The Beijing Patform for Action Turns 20

An unprecedented 17,000 participants and 30,000 activists streamed into Beijing for the opening of the Fourth World Conference on Women in September 1995. They were remarkably diverse, coming from around the globe, but they had a single purpose in mind: gender equality and the empowerment of all women, everywhere. By the time the conference closed, it had produced the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action, the most progressive blueprint ever for advancing women's rights. Even 20 years later, it remains a powerful source of guidance and inspiration.

The 20th anniversary of Beijing opens new opportunities to reconnect, regenerate commitment, charge up political will and mobilise the public. The evidence is increasingly in the fact that empowering women empowers humanity.
WFS and UN Women bring stories of courage, empowerment and change heralded by women and girls as part of the Empowering Women - Empowering Humanity: Picture It! Campaign that focuses on the Beijing Conference's overall theme of women's empowerment and gender equality. Read on, get inspired.

Why Should Girls Give Up School?

By Azera Parveen

Zainab has come a long way from spending a better part of her day stitching footballs, which, incidentally, she never even got an opportunity to play with, to becoming an activist committed to the cause of children's education. Like most little girls in her small village of Chandora, near Meerut in Uttar Pradesh, she, too, had started on the "job" when she was just 10 and although her small hands ached from working the needle for hours at a stretch she would simply carry on because "the money was useful". Of course, while her peers did not get to go to school Zainab was a fortunate exception. Nevertheless, once back she had her task cut out for her. She was in Class Five when a child rights organisation came into their village to empower children to change the prevailing social mindset and say 'No' to child labour. From then on Zainab has emerged as a natural leader who has been able to motivate children to go to school even as she continues to pursue her own education. Thanks to her relentless efforts, this teenager, who has now enrolled for a Masters degree in social work, has so far managed to push over 500 children from 10 villages in the area into formal schooling.

* "The state government after seeing my efforts has decided to make an intermediary college with classes up to 12 right in my village. The construction has already begun and hopefully the classes would begin next year."

WFS REF NO: INDO901          

It's a Never-ending Trial By Fire For Women Burn Survivors

By Pushpa Achanta

When Bengaluru-based Zarina Khatoon (name changed) was set on fire by her husband, this 38-year-old mother of two told everyone that the stove had burst at home. It was several weeks before she could muster the courage to tell the real story and also register a formal complaint. After all, as Zarina pointed out, there are many things that "a woman in my situation" has to consider before she can take a stand, which would instantly alienate her not just from her own family but even from the society at large. And when that happens, "how am I to sustain myself and my children? Who will pay for my treatment? Will anyone give a disfigured person a job?" It's reasons like these that prevent women like Zarina, who have lived through the trauma of being burnt alive, from telling the truth. Unfortunately, because this heinous crime, committed at the flimsiest of pretexts, is still considered a "personal issue", neither are law enforcers ready to come to their assistance nor are the survivors able to fight the stigma and fear.

* "I cannot get a job anywhere. So I am selling vegetables to earn a few hundred rupees a day to support my sons who study in a government school. We live with my mother, a daily wager, who contributes to household expenses."

WFS REF NO: INDO602          

Talking Gender With Teens

By Hema Vijay

Chew on this. In the literary version of the Harry Potter series, which has been enthralling youngsters across the world for over a decade now, the central female character of Hermione Granger is intelligent, sharp and resourceful but not a raving beauty. Yet, in her onscreen avatar, not only is Granger intellectually brilliant but rather conveniently she is neither buck-toothed nor bushy-haired, as described in the books. So, does that mean that to be a heroine it's not enough to be quick witted and skilled, that physical beauty has to be a prerequisite? Closer home, audiences saw how in the hugely popular Hindi film, 'Kuch Kuch Hota Hai', Shah Rukh Khan's character failed to notice his female 'buddy' as his "true love" till she shed her basket ball-loving, playful persona and became a sari-wearing diva. It is such confused, misplaced gender stereotypes portrayed in popular culture that compelled Anusha Hariharan and Sowmya Rajendran to pen an easy guide to understanding social clichés for unsuspecting, impressionable teens. In its own unpretentious way, 'Gender Talk - Big Hero, Size Zero' unravels the mysteries of gender, identity and masculinity.

* "Children receive hidden gender messages and conditioning from society, media, peers, their text books and their games, not just their parents, teachers and primary caregivers."

