The 1995 Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action remains the world’s most progressive blueprint for advancing gender equality worldwide. Twenty-five years after it was affirmed by 189 countries, what progress has been made in raising this blueprint
off the page?

On International Women’s Day the World Health Organization, United Nations University – International Institute for Global Health and the British Medical Journal have launched a special series marking ‘Beijing 25’.

It shines a spotlight on health, education, environment, work and other critical foundations of life as they empower or restrict the rights and well-being of girls and women.

Women’s rights are human rights

Every person’s right to control their sexuality and sexual and reproductive health is linked to their human rights. This makes sexual and reproductive health and rights a cornerstone of the Beijing strategy: both as a driver towards gender equality,
and a fundamental part of it.

The first article in the series, ‘25 years after the Beijing Declaration we need to reaffirm that women’s rights are human rights,’ highlights recent advances in gender equality and celebrates
the rise of a new and determined generation of activists, working together to empower girls and women.  

It also expresses concern that progress has been superficial and not fast enough. Some critical areas of work have slowed or even been pushed back, such as comprehensive sexual and reproductive health information, services and rights.

The authors ask for increased and direct investment in women and girls, to meet their specific health needs and accelerate equal rights for all.

Uneven progress in sexual and reproductive health and rights

The Beijing Declaration affirms that the human rights of women cannot be separated from the universal human rights of every person – but that without concrete actions to strengthen them, they will remain rights in name only.  

Some advances in this area since 1995 can be measured by health outcomes, including a reduction in both maternal mortality and rates of female genital mutilation. Positive change is also reflected in public awareness: concepts of period poverty and sexual
harassment, once taboo, are being taken up in day-to-day language.

And yet today, sexual and reproductive health conditions remain one of the leading causes of mortality and morbidity for women and girls. Violence against women and girls is the most frequent human rights abuse worldwide.

Twenty-five years on, the Beijing agenda is still relevant and still unfinished.

Defending the defenders of women’s health and rights

Although The Platform for Action is repeatedly affirmed in international and governmental forums, women and girls still face social, political and cultural barriers to controlling their sexuality, sexual and reproductive health.

Their decisions cannot be free from coercion, discrimination and violence if they are made in the context of power imbalances, harmful gender norms and inequalities.

The authors from HRP, the Institute on Inequalities in Global Health, the Supreme Court of Nepal, the WHO and Women Deliver call for a system of protection for women’s human rights defenders everywhere.

They celebrate new communities of frontline defenders, civil society movements holding governments to account, and vibrant coalitions such as Generation Equality as drivers of achievements in girls and women’s rights over the last twenty-five years.

An anniversary is an opportunity for change

Governments are preparing for the 64th Commission on the Status of Women in late March, where they will review implementation of the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action and challenges affecting full realization of the 2030 Agenda for
Sustainable Development.

They will recognize that no country has fully achieved equality, and that women and girls who experience multiple forms of discrimination throughout their lives are still the most held back.

If this collective reflection can be shifted into action, 2020 will become a new anniversary: a pivotal year for the accelerated realization of gender equality and the empowerment of all women and girls, everywhere.