In September 1995, the United Nations brought together almost 50,000 men and women in Beijing for its Fourth World Conference on Women. It was a major turning point for the global women’s movement and the occasion of then First Lady Hillary Clinton’s now-universal declaration that “women’s rights are human rights.” Now, almost twenty years later, UN Women launched “Beijing+20,” the campaign to celebrate the upcoming anniversary of the Conference, with an evening of rousing performances and inspiring speeches at Harlem’s historic Apollo Theatre.
The Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action, adopted by 189 countries, remains to this day the most effective and comprehensive policy framework for achieving gender equality. While noting the immense amount of progress that has been made, yesterday’s event was all about the work that still needs to be done. This point was brought home, tragically, by the recent assassination of Libyan activist Salwa Bugaighis – a woman killed because she dared to speak up. Bugaighis was honored by the audience with a moment of silence at the start of the evening.
The tone of the event, however, was not one of defiance, but of action and unbridled optimism. “Let’s get to work!” was the message that echoed through each and every speech and performance. Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, Executive Director of UN Women, proudly announced that she was giving gender inequality “an expiry date,” with the UN committing to achieving full equality by 2030.
The most notable absence yesterday was Clinton herself, although her historic words were channeled or repeated by nearly every person who took the stage. Many of them noted the many arenas in which women’s rights around the world are still being trampled today – sexual and domestic violence, economic inequality, education, FGM, early marriage – and reaffirmed their commitment to putting an end to all of these.
“What we want to do with this campaign is bring the message of gender equality back to the people, where it belongs,” said Lakshmi Puri, Deputy Executive Director of UN Women. “We want to launch this campaign with all the energy and mobilization that was evident in Beijing twenty years ago. That’s why we chose our slogan: Picture it! We want to ask people to envision a world were all women are empowered.”
Gloria Steinem, yesterday’s most notable presence, made a resounding appeal for equality: “The human race is a bird with two wings – if one wing is broken, no one can fly.”
Brooklyn-based performance group Girl Be Heard and poet and activist Carlos Andrés Gómez added luster to this message, denouncing violence and discrimination against women through powerful performance poetry.
“I think the future is bright!” Janel Scarborough, an audience member, asserted. “With social media, the world has become so much smaller…if we are tweeting and texting about this, millions of people can get the message. For so long, the gender gap seemed too vast, but now I really feel like we can get this done.”
It is a feeling that seemed to be shared by yesterday’s attendees. “Beijing+20” is a call to action, and one that needs to be heard around the world, to achieve its ultimate goal of ending gender inequality.
“This is not Mission Impossible; it is the mission of our time,” Mlambo-Ngcuka said, closing out the night.
“By 2030, we’ll be chilling. My grandchildren will say: ‘I hear that people used to treat girls badly – is that true?’ Because we can picture it, we can do it.”