WFS REF NO: INDO527          

Under The Spotlight: Women In Media

By Rashme Sehgal

Arifa Noor, resident editor of 'Dawn', a daily newspaper published from Islamabad, Pakistan, describes her role as a woman journalist in the following words: 'It's my job to think differently - on war, on politics, on crime and everything else that is covered by the paper I edit. I am here to provide diversity, to celebrate difference.' But are women journalists in South Asia truly able to provide these crucial interventions in the face of increasing threats, harassment, abduction and at times even death? And what about the poor working conditions, insecure employment under the contract system, the hazards of late night shifts and vulnerability to sexual harassment? Despite the challenges, attacks and confrontations, the numbers of women who are ready to brave the odds to carve a niche for themselves in the world of print, TV, digital and radio is on the rise because of their "love for journalism".

* "For a female TV journalist, it is like being in a battlefield with enemies on all sides."

WFS REF NO: QQQO518          

Do You Get That Sinking Feeling? Don't Ignore It Anymore

By Surekha Kadapa-Bose

Just a couple of months ago Hindi film actor Deepika Padukone was all over the news and social media. Not because she was doing press publicity for her latest release but due to her surprise confession*#58; 'I woke up one morning just feeling empty …like this pittish feeling in my stomach ... I didn't know where to go, I didn't know what to do and I had these bouts of feeling so low that I would just start crying…'. As Ridhima Sahani heard Padukone's interview, where she laid bare details of how she battled clinical depression for nearly a year, the Gurgaon-based IT professional felt a sense of kinship with the celebrity. After all, the feelings she was describing were not alien to her. 'I, too, have dealt with thoughts of emptiness and isolation for some time now and have even consulted a professional. But I have not shared this with my friends or colleagues due to the stigma still associated with mental health issues.' Sahani is not wrong. Although according to the World Health Organization (WHO), India tops the list of depressed people in the world, with 36 per cent suffering from Major Depressive Episode characterised by sadness, low self worth and disturbed sleep, no one wants to talk about it and be labelled as 'mad'. Most simply suffer in silence and pay a heavy price.

* "Women in extreme age groups, young adults as well as those that are elderly, are at risk of depression... If we continue to face stigma we will have an epidemic on our hands.'

WFS REF NO: : INDO513          

Support And Sisterhood At India's First One Stop Crisis Centre

By Sakuntala Narasimhan

When Diya, 19, lost her job at the supermarket, a relative suggested she contact Ajit, a cousin of her friend, who could help her find employment. Diya called him and fixed up to meet at a bus stand from where he was to take her to a prospective employer. Instead, Ajit led her to an isolated area, raped her and then fled. In a state of shock, Diya went to a private clinic with her parents where they were directed to go to a hospital six kilometres away. What followed was another nightmare. First, she was subjected to a volley of embarrassing questions and an invasive examination and then at the local police station she was sent from one desk to another with more offensive questions to answer. She relived her trauma countless times that night and yet three days later there was still no FIR. Meanwhile, Ajit simply disappeared. Across India, there are countless women like Diya who have to deal with the apathy and injustice inherent in our legal system. It is to overcome these agonising hurdles that the Justice Verma Committee, created in the wake of the Nirbhaya rape case, called for setting up One Stop Crisis centres to cater to the immediate medical, legal and psychological needs of the survivors. It's going to be one year since the country's first centre, Gauravi, opened its doors and phone lines to women in Bhopal. What has been the experience from the ground?

* "A woman can walk in, with the assurance that her consent and confidentiality will be respected and protected. Gauravi does not look at women as clients; it offers sisterhood."

WFS REF NO: : INDO512          

Women Immigrants Battle Their Fears Of The Unknown

By Divya Kaeley

When Manpreet came to Winnipeg, Canada, as a new bride little did she know that her married life would be fraught with anxiety and health problems. Ivy, a refugee, may have managed to leave her hardscrabble life in war-torn Sierra Leone behind but starting from scratch in a country so decidedly different from her own has been full of challenges, particularly the "language barrier and lack of qualification to do paid work". Like Manpreet and Ivy, Cindy, a respected teacher in her country, Philippines, is trying to come to terms with being an immigrant who works two menial jobs where she is often subjected to "racist jibes because of my accent". Every year, hundreds of thousands of women immigrants adopt Canada as their new home but the process of acculturation is difficult. Newly immigrant women experience extreme stress due to their weakened economic circumstances, the negative attitudes of the locals as well as isolation. Fortunately, though, there is help at hand through various settlement programmes that provide a variety of services from counselling to English classes to an opportunity to connect with those who have had similar experiences and struggles.

