Author: Ranjani K. Murthy, September 8 2014 - At the Fourth United Nations World Conference on Women held at Beijing in 1995, the UN, national governments and civil society called for action on eleven critical areas.

  • Women and the environment
  • Women in power and decision-making
  • The girl child
  • Women and the economy
  • Women and poverty
  • Violence against women 
  • Human rights of women
  • Education and training of women
  • Institutional mechanisms
  • Women and health
  • Women and the media
  • Women and armed conflict

Yes, there has been progress on these critical areas. Women, for example, are more included in forest protection and watershed committees than before in India. They are engaged in seed preservation and sustainable agriculture. Women are more found occupying positions of political power, with the progress varying across countries. Women won sixty four percent of parliamentary seats in Rwanda in the elections held in 2013 (Republic of Rwanda, 2013). Women are slightly more frequently found in technical and managerial positions than 20 years before. Levels of income poverty have declined over the 20 years, though there is no separate data on women in poverty. Education of girls and women has increased, though in some countries it is still at primary and middle school level. Life expectancy of women has improved along with that of men, and infant and child mortality rates of girls has come down, along with that of boys. Women are more frequently found than before in print and visual media.

Yet there are gender-intensified challenges, gender-specific challenges (Kabeer, 1994) and gender-related setbacks:

  • Gender intensified challenges: The neo-liberal development paradigm has led to conversion of agricultural land, forests, common property resources into industrial and other commercial purposes, leading to alienation of land rights and environmental degradation. This has affected women more than men, as they depend on natural resources for their livelihoods, fuel, fodder, water and medicinal plants. Similarly privatisation of health care globally, since mid-1995, has had more adverse impact on women’s health than men’s, as they have lesser access to income and insurance, and rates of unethical reproductive health practice like unnecessary caesarean section are higher in the private sector (DNA, 2014).
  • Gender-specific challenges: While girls' access to education has improved, there are gender gaps in tertiary education in some countries, disadvantaging girls, like in India. Likewise, female IMR [infant mortality rate] and CMR [child mortality rate] have come down, but gaps between girls and boys persist and have widened in India. In Egypt, like in many countries, women positions of political power have not been able to exercise their powers. Bullying by men, lack of child care, unending domestic responsibilities, lack of leadership skills are some of the barriers (Marei, 2009). Neither do all elected women hold progressive views on gender and social equity.
  • Gender related setbacks: The last twenty years have seen setbacks. Eleven countries report a skewed sex ratio at birth (beyond the normal 104-106) for the period 2008-2011. These countries cut across religions and regions and include in addition to China and India countries which in 1995 did not demonstrate male bias in sex ratio at birth like Azerbaijan and Georgia (UNFPA, 2012). Together these countries constitute over 40% of the world population in 2013, and may constitute a larger population in the coming years. Yet another setback is the increase in violence against women. Though laws on domestic violence and violence outside are in place in several countries, patriarchy, lack of work with men on gender, increase in women who break stereotypes, and increase in male unemployment are contributing to a rise in violence against women and girls. Armed conflicts as well as conflicts based on identities are on the rise, during which women’s bodies are used as sites to settle scores.

There is hence a need for Beijing+20 discussions to redefine the development paradigm, reverse set-backs due to the neoliberal agenda, address gender-specific challenges with greater commitment and resources, and tackle gender-related setbacks head-on. If there are inequitable numbers of girls born, equality can never be won. Time has come to also move beyond a sectoral approach and evolve strategies to change institutions- family, community, markets, state and inter-state institution - in favour of women and other marginalised groups. Greater attention to diversity amongst women is required – and a broader spectrum than 20 years back! Otherwise there is a danger that the goals of Equality, Development and Peace set twenty years back will remain elusive.


  1. Republic of Rwanda, 2013, Women win 64% of seats in parliamentary elections, maintaining number one spot worldwide
  2. UN Women,  The United Nations Fourth World Conference on Women: Platform for Action
  3. DNA, India, 2014, Caesarian deliveries more in private hospitals, Friday, June 13 2014
  4. Marei, 2009, Second Shadow Report for the CEDAW Coalition Egypt 2009, The Egyptian Association for Community Participation Enhancement (EACPE), Cairo, Egypt
  5. UNFPA [United Nations Population Fund], 2012, Sex Imbalances at Birth: Current Trends, Consequences and Policy Implications, UNFPA Asia and Pacific Regional Office, Bangkok

Image credit: Plan, European Union Office