March 2015: Report from Taiwanese journalist Tsung Su on the UN Sessions of the Commission on the Status of Women

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BEIJING PLUS 20 (CSW 59), A Report.

Tsung Su

Janus, the mythological Roman god, reputed namesake for the month of January, is depicted as having two faces, one looking forward, the other backward. 2015 , the 20th the 4th United Nations World Conference on Women (September 1995, Beijing), and the 15th anniversary of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs, 2000), for United Nations and NGOs alike, is a time both for reviewing the past and planning for the future . It is in this “Janus mode” that many of the parallel events by NGOs focused on examining the successes and failures of their work and the work of their respective governments in the past two decades.

The 4th world Women’s Conference in 1995, the largest ever in the history of the UN, was instrumental in safeguarding women’s rights by blueprinting two pivotal documents The Beijing Declaration and The Platform for Action (BPfA). The Declaration and the BPfA have since then served as the most comprehensive global policy framework and agenda guidelines in empowering women. The BPfA covers 12 areas of critical concern which still remain relevant in today’s context of women’s life. They are : poverty; education and training; health; violence; armed conflict; economy; power and decision-making; institutional mechanisms; human rights; media; environment, and the girl child. While the Platform pinpoints critical areas for concrete action, the Beijing Declaration proclaims 38 articles of basic principles, of which I will cite two: (We) “determined to advance the goals of equality, development and peace for all women everywhere in the interest of all humanity” (#3), and (We are convinced ) that “ women’s rights are human rights”(#14), which has become a much quoted mantra-like favorite of NGOs.

In an ideal world, “women’s rights are human rights” should be a self-evident reality with no room for debate . But in the real world of ours this simple truth has become the elusive Holy Grail for women’s global struggle. For the CSW59 I will report briefly on the limited numbers of parallel events that I covered, with additional print data from NGOs and UN documents.

1.Beijing and beyond---How far have we come?

In this year of double anniversaries, many NGO side events have “Beijing” in the title of their presentations either as current guidelines, or as a yardstick for examining accomplished goals. The consensus among all NGOs is the fact that “we have accomplished a lot, but there’s still a
lot to be done.” Public awareness, resources and funding, cooperation between civil society and government, good governance and legislative mechanisms are some of the vital requirements for women’s rights and empowerment. Tangible achievements are still encouraging. According to UN official statistics, the following numbers stand as of date: in the health area, there are 45% fewer maternal deaths worldwide than in 1990, though 800 women still die daily from related causes; from 1990 to 2010, 2 billion people gained access to clean drinking water, but women still spend 16 million hours per day collecting water in 25 sub-Saharan countries; in politics, the number of women in parliament has nearly doubled in the last 20 years; in earning power, 50% of women worldwide are in paid employment, but still women earn 10-30% less than men; in decision-making positions, 25 women CEOs lead Fortune 500 companies today, but this is a mere 5% of all CEOs on the list; in education, in all developing regions gender parity in primary education has been achieved by almost all countries, while adult literacy rate has risen to 84% from 76% in 1990, though women still constitute 60% of the world’s illiterate. In 2000, the UN Security Council passed the historical resolution 1325 which recognizes women’s role in peace-making process, but from 1992 to 2011 , only 9% of the peace negotiators were women. In mass media, women’s presence has only increased to 24% in 2010 from 17% in 1995; while 46% of media stories reinforce gender stereotypes. In violence against women (VAW) ,the area where women fare the worst, at least 1 in 3 women still experience physical or sexual violence, mostly by an intimate partner. This pandemic remains unabated 22 years after the UN Declaration on the Elimination of Violence against Women in 1993.

2. Violence against women (VAW)

Violence against women comes in all shapes and forms, transcending differences in class, race, culture and geography. In some parts of the world, even in the 21st of traditional practices and cultural norms still persist that are harmful to women, such as: female infanticide, prenatal sex selection, early marriage, dowry-related burning, female genital mutilation (FGM), “honor” killing etc. Aside from violence perpetuated by cultural bias, other forms of VAW include domestic violence, murder, sexual harassment, rape, date rape, marital rape, rape as weapon in conflict, sexual slavery and trafficking.

At CSW59, NGOs such as ILITHA LABANTU, Center for Health and Gender Equity (CHANGE) and Human Rights Watch all hosted or co-hosted panels focusing on VAW. Panels on domestic violence, date rape and dating violence hosted by ILITHA LABANTU were especially informative since date rape as a form of VAW was seldom mentioned in discussions on large scale rapes.

