Promise of gender justice is not enough: Make governments accountable

Shobha Shukla, Citizen News Service - CNS
Photo source: Flickr
More than 500 women of the Asia Pacific region gathered in Bangkok from 14 to 16 November 2014 for an Asia Pacific Civil Society Forum on Beijing Plus 20, (organized by 14 civil society organizations with Asia Pacific Forum on Women, Law and Development--APWLD as  co-secretariat), preceding the high-level intergovernmental meeting to review and take stock of the progress made in the region for implementing the Beijing Platform for Action (BPFA), a landmark agreement made in 1995 to promote and advance the status of women.

When Aung San Suu Kyi welcomed participants to the Civil Society Forum in Beijing 20 years ago she had called it a ‘great celebration of the struggle of women to mould their own destiny and to influence the fate of our global village’. Twenty years down the line, while global wealth inequality becomes obscenely high (85 people in the world today own more than $3.5 billion--as much wealth as that held by half the world’s population) the cultural, religious and political terrain in the Asia Pacific region threatens the few gains made in the last 20 years for advancing women’s rights--30% of all the wealth in Asia Pacific is owned by a mere 0.001% of its population—this is 17 times more than the combined GDP of the Asia-Pacific least developed countries; damages caused by irreversible climate change are devastating the lives of millions of women; land-grabbing through connivance of governments and corporations is at an all time high; migration into exploitative work continues to rise, with cheap labour of women underwriting the so called ‘Asian Century’; violence against women has not abated, and religious fundamentalism continues to rise.

So there could not have been a better time for APWLD to bring together diverse feminist and people’s movements in the region to strategize on how to best make governments accountable for promises made around the BPFA, and how to counter the backsliding and regressive policies emerging in the region.

The BPFA was indeed a watershed for the feminist movement. Its roadmap provided the most comprehensive, universally agreed plan of action to realize women’s human rights, and to counter and dismantle patriarchy. While it remains a powerful tool, its largest failure has been the lack of meaningful accountability mechanisms. Moreover, during these last 20 years, whatever little accountability governments had has shifted towards corporations and profit-making rather than ensuring and protecting rights and advancing equality of the people.

During her inaugural address at the CSO Forum, Kate Lappin, Regional Coordinator of APWLD, made a radical demand for genuine accountability of governments to the people. She said that, “We are at a tipping point where the number of people who question the morality of wealth, power, resources and opportunities being concentrated in the hands of so few is growing. It is now time to shape new relationships, economies and systems and women across this region are calling for Development Justice – a framework that demands five transformative shifts incorporating Redistributive Justice, Economic Justice, Gender and Social Justice, Environmental Justice and Accountability to the Peoples”.

“As we approach 20 years since the Beijing Platform was adopted, APWLD is focusing to accelerate the implementation of the Platform and fulfill the promises made by governments to the region’s women. The Beijing+20 review process is an opportunity to hold governments to account for their commitments, and demand stronger, more effective accountability mechanisms”.

“While there have been some advancements in gender equality, an inequitable model of development has deepened inequalities at the expense of the lives and wellbeing of women. In December 2015, the UN will adopt a new set of sustainable development goals, which shape future development priorities, including a goal on gender. We must recognize this as an opportunity to accelerate the implementation of governments’ obligations under the BPFA and ensure there is no regression from commitments already made,” she said.

While speaking to Citizen News Service (CNS), Kate acknowledged that, “BPFA outlines the responsibilities of the states and the process for meeting and implementing those obligations that exist in other documents such as CEDAW. It gives us a tool to hold them accountable and tell them if they are failing or if they have not implemented a particular obligation”.

“Early on there were a lot of immediate responses and many countries had set up national women’s machineries that they did not have before, and dedicated budget and space. Some of them did make some progress in laws in some areas. But during the last few years, we have seen an erosion of their commitment to women’s rights to autonomy, bodily integrity, and even to non-discrimination; and many countries have regressive policies and practices-- for example Brunei for the first time introduced a new Sharia law that includes stoning of women”.

“While we are trying to advance women’s rights over 20 years there has been erosion of structures through--reduction of public spending, approval of wealth to tiny minority, erosion of labour rights. Whilst there is growth in women’s participation in some countries and economy, there has not been growth in women’s control over capital. The states have surrendered their own law-making capacity to international institutions such as World Bank, and trade agreements. I think those are the main challenges.”

“Negotiation around SDGs is also supposed to be a roadmap for implementation – the same way BPFA is. In terms of BPFA it will be very useful for some of its obligations to be transferred into SDGs. So one task of SDGs could be to ask governments if they have a national plan of action and what is the percentage of funding for it compared to other public policy funding like military spending. Those obligations could come as targets. Main problem with BPFA was that it did not have any accountability mechanism so merging of BPFA obligations with SDGs could be the way to try to increase accountability,” said Kate.

Implementing BPFA is a process of change and change needs to happen in all sections of society and in all places. Women have to come together to shape new approaches and demand accountability from governments. As Cai Yiping from China said, "20 years ago the BPFA forced governments to look at the world from a woman’s eyes. Today it is a new fierce world of severe backlash and broken promises. But women also have young, new, and sharpened eyes to look at and hold our states accountable to the promises they made 20 years ago."

Shobha Shukla, Citizen News Service (CNS) 
16 November 2014
(The author is the Managing Editor of Citizen News Service - CNS. She is a J2J Fellow of National Press Foundation (NPF) USA and received her editing training in Singapore. She has earlier worked with State Planning Institute, UP and taught physics at India's prestigious Loreto Convent. She also co-authored and edited publications on gender justice, childhood TB, childhood pneumonia, Hepatitis C Virus and HIV, and MDR-TB. Email:, website: