The Fourth World Conference on Women held in Beijing in 1995 was a momentous gathering of women from around the world and from all walks of life. They committed to an agenda for full gender equality and women's empowerment. Their aspirations were enshrined in the Beijing Platform for Action which remains as relevant today as when it was adopted 20 years ago.
The Beijing Platform envisages a world where every woman and girl can exercise their freedoms and choices and realize all their rights, including the right to live free from violence, be educated, exercise their sexual and reproductive health and rights choices, participate in decision-making, and earn equal pay for work of equal value.
Now, in 2015, there is a new opportunity to establish gender equality and the empowerment of women and girls, as both critical issues in their own right and as essential foundations for inclusive and sustainable development.
In September, world leaders are expected to endorse an ambitious set of sustainable development goals, including a gender equality goal. These goals must then be translated into concrete actions which will improve the lives of women and girls everywhere.
Progress on development, including on gender equality and women's and girls' empowerment has undoubtedly been made at the global level over the past two decades, but it is far from even.
The number of women in paid and wage employment has increased, as has life expectancy for both women and men. Gender parity in schooling is close to being achieved in primary education, although very few countries have achieved that target at all levels of education.
Women's participation in national legislatures has risen: In 1995, women comprised 11.3 percent of parliamentarians worldwide; now women make up 22.1 percent of the total. That's twice as many, but still short of the 30 percent target set by the Millennium Development Goals.
But 1.2 billion people are still living in extreme poverty, and women continue to be more likely than men to be among them. Despite the increased number of women in paid employment, women remain disproportionately represented in vulnerable employment, and globally on average earn 24 percent less than men. Women are also less likely than men to have access to decent work, assets and formal credit.
How can this situation be changed?
Achieving gender equality requires determined action at all levels. It is important to focus not only on ensuring that women can participate in the decisions which affect their lives, but also on eliminating the discriminatory institutions, attitudes and practices which stand in the way of gender equality and women's and girls' empowerment.
In practice, this means supporting a range of measures including those which will give women equal access to land, credit and assets; guarantee equal pay for equal work and strengthened labor protections; create jobs, livelihoods, skills and entrepreneurship programs which are fully open to women; and establish social protection measures such as maternity benefits, unemployment and health insurance.
Another major barrier to women's empowerment is sexual and gender-based violence. It denies the right of women and girls to be safe in their homes and communities, and it also imposes steep costs on societies.
Other challenges to gender equality have become more pressing since the Beijing conference, including that of climate change. While it affects all of us, it hits first and hardest the poorest and most vulnerable. In the new global climate agreement due to be agreed in December, the central role of women in managing and protecting natural resources must be recognized, and investments aimed at adapting to and mitigating climate change must be of benefit to women too.
No country will reach its full potential without empowering women. It is important that women can participate in the decisions which affect their lives, and that the barriers and discrimination which stand in the way of women and girls are removed.
As the world comes together around the new global development agenda in September, we must seize the opportunity to have gender equality and women's and girls' empowerment feature prominently in that agenda, and aspire to be as bold as the women who met in Beijing 20 years ago.
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