The United Nations Fourth World Conference on Women – 20th Anniversary!

Beijing 1995 - Hilvi Sipila, Secretary General of the Second World Conference on Women and Marian Rivman
Beijing 1995 – Hilvi Sipila, Secretary General of the Second World Conference on Women and Marian Rivman

Today is the 20th Anniversary of the United Nations Fourth World Conference on Women (FWCW), which was held in Beijing September 4-15, 1995. As a media consultant to the conference secretariat, I was privileged to have an all-access pass at this historic event.

As indicated by its name, there were three previous UN world conferences on women – Mexico City in 1975, Copenhagen in 1980 and Nairobi in 1985.

It had been ten years since gender equality and women’s issues were center stage on the world’s agenda. A majority of diplomats and activists were determined to accelerate progress towards achieving global gender equality. They supported a Platform for Action that addressed 12 areas of concern:

  • The persistent and increasing burden of poverty on women
  • Inequalities and inadequacies in and unequal access to education and training
  • Inequalities and inadequacies in and unequal access to health care and related services
  • Violence against women
  • The effects of armed or other kinds of conflict on women, including those living under foreign occupation
  • Inequality in economic structures and policies, in all forms of productive activities and access to resources
  • Inequality between men and women in the sharing of power and decision-making at all levels
  • Insufficient mechanisms at all levels to promote the advancement of women
  • Lack of respect for and inadequate promotion and protection of the human rights of women
  • Stereotyping of women and inequality in women’s access to and participation in all communication systems, especially in the media
  • Gender inequalities in the management of natural resources and the safeguarding of the environment
  • Persistent discrimination against and violation of the rights of the girl child

More than 50,000 people attended the gathering in Beijing. Attendees were divided into three primary categories: 10,000 official delegates from the 189 UN Member States; 30,000 representatives from international, regional, national and local non-government organizations (NGOs) and 10,000 journalists. It was mind-boggling.

The well-appointed and well-equipped Beijing International Convention Center was the site of the official UN meeting. The site of the NGO Forum was Huairuo, almost an hour’s drive away. The Forum was a unique space of advocacy, networking, training and knowledge sharing. Conditions in Huairuo were challenging to say the least; heavy rains had turned dirt paths to rivers of mud. Undeterred by the hardships, there was an electrifying spirit that permeated the Forum. These women meant business!

Beijing 1995 - Center: Gertrude Mongella, Secretary General of the Fourth World Conference on Women, at a press conference in Huairao
Beijing 1995 – Center: Gertrude Mongella, Secretary General of the FWCW, at a press conference in Huairao

Gertrude Mongella from Tanzania was Secretary General of the FWCW and presided over the sessions where the Member States gave their official statements. At one of these sessions Hillary Clinton uttered those now famous five words, “Women’s rights are human rights!”

Beijing 1995 - Noeleen Heyzer, Director of UNIFEM, with Hillary Rodham Clinton, First Lady of the United States
Beijing 1995 – Noeleen Heyzer, Director of UNIFEM, with Hillary Rodham Clinton, First Lady of the United States
Beijing 1995 - Dr. Patricia Licuanan, Chair of the Commission on the Status of Women, at the opening ceremony for the FWCW
Beijing 1995 – Dr. Patricia Licuanan, Chair of the Commission on the Status of Women, at the opening ceremony for the FWCW

Dr. Patricia (Tatti) Licuanan, a Filipina, who was the chair of the Commission on the Status of Women, was responsible for overseeing the negotiations for the agreements made during the conference. (Amazingly, Tatti had been my language instructor in the summer of 1968 when I was training for my assignment as Peace Corps volunteer in the Philippines.)

There is no underestimating the impact of the outcomes of the United Nations Fourth World Conference on Women.

“Twenty years after the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action was adopted by 189 Member States meeting in China, its stature and significance as a roadmap for the achievement of gender equality remains undiminished. This pivotal document continues to guide the global struggle against constraints and obstacles to the empowerment of women around the world. In the face of new forces threatening to curtail the rights of women and girls, we must return to the agenda set by the Platform for Action and renew our commitment to carry it out in full.” Ban Ki-Moon Secretary-General United Nations

One only needs to read the headlines to understand that there is a dire need to invigorate support for women’s advancement on the international, national and local levels. It is my intention to join these efforts.

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This Lady Tells Her Age

In 1995, I was hired as a consultant to the Secretariat of the UN’s Fourth World Conference on Women. My assignment was to partner with the in-house Senior Media Advisor, Patsy Robertson.

When I first met the dignified, impeccably groomed ‘Lady’ Robertson (my nickname for this remarkable woman), I told her how excited I was that my 50th birthday would occur when we were all  in Beijing. Patsy looked directly into my eyes, put her hands on my shoulders and said, “My dear, a lady NEVER tells her age.”

She said it was acceptable for a woman to tell people when her birthday was, but it was nobody’s business how old she was going to be. I chose not to take her words to heart and continued to plan for a 50th birthday bash in Beijing. Gertrude Mongela, the Secretary-General of the Conference, heard of my plans and whispered in my ear one day that her 50th birthday was going to be the day after mine.

'Lady' Robertson and Gertrude Mongela, Secretary General of the UN's Fourth World Conference on Women, whose 50th birthday was the day after mine.
(l)’Lady’ Patsy Robertson. Senior Media Advisor and (c)Gertrude Mongela, Secretary-General of the UN’s Fourth World Conference on Women and (r) Marian Rivman 1995 Photo: PechterPhoto
Dancing down the steps of the Great Hall of the People the night of my 50th birthday party.
Marian Rivman on the steps of the Great Hall of the People the night of her 50th birthday party. 1995

For ‘Lady’ Robertson age was something you did not discuss. For large numbers of women AND men, age was something you lied about. Thanks to Google, that option doesn’t exist anymore. With a couple of clicks, your date of birth is available for all to see.

One’s chronological age is fast becoming just a number. Pervasive stereotypes of how one should look, act, and feel at any given age need to fall by the wayside. Baby Boomers are reinventing aging.

Medical advances will make it possible for us to live longer. We’re more aware of the importance of exercise and nutrition. We want full, meaningful and vibrant lives. That’s exactly the kind of life I intend to have as I start my Golden Years.

Me at 69. (My first Selfie)
Marian Rivman at 69. (Her first Selfie) 2015

This lady does tell her age. I’m going to be 70. It’s fun seeing the shocked expression on people’s faces and hearing their exclamations of surprise when they hear how old I am. “No way!” “You’re kidding, right?” “Really? Show me your driver’s license.” My favorite is “Shut up!!! You look younger than my mother.”