What’s Beijing got to do with us?

Paula Manley represented Wales at this year’s UN Convention on the Status of Women in New York

What’s the Beijing Convention on the Status of Women got to do with me? That was the first question I asked when I received the invitation from the Welsh Government to represent Welsh women Non Governmental Organisations at this year’s 54th United Nations Convention on the Status of Women in New York. My second question was “Why me?” Well, apparently, the Women’s National Commission had asked the Welsh Government to choose someone who could speak on behalf of the ‘ordinary women’ of Wales and who had no previous experience of Beijing or the Convention on the Status of Women. It was a description that fitted me perfectly!

In the picture

Pictured above at an evening reception at the UK Deputy Ambassador’s residence in New York (left to right): Baroness Gould, Chair of Women’s National Commission, Isabelle Lannon from the Scottish Women’s Convention, the author Paula Manley, of the Women Making a Difference Project and Helen Biggin, Anglican Church delegate for Wales.

I had, of course, heard of the United Nations but didn’t realise that the Commission on the Status of Women was an annual forum in which women’s organisations could participate and have a voice in shaping the work of the United Nations. Nor did I know that it has been meeting for over 60 years to protect the human rights of women and raise awareness of the status and situation of women around the world.

I have since learnt that there have also been four world conferences and that the last one was held in Beijing in China in 1995. On that occasion, thousands of women from all over the world (many from the UK) lobbied the 189 attending Governments to agree a Platform for Action based around twelve critical areas of concern for  women: poverty, education, health, violence, conflict, the economy, women in power, human rights, the media, the environment, ways to make equality happen and the girl child.

Since its adoption in Beijing in 1995 the Convention on the Status of Women has reviewed the progress being made every five years, identifying persistent gaps and challenges and adopting recommendations to facilitate increased implementation. The 2010 Beijing + 15 event, hosted by the UN, was convened to share experiences and best practices that have been successful in empowering women and girls in families, communities and countries around the world, with a view to overcoming the remaining obstacles and identifying new challenges.

With all this in mind, I found myself on a flight to New York in one of the worst snow storms to hit the city this century. I landed just before they closed the airports but later met several women from the UK who hadn’t been as lucky as their trip had included a diversion to Miami. The following five days were a whirlwind of Non Governmental Organisation events and briefings, as well as several evening receptions including one with Harriet Harman in the Park Avenue apartment of the Deputy British Ambassador.

Attending the Convention is the experience of a lifetime. I have found myself describing it (to anyone who will listen) as being a bit like the Hay Book Festival, without the books of course. Hoards of women from every continent rush between the parallel side events being held at various venues around the United Nations building, then sit together to listen to the speakers, swap experiences and engage in debate. It really was the most stimulating and enlightening environment and the only real down side was the realisation that I had to choose which events to attend from a selection that all sounded compelling.

Apparently, more than 7,000 women from all over the world were registered for this years’ conference. Consequently, it was not surprising that queuing to get your badge to enter the UN took a very long time. I queued for three hours and did comparatively well. Some women waited for eight hours before getting in.

Standing in line for hours may not seem like the most enjoyable experience but on this occasion it really was a lot of fun. It gave me the opportunity to meet some wonderful women and hear about their families and home lives in India, Australia, Kenya and Chile. I also listened to the dreams, hopes and aspirations for their local, national and global communities. For example, one Swedish woman spoke about lobbying to make nations include quality of life – well being, freedom, happiness – in calculations of gross domestic product, to acknowledge the value of life as well as the cost.

In some ways the sheer scale of the event, the huge numbers of participants and the range of diverse events, speakers and workshops made the whole experience seem somewhat overwhelming. We were very fortunate to have two members of the Women’s National Commission staff, Barbara and Daniel, to look after us ‘rookie’ Non Governmental Organisation representatives. At least this meant that I managed to be in the right place at the right time for every event. I was also very privileged to have the company of Baroness Gould who is Chair of the Women’s National Commission and a pivotal and inspiring figure for many women, myself included.

Within this whirlwind of wonderful events and people, for me there were two highlights of the week.  The first was attending the opening ceremony at the UN when Harriet Harman, then UK Minister for Women and Equality, reaffirmed the UK’s commitment to progress women’s rights and gender equality both domestically and internationally. She also expressed the UK’s strong support for the swift establishment of the new UN women’s agency, arguing that women all over the world would want the UN to make progress during this milestone year. She stressed that the establishment of a powerful women’s agency would be a strong signal that the UN was showing leadership in this important area.

The second highlight was the Women’s National Commission’s side event The 4 Nations: What’s Beijing go to do with us? which I spoke at alongside representatives from other NGOs from the UK. Each of us took one of the critical areas of the Platform for Action and talked about what our home nations are doing to implement them.

