'Constructive hope' in the constant struggle for women's rights, 25 years after the Beijing Conference

Read the papers and watch the online conference 'Beijing Platform for Action at 25: Progress, Retreat and the Future of Women's Rights'.

An event to reflect on the historic Beijing Conference and the past 25 years of advances and retreats in women’s rights has underscored the importance of staying hopeful, active and connected during the COVID-19 pandemic and recovery.

The Institute for International Law and the Humanities at Melbourne Law School and the Australian Human Rights Institute at UNSW Sydney co-hosted the one-day online conference on 3 December 2020.

Opening sessions reflected on the momentum that carried delegates into the Fourth World Conference on Women, and throughout the negotiations for the Declaration and Platform for Action, with government and NGO representatives from the Conference sharing their recollections.

The midday sessions looked at women’s rights in this moment, with discussions touching on challenges and opportunities arising from the COVID-19 pandemic. Later sessions considered how the energy of the Beijing Conference could be recaptured for today and tomorrow, to respond to ongoing gender inequalities.

Closing the conference, Professor Hilary Charlesworth, Laureate Professor at Melbourne Law School, warned that crises like the COVID-19 pandemic had the potential to limit possibilities for women’s rights.

“This is a moment, really, to double down and fight even more, because crisis seems to almost be an alibi for ‘let’s go back to the old systems’,” Professor Charlesworth said.

Professor Charlesworth also marked out the distinction between hope and optimism, recalling an article by Canadian academic Karin Mickelson.

“She says we have to be careful about ‘optimism’ because that could also just reinforce conservatism, because it is faith in a benign future, that this will just ‘happen’,” Professor Charlesworth said.

“Whereas ‘hope’ requires work. The idea is that things could work out, but they require hard work to do so. We need in fact to engage in what she calls constructive hope, as opposed to hope that’s based on denial.

“We have to draw on connection and communities to sustain that constructive hope, and I’m hoping – constructively – that today has created both connection with community for engaging in what is a constant struggle but a worthwhile struggle for the improvement of women’s rights all over the world.”

Scientia Professor Louise Chappell, Director of the Australian Human Rights Institute, agreed for the need to stay hopeful and active, focused on intersectional and decolonial approaches to women’s rights and structural change.

Another important message from the day’s discussions was the importance of having data on women, particularly around intersectional issues.

“We need to keep counting, and we also need to start counting where we’re not counting, and that is particularly important around those intersectional points, because if we don’t know then we can’t act,” Professor Chappell said.

“We need to count what’s happening in COVID and get a good sense, and then drive evidence-based policy. It’s so important to count those intersections too, and not lump all women together as if we’re all in exactly the same situation.”

Finally, Professor Chappell noted the need to engage where it matters, getting inside institutions and organisations to make change, but also to resist when necessary and fight from the outside, through civil society and social movements.

“Take up public space – it’s there for us too and we should be using it and not being cowed into shifting away. It’s very important to keep our voices out there, even though I understand it’s very hard to do that sometimes.”

We invited abstracts for papers that addressed any aspect of the Beijing Conference, Declaration or Platform for Action including issues related to the impact of the conference, implementation of the Platform and future relevance. Read the papers from presenters here:

Women’s Rights on the Road to Beijing

Ana Stevenson

Deirdre Brennan

Daniel Quiroga-Villamarin

Influence of Beijing: Country perspectives

Natasha Singh Raghuvanshi

Adeola Adeleke

Lindsey Stevenson-Graf

Rights of Girls

Rahima Akter

Moving forward in an era of backlash

Sanam Ara Amin

Shalu Nigam

The way forward: Indigenous and Pacific perspectives

Betty Barkha

Dorinda Cox and Florence Drummond

Jane Alver

Read more:

The opening address by Sex Discrimination Commissioner Kate Jenkins

Australia's progress in addressing violence against women since the Beijing Declaration by Katharine Tang

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Watch the conference sessions on YouTube

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