and she continues to bring women onto that stage with her. The 1995 rhetoric that seemed so radical then has now become conventional wisdom in many of the world’s capitals and accepted by partners whose support then would have been judged unlikely, if not impossible. Now comes the time to hold people accountable for their pledges. And to judge whether the world’s wallets have kept up with its words when it comes to advancing women’s rights across the globe.