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Who Runs the World?

Bella Wedo

I scrambled through my storage all morning looking for my Bella hat from Beijing 1995. It was 20 years later, and I was running late for the International Women’s Day March for Gender Equality, put on by UN Women to commemorate the historic Fourth World Conference on Women. I had expected a sea of hats in memory of US Congresswoman Bella Abzug of New York, who was so instrumental in organizing women leaders globally. But there were none. This generation had not been at Beijing and had never known the woman who played such a big role in getting us there.

It took a global women’s movement working the corridors of the UN throughout a decade of conferences (1990-2000) to get consensus in that global body on a woman’s empowerment—her reproductive health and rights, her economic rights, and her right to be secure. These conferences focused on environment (Rio 1992), reproductive health (Cairo 1994), social development (Copenhagen 1995), and women’s empowerment (Beijing 1995).

The Beijing conference—which gathered an unprecedented number and variety of governmental leaders and pro-equality NGOs—resulted in some powerful goals for women’s leadership and empowerment globally. As the UN brings together leaders and activists this year to evaluate where things stand 20 years later, progress reports from each country and international institutions show that implementation is slow, even regressing.

Bella—always seen with her trademark hats—was the instrumental leader who revamped an international coalition for these gatherings. I joined Bella’s band of sisters in the lead-up to Rio 1992, and in 1993, I agreed to add women legislators as a parallel network to her efforts. A corollary goal for me was tripling membership of women legislators in my then organization, Parliamentarians for Global Action (PGA), from 11 percent to 30 percent.

Bella persuaded governments organizing the UN’s decade of conferences that a daily meeting of the “women’s caucus”—a coalition of women’s organizations and women official delegates—was an essential tool for consensus on all conference issues. A legislators’ conference was added at every Preparatory Committee and at the final conferences, with legislators on official delegations. In the Indian Lok Sabha, women MPs marched on the Speaker’s office to demand that they all be sent to Bejing—that he had no right to choose among them; it was the largest delegation there, with Hon. Margaret Alva, governor of Rajasthan, chairing.

The “women’s caucus” became a permanent institution for any UN conference. It has been a key tool to get cross-regional, cross-ideology consensus on every treaty, convention, agreement since then—the International Criminal Court, Arms Trade Treaty, negotiations on Millennium Development Goals, and now Sustainable Development Goals post-2015.

On the key issue of political leadership, where are women 20 years after Beijing? The Platform for Action called for women to make up 30 percent of political and government institutions. In legislatures the numbers globally are about 22 percent: women speakers are 15.8 percent; percentage of women ministers is 17.7 percent. Women account for only 6.6 percent of all heads of state and 7.3 percent of all heads of government. On parallel track is parliament administration: about 20 percent of the secretary-generals/clerks are women. All of these numbers are higher than they were 20 years ago, but none are close to 30 percent.

However, in some countries one tool that is beginning to yield results is a cross-party, well-staffed women’s caucus in the legislature. More than 88 such cross-party, multi-issue caucuses exist. In Pakistan, the first woman Speaker, Fehmida Mirza, formed the Women’s Caucus, which was instrumental in the 2008-2013 legislature passing more laws on women’s empowerment than any prior legislature.

“I led the US Congressional delegation to Beijing and have been introducing gender equality bills/resolutions ever since,” recalled Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-NY), co-chair of the Congressional Women’s Caucus in 2000. “I introduce the Equal Rights Amendment in every session of Congress, fought for reproductive health funding for UNFPA, and a resolution for the Senate to ratify CEDAW [Convention on Elimination of Discrimination Against Women].”

There is real resistance from the male establishment in political posts, government and inter-governmental, since power and visibility in these realms are a zero-sum game. There can be only one Speaker, one chair of a committee, one secretary-general. Positions are heavily fought for, and women have to play tough to get them. While Deputy Secretary-General, I had to fight to overturn my boss’s decision for him to attend the Beijing conference in my place!

Leadership jobs are also 24/7, taking their toll on family life. At Beijing+5, the five- year review of implementation of the Beijing Platform, we asked women legislators to share their challenges after being elected—in parliament and at home. It was a sobering report, with more than a quarter of marriages collapsed and many planning to quit after their first term.

Of the 187 countries that have ratified CEDAW, 26 are reserving the right not to abide by the Convention on specific clauses. “We need progress on removing reservations on the domestic domain,” warned Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, head of UN Women, addressing the Inter-Parliamentary Union meeting last week.

The liveliest panel at last week’s gathering was on women’s leadership from the Kenya Women’s Parliamentary Association [KEWOPA]. “Equal property rights, equal citizenship rights, no more than two-thirds either gender rule in government bodies—even our right to wear trousers in parliament is result of KEWOPA, but we are struggling at 19 percent,” said caucus chair, Hon. Cecily Mbarire; this is despite adding 47 women’s seats and parties nominating women for nominated seats.

Within international organizations, overall numbers are improving, now at 41.6 percent for total positions in the UN system. However, women at the top are still rare. PGA was the first and the only parliamentary organization with a woman secretary-general; the Organization of the Francophonie has just recently appointed its first woman SG, as has the International Civil Aviation Organization. The International Monetary Fund has its first woman managing director in the wake of sexual assault allegations against the previous director. The United Nations itself has never had a woman SG; neither has NATO, the Commonwealth, OSCE, OAS, ASEAN, the World Bank, the list goes on.

In September 2015 the race will begin in earnest for the 2016 election of the next Secretary-General of the UN. Campaigns have begun to push governments to elect a woman this time. “Women, who are half the world…have never had a 'turn',” points out Antonia Kirkland of Equality Now. The final names will be the joint choice of the Permanent Five: the United States, Russia, China, France, and the UK. Hon. Rebecca Kadaga, Speaker, Uganda, promises, “If the General Assembly is given a choice of a woman, I will work with my government and Africa bloc to vote for her.”

Bella, that locked door that you wanted to “take off its hinges” may finally be creaking.

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