In the United States, victims of domestic abuse can call a hotline for help anywhere in the country. Women in Fiji can work any hours they choose, through the repeal of a law prohibiting women from working after 6 p.m. In India and Tanzania, efforts to ensure that women make up at least a third of national legislators have boosted the number of female lawmakers. Slovakian women are benefiting from a new labor law that includes paid maternity leave. More Korean families have access to child-care facilities through a new government-funded program. And in Egypt, new legal literacy training programs are available to women.
For those who wonder if a United Nations conference can make a difference in people's lives, these are examples of changes in laws, policies, and programs that already have resulted from the UN's Fourth World Conference on Women held in Beijing a year ago this month.
Here in the US, thousands of women in more than 500 communities will come together on Sept. 28 to assess the impact of the Beijing conference. They will share what's working in their own communities and offer ideas for a National Action Agenda for Women. A high point in these community meetings will be a national teleconference from Washington from 2-4 p.m. EST, organized by the president's InterAgency Council on Women. It will feature first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton, as well as other private and government members of the US delegation to Beijing.
The community conferences are the direct result of the commitments that the US, along with 188 other governments, made in Beijing in producing an historic "Platform for Action," a comprehensive set of specific recommendations for promoting equality between women and men around the world.
In a nutshell, the platform says "no" to poverty and to all forms of violence against women and girls. It says "yes" to literacy, parity in education, and expanding women's political participation. It says yes to economic opportunity, access to resources, health care throughout life, reproductive health and rights; yes to positive portrayals in the media; and, overall, yes to women's rights as human rights.
What is remarkable about the Platform for Action is that it was created by women themselves. The United Nations allowed women's groups and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) to participate in a series of preparatory meetings and in the conference itself. With this access, NGOs represented the interests of the women they serve and successfully lobbied government delegates to get their perspectives and priorities incorporated in the document. Therefore, the platform is not a plan imposed by government bureaucrats, but an agenda rooted in the realities of women around the world.
Through working with governments to prepare the platform, NGOs have an enhanced place in civil society. NGO-government partnerships exist where they didn't before. And NGOs have banded together in new coalitions to hold governments accountable. This expansion and legitimization of NGO influence is the fuel that is turning the UN document into concrete gains for women and their families.
But gains like those mentioned above are only a beginning. To fully implement the Beijing Platform for Action, NGOs are urging governments to develop long-term national-action plans. Many governments, including that of the US, are working to finalize these plans by the end of the year.
But NGOs dedicated to platform implementation see one critical gap: adequate allocation of resources by governments and the UN. Many national governments are recognizing the vital role of women in the welfare of families, communities, and national economies. Now it is time to alter spending priorities to reflect this reality.
The Beijing conference raised women's expectations. A total of 189 governments ratified the Platform for Action. NGOs are watching and demanding that governments deliver on their promises.
*Suzanne Kindervatter is director of the Commission on the Advancement of Women at InterAction, a coalition of over 150 US relief, development, and refugee-assistance agencies.