According to an Equality Now report, there are 125 countries now with law to criminalize domestic violence, a rise from 89 in 2006. But unenforced laws are only words on paper. The World Health Organization (WHO) found that 38% of women who are murdered are killed by
their own partners. Marital rape is still permitted in many countries, while in Nigeria the law permits wife-beating under certain circumstances. In sub-Saharan Africa half of women think their husbands are justified in beating them for minor transgressions as arguing or burning the food, while 37% of men think this is acceptable. In India, after three decades of pre-natal sex selection, women are falling prey to wifeless men and traffickers.

Writer and journalist Sudipa Chakraborty in an article entitled “The Missing Daughters of India “states that in the remote villages in Haryana in India, many women serve as wife to two, three or more men in household, as “one of the dreadful consequences of extensive sex selection in India”. Here we can safely conclude that age-old traditional practices at times have subdued the victims to accept their conditions with indifference or resignation. According to activist Ruchira Gupta, who in 2002 started Apne Aap Women Worldwide, an anti-trafficking organization, “among the root causes of sex-trafficking are son preference and daughter deficit”, Lack of women also leads to the abduction of girls, forced marriages, greater instances of child marriage, increasing gang rapes and acid attacks. Dowry-related violence is also one of the VAW in India, where a bride is burned every 90 minutes in India, “It is better for a girl to die in her mother’s womb than to die in the mother-in-law’s house,” parents say.

India is not alone in being plagued by VAW. VAW is one of the most widespread and persistent violation of human rights, even with UN mechanisms in place safeguarding women’s rights, such as CEDAW and the 1993 adoption of the UN Declaration on the Elimination of Violence against Women . Two decades after Beijing, with much progress made in other areas of critical concerns of the PFA, VAW still rages on unabated in many parts of the world, with new forms and new sources of VAW coming on the scene such as sexual threats via the internet, sexual violence and slavery of women by religious extremists and jihadists. One of the latest known acts of VAW in the news (3/20/15) is the mob beating and lynching of a 27-year-old woman teacher in Kabul who was accused of burning the Koran. She was smashed with bricks, set on fire, her body was then thrown onto the banks of Kabul’s main river. Kabul’s cleric, policemen and men on facebook all unanimously defend this act of “mob justice”.

The only positive aspect in the post-Beijing era on VAW may be that now VAW is no longer hidden. In much of the world it is out in the open, much more visible. In the age of internet, many of the dark recesses of human behavior, previously hidden, now are forced into instant
exposure. Many member states of the UN now have legislative measures to protect women’s rights, but it bears repeating that unenforced laws are only empty words on paper.

Commenting on the persistent spread of VAW, Phumzile Mlambo-Ngeuka, the executive director of UN Women, said : “ I am disappointed, I have to be honest. More than asking for more laws to be passed, I’m asking for implementation.”


Rape is one the most prevalent forms of VAW both in peace time and in time of war. As of 2012, there were about 30 active civil conflicts ongoing in 25 countries. Sexual violence as a weapon of war has been well documented in regional conflicts in recent years. From Bosnia, Herzegovina and Croatia, to Peru to Rwanda, women and girls were specially targeted for rape, imprisonment, torture and execution. In other armed conflicts, including those in Uganda, Somalia, Liberia, Haiti, Cyprus, Cambodia, Sudan, Sierra Leone and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, large numbers of women and girls were assaulted and raped as part of military strategy to crash the enemies’ morale. In the “ethnic cleansing “ of the Bosnia war, 20,000 Muslim girls and women were raped and the impregnated ones were forced to bear the perpetrators’ children.

Though rape is not the main cause of death for victims, the traumatic effect of rape on them, their families and their communities was lasting and devastating. Strategic rapes also contribute to the spread of sexually transmitted diseases (STDs), including HIV/AIDS. International Criminal Court (ICC) condemns large-scale organized rapes against civilians as crimes against humanity.

Then there are the peace-time rapes. Two countries come to mind: South Africa and India. In South Africa, an estimated 500,000 rape cases occur every year. According to UN Office on Crimes and Drugs, from 1998 to 2000, South Africa was ranked first for rapes per capita. In 1998, one in three of 4000 women interviewed in Johannesburg was raped. Women’s groups in South Africa estimate that a woman is raped every 26 seconds, while the South African police estimate the time as 36 seconds. It is estimated that over 40% of South African women will be raped in their lifetime. Only 1 in 9 rapes are reported, and only 14% of perpetrators are convicted. Then there is the so-called “corrective rape” perpetrated to convert lesbians to heterosexuality. More than 10 lesbians are raped and gang-raped per week in Cape Town alone.

