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World Leaders Issue Political Declaration on Gender Equality by 2030: Asia Foundation Experts Weigh In

March 25, 2015

At the opening of the 59th Commission on the Status of Women at UN Headquarters on March 9, world leaders issued a political declaration calling for gender equality by 2030. In Asia editor Alma Freeman spoke with Barbara Rodriguez, The Asia Foundation’s assistant director for women’s empowerment programs, and Kate Bollinger, senior program officer, about what this declaration signifies, and what obstacles remain to achieving women’s equality in Asia on the 20th anniversary of the signing of the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action in 1995.

Some are calling the March 9 declaration a momentous step forward, while others say it does not go far enough. What is your reaction?

Barbi RodriguezBarbara Rodriguez: On the positive side, the declaration rightly acknowledges the progress that has been achieved for women’s rights and gender equality over the last 20 years, and pledges “to take further concrete action to ensure the full, effective, and accelerated implementation of the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action.” It falls short, however, of committing to specific actions to address the challenges that remain or measure progress moving forward. Nearly 1,000 women’s organizations and other members of civil society from around the world signed a statement expressing their disappointment in the declaration, which they say “represents a bland reaffirmation of existing commitments that fails to match the level of ambition in the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action and in fact threatens a major step backward.” Activists have also criticized the fact that it was drafted in advance of CSW59 and adopted on the first day of the New York sessions, which severely restricted civil society engagement in the process. The process matters, and has the potential to undermine both the validity and the overall utility of the declaration. This may have been a huge missed opportunity, given the record number of civil society participants – estimated at over 11,000 – who attended the sessions in New York.

Kate BollingerKate Bollinger: I agree that civil society engagement is critical in building a comprehensive document that has the potential to lead to the goals of the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action. Despite those missing voices, the declaration does highlight some important areas of focus moving forward. While advances have been made in gender equality since 1995, the declaration emphasizes that these are not enough. Achieving gender equality won’t just benefit women; it will have broad-based benefits. In fact, as emphasized in the declaration, “full and effective” implementation of the Beijing Declaration is a necessary step in ensuring the realization of the sustainable development goals, which will be released in September 2015. When there is greater gender equality, both men and women are empowered to be decision makers and active participants in setting development goals and strategies. This is supported by the recently released “No Ceilings: The Full Participation Report,” which uses data to demonstrate that women’s and girls’ full participation has positive effects on communities, economies, and security, as well as in areas including health, education, and legal rights. For example, while women’s participation in peace processes is limited, ample evidence exists that women’s contributions lead to more sustainable peace and lasting outcomes.

According to the UN, progress has been slow and uneven since the Platform for Action was signed. Where have women made the greatest strides toward achieving gender parity? Where are they still lagging?

Bollinger: Since the signing of the Platform for Action, gains have been made in gender equality, but progress across the “12 critical areas of concern” has not been as extensive as hoped. As the latest political declaration warns, no country has yet achieved equality for women and girls. In fact, some women and girls are experiencing greater insecurity and vulnerability due to emerging, increasing, or overlapping forms of discrimination.

However, global access to education has seen progress, with a high level of gender equality in primary schools and a narrowed gender gap at secondary school age. Greater focus on women’s legal rights has also been evident over the last 20 years. The “No Ceilings” report notes that over 95 percent of the 56 national constitutions created since 1995 pledge gender equality.

On the other hand, while a number of laws have been passed against domestic violence, enforcement has too often been weak. Women’s economic empowerment is a critical area of focus that has not made the expected gains. Women work more often in the informal sector than men, and lack access to the resources, opportunities, and networks they need to advance professionally or build their businesses.

Finally, women’s political participation, vital to ensuring that women’s interests are met by the political process, is growing slowly. Today, women hold 22 percent of seats in national legislatures, and their active participation in these positions is often limited. Women are also underrepresented as voters, as well as in leadership positions in other areas including the private sector, local politics, and academia.

The declaration emphasizes the essential roles of men and boys in advancing women’s equality. What do you see as the biggest challenges in engaging men and boys?

Rodriguez: The discourse on engaging men and boys to achieve gender equality is still relatively new, and so to many, engaging men still seems like something that would be nice to do, but is not necessarily essential. Gender inequality and the rigid gender roles, power structures, and stereotypes that inform behavior, hinder progress for all. As with other development challenges, it will be impossible to achieve sustainable change in this area if only half of the population is engaged. In addition, it is critical that men and boys be engaged as allies and change agents – as part of the solution, not only as potential perpetrators.

Bollinger: Engaging men in gender equality is not the norm, but it is becoming a recognized need as evidence increasingly points to the fact that gender equality benefits everyone. One of the major challenges to be addressed is the power imbalance that exists between men and women in many countries due to strong cultural and social norms that dictate behavior and gender dynamics. Addressing these deeply rooted power structures is complicated but critical, and highlights the necessity of including men and boys in gender equality efforts. When power structures are more equal, both men and women benefit from less rigid gender norms, which open options for more diverse experiences.

Asia is the fastest growing region in the world, home to the largest youth population and a growing middle class. However, the issue of human trafficking and violence against women is as pressing as ever. What are your thoughts on this?

Rodriguez: You’re right, these remain critical issues and enormous challenges. One significant area of progress has been the establishment of legal frameworks that promote women’s right to live free from violence. To date, most countries in the region have passed laws against domestic violence and other forms of violence against women, as well as against human trafficking – mostly in the past decade. Now the challenge is to ensure that these are implemented effectively. A UN study on men and violence in the Asia-Pacific region found that the vast majority of men who commit rape experience no legal consequences. In addition, inaccessible or unfair justice systems can add to victims’ trauma, and enable perpetrators to act with impunity.

Another related area of progress is the expanding evidence base, particularly on violence against women. Improved data collection methodologies and growing interest from governments, civil society, and donors in capturing this information have resulted in increasingly reliable measures of the prevalence of different forms of violence against women, as well as evidence that shows what strategies really work to prevent violence. This is not specific to Asia, but the emerging evidence is informing the policies and programs focused on ending violence against women that are being implemented in the region.

Related locations: Washington DC
Related programs: Empower Women
Related topics: Gender Gap, Gender-Based Violence, Women's Political Participation

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