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20 Years After Beijing, How Are We Doing?

| March 18, 2015

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Photo courtesy of the Clinton Foundation. Melinda Gates, Chelsea Clinton, and Hillary Clinton at the No Ceilings launch event.

Twenty years ago, at the UN Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing, 189 nations agreed to an ambitious Platform for Action that called for the “full and equal participation of women in political, civil, economic, social and cultural life.” It was at this conference that Hillary Clinton famously declared that “women’s rights are human rights.”

More Work to Be Done

- Constitutional change has coincided with an increase in legislation protecting women’s rights. More than 95 percent of the 56 national constitutions adopted after 1995 guarantee gender equality.

- But rights on paper often go unenforced—and many legal barriers remain. More than 150 countries lack protections critical to ensuring women’s economic participation—including access to capital, property ownership, and caregiving leave. Even where strong laws exist, implementation and enforcement are often weak.

- Maternal mortality has been cut in half since 1995, yet 800 women die per day from preventable causes related to childbearing.

- Women have made huge gains in health, but nearly 225 million women still lack access to family planning.

- One in four girls is married before her 18th birthday. Child marriage undermines girls’ health, education, and economic opportunities, and increases their risk of experiencing violence.

- The gender gap in access to primary education has virtually closed globally. Girls and boys enroll in primary school at nearly equal rates worldwide—a major achievement.

- But gaps remain and marginalized girls lag farthest behind. Poor, rural, minority, and conflict-affected girls are significantly less likely to be educated. Almost two thirds of the world’s illiterate adults—496 million—are women.

- Access to tech is key to economic progress for women, yet 200 million fewer women are online than men. Around the world, there are still fewer girls and women in STEM education—fields with many of the best-paying jobs—and the situation has not improved.

- More than 1 million girls are “missing” at birth each year due to gender-biased sex selection, particularly in India and China, accounting for an estimated 1.4 million missing baby girls each year.

- Women’s participation in the labor force has stagnated for two decades. Globally, around 55 percent of women are part of the labor force, compared with 82 percent of men, and the gap between men and women has not changed significantly since 1995. Overall, women in almost every country earn less than men.

- The U.S. is one of nine countries worldwide that doesn’t provide for paid maternity leave.

- Women remain underrepresented in leadership positions. Women occupy 22 percent of seats in national legislatures. Surveys in many countries show that people still believe men make better political leaders than women.

Highlights from the No Ceilings Report

Last week, at an event in New York City, Clinton stood on another stage, this time with her daughter, Chelsea, and partner Melinda Gates, to announce a comprehensive report taking stock of women’s progress since that watershed conference, and to set a blueprint for moving forward. Last year, The No Ceilings Initiative of the Bill, Hillary & Chelsea Clinton Foundation partnered with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to assess the gains for women and girls over the last 20 years as well as the gaps. The No Ceilings: The Full Participation Report presents a comprehensive assessment of the status of women and girls worldwide, analyzing more than 850,000 data points from some 190 countries to evaluate progress toward gender equality in health; education; legal discrimination; gender-based violence; and economic, civil, and political participation. The findings are presented in a summary report at noceilings.org, where an interactive data map allows users to explore how countries measure up on a wide range of policies, issues, and statistics. 

The report found that in issue areas where governments have committed resources and political will—such as health, education, and legal rights—conditions have vastly improved for women worldwide, with the maternal mortality rate halved since 1995 and attendance at primary school nearly equal among boys and girls, as well as an increase in laws protecting women’s rights. However, in the areas of security, economic opportunity, and political leadership, the pace of change has been much too slow. And even where there has been progress, the data show that the gains are not shared by all: geography, income, age, race, and ethnicity, among other factors, remain powerful determinants of a woman’s chance at equal rights and opportunities.

At the launch event (which featured a host of world and community leaders including two female presidents, Liberia's Ellen Johnson Sirleaf and Croatia's Kolinda Grabar-Kitarović), Clinton expressed her conviction that "there has never been a better time in history to be born female.” However, she cautioned that while “progress is possible, this data shows just how far we still have to go,” adding, “This data is a benchmark of our progress but also a roadmap for the work ahead."

Melinda Gates told me, “I am a big believer in the power of data. Data is knowledge, and knowledge is power. This report can help each of us answer for ourselves, and decide what areas we want to invest in going forward; we can learn to replicate the successes in the areas of failure. With this report, we have what essentially amounts to a blueprint for action."

The groundbreaking report, put together by the Clinton Foundation and the Gates Foundation in collaboration with The Economist Intelligence Unit, UCLA WORLD Policy Analysis Center, and Fathom Information Design, also uncovered areas where there remain gaps in the data, such as violence against women, women’s labor participation in the informal sector, and women and the environment. The authors hope that the report will be used by both public- and private-sector groups to determine where to concentrate resources and awareness.

“Honestly, I continue to be disheartened by the data on women’s economic opportunities,” Gates said. “Labor force participation, wage parity, access to technology…. The numbers aren’t good. But that’s what the report is for—to point out the areas that need attention. I am confident we will start making progress on economic empowerment in the near future.”

Security is another area of concern for women. “Violence against women is a global epidemic,” the report found. “An estimated one in three women worldwide has experienced physical or sexual violence, the vast majority at the hands of her husband or partner.”

Women remain underrepresented in leadership positions. Although twice as many women hold political office now as in 1995, their political participation has grown very slowly—women hold 22 percent of seats in national legislatures, an increase from 12 percent 20 years ago, but far from parity. In the corporate world, the share of women CEOs in Fortune 500 companies was zero in 1995; now it is 5 percent. The data also show that women are rarely represented in formal peace processes, where only 10 percent of peace negotiators are women.

"Women are not just victims,” emphasized Clinton. ”They are agents of change and the drivers of progress. We have to look at all women as the leaders they are, the experience they can bring, and the change they can make."

While the report shows that serious challenges remain, Gates expressed optimism. “I don’t want to lose sight of the fact that the past 15 years have seen amazing progress. So we keep going in the direction we’ve been going, but we go there with more information, so we can be more rigorous, more efficient, and more effective. As long as we keep raising our voices, I’m confident we’ll keep making progress, even faster than before.”

Clinton observed at the launch event, “When women and girls have an opportunity to participate, we can lift up not just ourselves but our families, communities, and even our countries…This isn't just a story about women and girls. It is a universal story about the kind of world we want.”

The views expressed in this commentary are those of the author alone and do not represent WMC. WMC is a 501(c)(3) organization and does not endorse candidates.

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