In India, the waves of rapes against Indian women and foreign tourists in recent years are quite alarming not only because of increasing frequency, but because of the brutality. The latest gang rape case is the assault on a 74-year old Catholic nun in Ranaghat on March 13, 2015. Gang-rape with brutal force to cause bodily harm and to vent hatred against the victim seems to be the purpose. One gang rape which aroused international attention occurred In December of 2012, when six men gang raped and assaulted a young woman and her male companion on a bus in south Delhi. This atrocity outraged international media and galvanized India men and women to stage mass street protests. The victim, who later died of her injuries, was blamed and condemned by her attackers and their lawyers: “She should not go out at night after 9.00 o’clock,” “During the rape, she shouldn’t have fought back, she should just have been silent,” “The girl is far more responsible for rape than the boy, ” etc. One defense lawyer, A. P. Singh, was quoted as saying that if one of his own daughters or sisters allows herself to lose face and character by mis-behaving , he will “douse her with petrol and set her alight in front of my whole family.”

The BBC docu-drama India's Daughter, by Leslee Udwin, is based on this tragedy. It has been banned in India but has ignited thunder and lightning on the internet. Young women of India who survive the pre-natal sex selection of “The Missing Daughters of India” only to have to endure the cruel fate of India's Daughter in Delhi. What a bitter irony of life !


Trafficking is a very lucrative criminal business. Worldwide annually, this modern-day slave trade generates about 32 billion for the traffickers. Though it trades across gender, ethnicity, and national borders, the majority of the slavery victims are women and children. In Cambodia,
Thailand and India, children are primary victims for sex trafficking. But this malady does not confine itself to developing countries, according to the published statistics by American Mothers Inc., there are over 300,000 children being trafficked over the United States annually. The victims of trafficking may be traded as message parlor workers, domestic servants, day laborers, lowly factory and restaurant workers, but the major trade of trafficking is the sex industry—commercial sex and prostitution.

At the UN CSW annual Conference , the Coalition Against Trafficking in Women (CATW) is one of the proactive and action-oriented group of NGOs. With worldwide affiliates, CATW works against sex trafficking. Every year CATW makes its presence welcome at CSW by giving informative presentations. This year one of CATW’s presentations is entitled “Twenty Years After Beijing : Prostitution, Sex Trafficking and the Quest for Equality: New Voices, New Models, New Solutions.”

In the past two decades after Beijing, some progress in anti-trafficking has been achieved through the effort of the NGOs. In 1999, Sweden became the first country to criminalize sex patronage (in plain words, to punish the johns.) Later other Nordic countries joined in. This measure later became known as the Nordic Model. In 2014 Canada, Ireland and South Korea joined the group which also includes France, Northern Ireland, the UK and Israel. This measure
aims to penalize commercial sexual exploitation; it also exempts the prostituted individuals from punishment. It further recognizes that “prostitution is a cause and consequence of gender violence and discrimination, thus a human rights violation.”

Besides being protected by legislative measures, trafficked victims are also provided with financial help, psychological counseling, housing, legal advocacy and other needs. Macho, machismo and misconstrued masculinity mindset Rape as a social malady or gender disease has been discussed and analyzed by numerous social scientists and psychologists. Almost all agree that “Rape is not about sex; it is about power and control.” Then we have to ask this question: why the urge to control? This would lead inevitably to the basic premise of patriarchal society’s foundation: to tame/control women for social order and family cohesion. This urge to control also results in the masculine/machismo/macho mindset which transcends all cultural and racial boundaries. The subject and problem of misconstrued sense of masculinity were discussed at a few of NGO parallel events by both men and women, with no consensus reached.

Cultural stereotyping may require man to assume a role of strength, power and authority. when this role is misinterpreted, misplayed or challenged by outside forces, the role-player may resort to violence to attack and control the most vulnerable people near him (his wife and children) in order to assert his own very fragile ego. The machismo mindset also results in violent language against women, just to cite two examples : “Comfort Women” and “honor killing”. Here the inevitable question that begs to be asked is : Whose Comfort? Whose Honor? Either in peace-time or in conflict, for reasons militaristic or religious, linguistically or physically, the perpetrator/judge/executioner gets to choose and define the context.

Janus-like, we look at the dark abyss of violence against women both past and present, should we be despairing? Or in our forward gaze, would we catch rays of sunshine over the not too distant horizon?

3. Men and Boys wanted

In 1995, while in Beijing speaking at the 4th quoted one of Mao’s more colorful sayings regarding women as noting that “Women hold up half of the sky” (婦女撑起半邊天). Some of the non-Chinese-speaking women delegates in Huairou, where the NGOs were, asked me the meaning of the quote. I answered that it was Mao’s way of recognizing women’s role in shouldering life’s burden, at least half of it. If Mao’s metaphor rings true, then the whole sky can only be held up by the cooperative effort of both women and men.