  • Carlene Firmin of Race on the Agenda in England spoke first. She delivered an emotional and disturbing report from her recently completed study Gangs and Women and Girls (www.rota.org.uk). She expressed very forcibly, what this work means for Beijing, particularly in relation to violence and girls.
  • The second speaker was Kate McCulloch of the Northern Ireland European Platform. She focused on Women and Conflict and spoke about the importance of international obligations such as the UN Security Council Resolution 1325 and how they should be used. Though she values and supports 1325, which addresses the impact of war on women and women’s contribution to conflict resolution and sustainable peace, she asserted that specific and appropriate ways of explaining this need to be found in order to make it accessible to and workable for ordinary women.
  • I went next and focused on Women in Power, specifically the importance of increasing women’s representation in decision making locally, nationally and internationally. I also stressed that women need other women as mentors, role models and champions to help, support and encourage them to stand for public office. I gave examples of good practice being delivered through Step Up Cymru, Women Making a Difference and the Welsh Government’s Public Appointments Training. I was also very proud to be able to speak about the positive affect on governance created by the 50/50 representation of women elected to the National Assembly, and, on a less positive note, how this percentage is unlikely to be maintained without some form of positive action being taken by political parties.
  • Isabelle Lannon from the Scottish Women’s Convention spoke about Women in Poverty with specific reference to the deep-rooted inequality and emotional deprivation faced by many women living in poverty. She cited the causes as being the gender pay gap, occupational segregation and the unpaid caring role of women. Marsha Scott from Engender added that economic growth doesn’t necessarily remove poverty. She highlighted the importance of skills and particularly the role of the equality duty and gender impact assessments. Essentially, both women agreed that there had to be a greater understanding of poverty and its cause and effect for women.

The time I was able to spend at the Convention on the Status of Women slipped away too quickly. Before I knew it I was on the flight back home. At the time, I felt that I would have liked to have been able to join other delegates from the UK staying on for a second week for inter-nation lobbying and campaigning. However, as it turned out this year’s Convention, which had eagerly been anticipated as an important milestone, passed with little fanfare to the great disappointment of many who had hoped to contribute to the development of an Outcome Document. Instead the UN issued a Political Declaration very early on, reaffirming commitment to the Beijing Platform for Action, but giving no mention to gender entity.

In some respects my abiding reaction to the Convention was that it was simply overwhelming.  Nonetheless, I believe it is essential for Wales that a representative attends future events to embrace the opportunities for actively engaging with the programme. There are at least five reasons:

  1. Those who may argue that funding participation in this type of event is inappropriate during a period when cuts are being made in public spending fail to understand the value of learning from the examples of other nations. This is an excellent opportunity to save money in the long term by applying the tried and tested experience of other nations without having to do the ground work ourselves.
  2. With our strong record of equality building, especially in the area of governance, Wales is able to give a fantastic example to the world and we should be keen and proud to share our journey. Also, so much good work is done in Wales through organisations that have little or no opportunity to attend international events and tell their stories. It is therefore very important that a representative is sent to speak about this.
  3. The Beijing Platform for Action continues to represent the global policy framework for gender equality and empowerment of women and guides the work of Member States, the United Nations, international and regional bodies, and civil society. We need to be more aware of this in Wales when we are looking to achieve our own strategic objectives around gender equality and empowerment of women in Wales.
  4. We need to be developing the potential of a new generation of women in Wales who will have the ability to step forward in the future to promote gender equality and women’s empowerment – women who will know what Beijing has to do with them and will be ready for the next World Conference when it happens.
  5. We are increasingly aware that no country can survive in isolation, especially where environmental and security issues are concerned. Effective action is best achieved through international understanding and cooperation, which has to happen on an individual and cultural level as well as within political and institutional organisations. Women are often the conduit for grass roots change which grows to blossom throughout society. Speaking with and listening to women from across the globe left me in no doubt as to the will to resolve contentious, divisive issues. However, for this to have long term value, all nations must be included.

All these are strong arguments, not only attending future Convention on the Status of Women events, but also in increasing the size of the delegation significantly. So much goes on in such a short space of time that it is almost impossible for one person to fully take advantage of all that is available.

If we are to fully represent what Wales has to offer as well as understanding and taking on board the best practice of other nations, we need more bodies on the ground. Otherwise fantastic opportunities may be lost. Investing in a strategic team made up of a cross section of women representing all areas of Wales would, I believe, pay huge dividends, not just for women but for our nation as a whole. So, in answer to the question, ‘What’s Beijing got to do with me?’, I feel no hesitation is answering: Everything!

Paula Manley is Managing Co-ordinator of National Federation of Women’s Institutes Cymru-Wales

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