Beijing +5 (3/00)

Each of the major UN World Conferences of the 1980s and 90s has a review mechanism that calls for five-year meetings to discuss the past and set goals for the future. These "Plus 5s" have examined decisions made at the Copenhagen Social Development Summit, Cairo Conference on Population and Development, Vienna Process on Human Rights, and Rio Environment Conference. Next in line is a review of progress on the Status of Women, scheduled for June 5-9 in New York.

A host committee is organizing many celebratory events, and an international committee has been set up to facilitate the activities of women actually lobbying at the UN. Women’s organizations from around the world have produced "shadow" or alternative reports to fill in the perceived gaps in their government’s assessments. These will be compiled and presented as a global shadow report, the non-governmental sector’s contribution to the debate. Since this isn’t a major conference but rather a Plus 5, no large NGO forum is planned. A two-day working session for NGOs will be held on the weekend prior to the meeting, and a variety of panel and cultural events will take place within and around the UN.

Areas of Concern

How will we measure progress? What will be our "measures of success"? And, is the Platform for Action adopted in Beijing in 1995 really making a difference in the lives of women most in need? These are a few of the questions that immediately arise as women begin to look at actions taken in the past 5 years. Thus far, a regional preparatory process has seen governmental meetings in Bangkok, Beirut, Addis Ababa, Geneva, and Lima, with many non-governmental observers from the women’s movement watching. For the full reports of these conferences, as well as position papers by women lobbying in their chosen area, go to

Many feel that women haven’t achieved much; others say that we’ve taken significant first steps. In essence, the debate during Women 2000 is an attempt to take an accurate snapshot of how women are situated internationally and nationally.

Governments have been working on a short political declaration (, a review and appraisal written by the secretary general after receiving answers to a questionnaire sent to all governments (, and the structure for a final document (

The Beijing document has 12 chapters, also known as Critical Areas of Concern, which cover issues such as poverty, armed conflict, violence against women, the girl child, and so on ( It’s easily one of the most far-reaching documents that the UN conferences of the 90s produced. Yet, it lacks details, specific targets, and bench marks for success. For example, it talks about equal rights and closing the wage gap, but is weak on specific, concrete, and measurable tasks and programs for governments.

Why should NGOs help governments develop such targets? Because they make progress visible and measurable, allow for the monitoring of trends, and translate idealistic goals into tasks and phases that seem manageable. Some goals might seem unachievable, and progress won’t begin unless steps are defined. Targets and goals provide incentives for sustained efforts and help determine who’s responsible. It’s also easier to reward progress if there’s a concrete target.

The necessary characteristics of these targets or benchmarks are that they’re measurable, information about them is publicly accessible and reliable, they’re regularly updated, and a monitoring mechanism (perhaps a committee responsible for compiling and publishing the information) is set up.

Targets should be ambitious – but also achievable. If they aren’t attainable, people become discouraged. It also must be recognized that what’s achievable differs for each country. However, targets should be "owned," so that the main actors feel committed and therefore accept responsibility.

The Obstacles

After reviewing the answers to a questionnaire sent to all governments, the UN Division for the Advancement of Women (UNDAW) has analyzed the obstacles and grouped them into six categories:

1. Attitudes. Governments report that culturally embedded attitudes and stereotypes remain the biggest obstacles to change.

2. Economic change and instability. Both have deeply affected women’s lives and governments’ ability to commit resources to women’s services. The phenomenon of globalization is mentioned often by governments in their responses.

3. Conflicts and natural disasters. Governments indicate that policies and institutions are geared toward conditions of normality. But often these conditions don’t exist. There are 37 wars raging, and this is just one example.

4. Lack of data and monitoring mechanisms. This makes it hard to identify problem areas and address them.

5. Lack of resources. In some states, this makes the goals set in Beijing impossible to meet.

6. Backlash. This was also mentioned quite often by government agencies answering the questionnaires.

Women and Armed Conflict

Each of the four World Conferences on Women have had "Equality, Development and Peace" as the theme. As a litmus test, let’s examine one of the least popular chapters of the platform – women and armed conflict – and its strategic objectives.

Reading the documents resulting from Mexico, Nairobi, Copenhagen, and Beijing, it becomes clear that the end of the Cold War has reduced the emphasis placed on peace and security issues. At the same time, security has lessened and the incidence of intra-state and ethnic war has risen.

The first objective was to increase participation of women in conflict resolution at decision-making levels, and protect women in situations of armed conflict. But have we seen many women in the Middle East peace negotiations? In the Kosovo talks? One woman from each warring side was present at the six-week negotiations in Lome, Togo, to bring an end to the war in Sierra Leone.

There are no women ambassadors in the Security Council, and few women throughout the decision-making structures governing peace and security, including alliances supposedly upholding human rights. While gender sensitive training has begun, and policy units produce analysis on the gender aspects of war and post-war zones, this hasn’t changed the face of policy and institutions. The June review should set quotas for women in international diplomacy, and demand adequate representation at every negotiating table.

The second objective is to reduce excessive military expenditure and control the availability of armaments. This area has resulted in the least change, and the most culpable practices, including misplacement of resources and actual slaughter. The current global military budget is 800 billion dollars per year, and a new arms race is upon us. The British American Security Information Council reports that arms dealers are still free agents in most parts of the world.

Next is promoting non-violent forms of conflict resolution and reducing the incidences of human rights abuses in conflict situations. For many women, the goal of eliminating conflict situations, not just reducing the harm done, is a more reasonable goal. War is simply the disregard for principles, laws, and respect of human rights, so attempting to give war a human face seems a farce to many, especially those who have survived conflict. In the past five years, we’ve seen the legitimization of armed intervention in Kosovo, Chechnya, and East Timor, among others, a dangerous trend that Beijing +5 should protest.

The fourth objective is to promote women’s contributions to fostering a culture of peace. It’s well known that women have been engaged in peace building activities before, during, and after conflict, yet not much recognition or assistance has been provided. These activities don’t attract media attention or financial commitment, but their value in transforming societies is immeasurable. Hopefully, the June meeting will find ways to coordinate and link these activities in a more coherent and cohesive manner.

Providing protection, assistance, and training to refugee and displaced women is the fifth objective. The biggest gap that’s been observed recently in conflict zones is the unequal treatment of refugees by the international community. Refugees in the North have been getting immediate, adequate material provision and asylum, while their counterparts in the South lack the basics to survive. Many die of preventable diseases, others become victims of AIDS and HIV. In many instances, the time it takes to deploy peacekeepers to refugee camps costs many people their lives. Rapid deployment of peacekeepers is a must if we are to actually prevent conflicts rather than mopping up after them.

Felicity Hill is the director of the UN office for the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF). Women throughout the world are working on Beijing+5 by contributing to shadow reports, lobbying, coming to New York, and following debates through the Internet. To find out more, contact WILPF’s UN Office, (212) 682-1265, or