Beijing+20 – a gathering of the decades for the 2015 Commission on the Status of Women
By Lara Koerner Yeo
2015 marks the 20th year anniversary of the 1995 Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action: the seminal outcome document of the Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing. The Platform, commonly recognized as the blueprint for women’s equality, outlines actions to be undertaken by States to end gender discrimination and achieve gender equality in twelve key areas, including education, health, participation in public and political life, access to media and telecommunications technologies, and State response to all forms of violence.
In an op-ed for International Women’s Day on March 8th, Executive Director of UN Women, Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, makes clear that while there has been progress towards gender equality, there remains an enormous gap in implementation across the world and a need for renewed political will to combat gender discrimination. The statistics Mlambo-Ngcuka shares are a sobering reminder: in 1990, twelve women were Heads of State; in 2015, there are fifteen. Eight out of ten parliamentarians in the world are men, and given the rate of women entering the salaried workforce around the world, we are more than eight years away from gender parity in the workforce and more than seventy-five years away from equal pay for equal work between the sexes.
International Women’s Day this year served as a gateway to the fifty-ninth Commission on the Status of Women in New York, held from 9-20 March. The gathering is recognized as CSW59/Beijing+20, and had the specific mandate to review the implementation of the Platform for Action and the outcome documents of the twenty-third special session of the General Assembly.
Notably, there is no Fifth World Conference on Women this year after UN Member States failed to pass a resolution for another conference in 2012. Many feminists were opposed to another conference: fearing that Member States would backtrack on Beijing commitments if the document were to be reopened for debate; noting that the focus must remain on continuing to implement what is in the Platform for Action now, given how far Member States still need to go to achieve gender equality; and wanting the financial resources that would be spent on a conference to be allocated to other endeavours to support women’s equality work. World conferences, however, remain a vital tool to galvanize movements and refocus international and domestic efforts on complex issue areas. While there are many who support and continue to push for another World Conference on Women, for now, State delegations, including a Canadian delegation, and women’s rights advocates and professionals have gathered in New York for CSW59/Beijing+20.
Federal Minister on the Status of Women Kellie Leitch, led the Canadian delegation. Prior to the start of the fifty-ninth session, Minister Leitch released a statement on the occasion of International Women’s Day. The statement highlights that the “Government of Canada is committed to taking actions that promote economic opportunities for all Canadians, including women… and has also committed to keeping our communities safe for all Canadians”. Canada’s National Review for the Commission includes actions by Canadian governments to achieve gender equality under ten of the twelve key issue areas identified in the Platform for Action, omitting review sections on Women and the Economy and an Institutional Mechanism for the Advancement of Women.
While a reading of Status of Women Canada statements and Canada’s National Review provide a reader with a sense that Canadian governments are taking concrete , comprehensive action to achieve gender equality—international gender indexes when compared over time provide contrast. Canada ranked 19th in the 2014 Gender Gap Index, slightly improved from 2013’s 20th ranking, though a downward departure from 2006‘s 14th ranking. Canada ranks 8th in the 2014 UN Human Development Index; while an improvement from 2013’s 11th ranking, it is a notable plummet from Canada’s 1st placed ranking throughout much of the 1990s.
Representatives of Canadian civil society, including the Canadian Federation of Univeristy Women, and the Canadian Labour Congress (CLC), submitted non-governmental organization statements to the Commission. The CLC statement provides an overview of key findings from the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives (CCPA) shadow report on the status of Canada’s implementation of the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action. The CCPA, read alongside Canada’s National Review, presents a more realistic review of the challenges that continue to bar gender equality in Canada. The report notes the low rates of access to child care for Canadian families; the disproportionate burden on women to provide unpaid childcare work; the uneven access to abortion services across Canada; the relatively stagnant rate of change on women’s poverty and the gender gap in the workforce; a lack of gender analysis across government policies and programs; the disproportionate negative impact upon women following State austerity measures in the advent of the financial crisis; and the persistent barriers to women’s political representation.
Status of Women Canada notes that they consult and engage with women’s organizations throughout the National Review. While the CCPA report clearly articulates that there are lost opportunities for substantive partnerships between government and Canadian civil society stemming from changes to the SWC mandate, gender-blind policies, and funding cuts to organizations that conduct research, policy analysis, and advocacy on women’s equality and human rights issues in Canada.
Indeed, in Canada today there have been funding cuts and an advocacy chill felt by social justice and environmental organizations, including charities and women’s organizations that conduct policy research and advocacy. There has also been the loss of the long form census, which has had negative impacts on data analysis, including gender data analysis. Further, the Canadian government has made clear that there is inconsistent race-disaggregated data collected across the criminal justice system. In sum, there is uneven access to sex- and race-disaggregated data across data indicators, which is a critical tool to understanding the nuances and intersections of sex and racial discrimination and working towards gender equality for all.
We have much to celebrate as women and men, boys and girls, in Canada. As a country, we have the human, institutional, and financial resources to achieve gender equality. However, we’re not there yet. As we celebrate the 20th anniversary of the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action, take a moment to consider how we can take action in support of women’s equality and human rights in Canada.
One easy action includes supporting a national dialogue on gender equity and justice issues, such as that advanced by the Up for Debate campaign. Up for Debate represents a coalition of over 150 organizations in Canada calling for a national leaders debate in anticipation of the 2015 federal election on issues such as women’s economic inequality, violence against women, and the lack of support for women’s leadership and organizations. One can also choose to financially support organizations, such as the CCPA, that continue to conduct civil society policy research to augment government reporting and inform policy discussions. And one can stay tuned to on-going women’s rights controversies that arise, such as the current attack on Muslim women’s rights in Canada. In response to such occurrences, one can choose to take action in solidarity by speaking out in support of women’s equality and rights, signing petitions, and calling political representatives to state one’s position—small actions that can create substantial change when magnified by millions of similar small actions across the country.
 Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, Progress on Women’s Rights: Missing in Action A Shadow Report on Canada’s Implementation of the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action, October 2014, at 85, online: CCPA <https://www.policyalternatives.ca/publications/reports/progress-women%E2%80%99s-rights-missing-action>.
 Ibid at 82-3.
 Ibid at 45; Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women, Observations of the Government of Canada on the report of the inquiry concerning Canada of the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women under article 8 of the Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, CEDAW/C/OP.8/CAN/2, 6 March 2015, at para 40, online: OHCHR <http://tbinternet.ohchr.org/Treaties/CEDAW/Shared%20Documents/CAN/CEDAW_C_OP-8_CAN_2_7644_E.pdf>.