Over the years, the fact that women’s empowerment needs men’s cooperation has been stressed over and again at various NGO panel discussions. In the early 2000s I wrote copiously of men’s groups that aim at promoting healthy gender relationships by safeguarding women’s rights. The men’s NGO White Ribbon is one of such groups. Started in 1991 in Toronto by men, White Ribbon now has worldwide affiliates from North America to Europe, to Southeast Asia, the Middle East and Australia. Vowing to stop the violence against women as its raison d’etre , the White Ribbon Oath states unequivocally thus : “I swear never to commit, excuse or remain silent about violence against women. This is my oath.”

Sonke Gender Justice Network of South Africa is another NGO which devotes many of its programs at improving gender relationships. The One Man Can campaign targets both men and boys to end violence against women. To involve boys in the campaign is both insightful and
necessary. Boys are tomorrow’s men, fathers and husbands. Violent boys seldom grow up to be non-violent men.

The third NGO initiative I would like to mention briefly here is the Men Care Plus which, supported by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Netherlands, is a three-year program with partners in four countries. MenCare + aims “to engage men as care-giving partners to improve
the health of women, men and children, to stop gender-based violence and to build respectful relationships”

This year the panels that I covered which focus on the man’s role in VAW show promise in gender relationships. The panel-workshop sponsored by the NGO named No Limits for Women has this interesting title ” Women Ending Sexual Violence Towards Women with Men as Allies”.

No Limits proclaims itself as “an international organization of women (with men as allies) dedicated to eliminating sexism throughout the world”. The general theme of both speakers and the audience is cooperation, not confrontation, between the sexes. Education to change
attitudes, old ideas and antiquated traditions was emphasized. But it was also stressed that good governance, good laws and practical mechanisms are essential elements in building a healthy viable civic society.

Another panel that I attended was entitled “Men Taking the Lead To Stop Violence against Women in Zambia”. This interesting panel was hosted by many officials of the Zambian government, including the Assistant Superintendent of Police, the Permanent Secretary of Ministry of Gender and Child Development, the YMCA Men’s Network Coordinator and others.

The I Care About Her Campaign was a campaign initiated by men, led by men to raise gender awareness and to stop domestic violence and VAW in general. With concerted effort between private sectors and the government much can be expected to materialize and to improve in Zambia.

4. From MDGs to SDGs—looking ahead

Ever since its inception in the year 2000, The Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) has never lacked critics and detractors. General criticisms against MDGs is its lack of inclusiveness. Though ‘maternal health’ is one of its goals, the main malady that plagues women most –VAW—is absent from the list. Though I have discussed MDGs many times in my reports in the early 2000s, here I will list the goals again as points of reference.

MDGs are 8 goals that U N member States have agreed to achieve by the year 2015. They are:

1.Eradicate extreme poverty and hunger
2.Achieve universal primary education
3.Promote gender equality and empower women
4.Reduce child mortality
5.Improve maternal health
6.Combat HIV/AIDs, malaria and other diseases
7.Ensure environmental sustainability
8.Develop a global partnership for development

As of 2015, an examination of the rate of achievement of MDGs shows fairly good results. Globally, significant progress has been made in reducing mortality in children under age of 5. In 2012, 6.6 million children under 5 died, compared with 12.6 million in 1990. Between 1990 and 2012, under-5 deaths declined by 47% (Goal #4). Maternal deaths also declined almost by half, from an estimated 523,000 in 1990 to 289,000 in 2013, still short of target numbers (Goal #5).

As of date, the world has met the MDG target of access to safe drinking- water. In 2012, 90% of the population have an improved source of drinking-water, compared with 76% in 1990 (Goal #7). In universal primary education, the number 2 goal, has been achieved worldwide. However MDGs failed miserably in regions which were either plagued by conflict, bad governance and/or diseases (HIV/others)

With the passing of MDGs into the annals of UN history, SDGs (Sustainable Development Goals) has arrived on the post-2015 UN agenda. It was first conceived at the UN Conference on Sustainable Development (Rio +20) in June 2012. As of now It is still in the birthing process, with some consensus agreed upon: the agenda goals should be “action-oriented, concise, easy to communicate, limited in number, aspirational, global in nature and universally applicable in all countries (while taking into account different national realities and other factors).” The issues covered in the Goals would be the environment, employment, gender equality, human rights, conflict and peace- building and others. The SDGs’ target year is 2030.

5. Endnote

The world has not had a World Conference on Women since Beijing 1995. From 2005 onward some women’s NGOs and rights groups have started to voice the need for a new WCW to revitalize the Movement and to re-map for the future. Thus the entity named has launched the 5WCW campaign, the birth of which did not surprise us. What surprises us is the proposed host city: New Delhi, India.

[Taiwanese journalist Tsung Su has written about women's human rights for decades. Since her experience at the 1995 Unied Nations 4th World Conference on Women in Beijing, she has attended the sessions of the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women in New York
every year. With her colleague, Lucina Kathmann, they represent the PEN International Women Writers Committee.]