* 'For four years now I have been trying to clear the dentistry exams that will give me credentials to practice in Canada. The stress of settling in a strange foreign land hasn't been easy to bear.'

WFS REF NO: CANO505          

Raw And Riveting: Zooming Into The Lives of Abuse Victims

By Shwetha E. George

Mago utters gibberish as a group of puzzled, curious, youngsters look on. Then, all of a sudden, they bombard her with questions. 'Are you Tamil? Are you from Africa? What is your name?' they ask. The girls try talking in several languages but they are unable to understand who this new visitor to their home is. But then something amazing happens. Instead of shutting them up, this obvious lack of a common language between the girls and the newcomer frees them of all their inhibitions and they talk, laugh, sing… something that they otherwise do not do too often. All of this telling interaction forms part of a raw, evocative video installation piece, 'I Have Only One Language; It's Not Mine' by Mithu Sen. For this latest work, the celebrated Delhi-based artist spent a month at a Kerala orphanage, home for minor girls brutalised and devastated by sexual and emotional abuse, to capture "their anguish and hope, spontaneity and innocence, vulnerability and rebellion, and, above all, their zest for life".

* "I am a very emotional person and the experience drained me out completely."

WFS REF NO: INDO506          

Tribal Girls Beat All Odds For A Chance To Study

By Rakhi Ghosh

Mayurbhanj district in Odisha is home to 53 indigenous tribal communities, most of which are socially and economically backward. As they battle extreme poverty on an everyday basis, educating their children is the last thing on their mind. Nonetheless, whereas some families do manage to send their boys to school, the girls are generally confined to the home, as they take on the task of completing domestic chores, tending to the livestock, minding their siblings and, at times, even chipping in to make sal leaf plates to augment the meagre family income. Yet, Suggi Mankadia, Malati Murmu and Sebuti Murmu have defied the prevailing norms to not just finish primary education but also convince their parents to let them go in for further studies. How did these lively, determined teenage girls, who belong to some of the most primitive tribal communities, beat the odds?

* "Our parents are very happy to see us in our new avatar. They do not fully understand what we study and learn, but they feel happy to see our transformed personalities."

WFS REF NO: INDO413          

By Azera Parveen Rahman

THEY HAVE TRADED BOARDROOM DRAMA, office politics, endless meetings and hectic travels for relaxed meal times, lengthy joke sessions, impromptu dance routines and play dates. Meet the new breed of young stay-at-home moms, who have consciously pressed the pause button on their thriving careers to enjoy the experience of raising their children with little or no help. Whether it is Sanyukta Bhardwaj, a reputed architect, advertising professional Anumeha Gupta, or Tanvira Rahman, a successful clinical researcher, these women are slowly adjusting to the idea of being at home, living without the security of their hefty pay cheque and seeing their former colleagues move up the professional ladder, so that they can give their children "some unadulterated mommy time and watch them grow up to become a great human being". With the traditional joint family system well on its way out, several career women in India are consciously choosing to be full-time mothers because "my baby is my responsibility; not of grandparents or the domestic help".

'As a working mother I was very dependent on anyone who could babysit my children. So, being a stay-at-home mom has made me more independent! I no longer stop my children from doing things for the fear that they will fall ill and I would have to miss a meeting.'

WFS REF NO: INDO331          

‘Women's Health Is Everyone's Health’ Melinda Gates

YOU DON'T HAVE TO BE AN expert in global development to know that women and girls around the world still face gender-specific barriers to reaching their full potential. When former US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton spoke the famous words "women's rights are human rights", it was a powerful reminder that the world can never achieve true progress if half our population is left behind. I am especially concerned about the gains and gaps in women's health, as health is an essential prerequisite to a full and productive life. Over the last two decades, we have seen that incredible progress is possible - since the historic Beijing Conference in 1995, the number of women dying in pregnancy or childbirth has dropped by more than 40 per cent, while mortality rates for girls under five has been cut by half. Yet, progress in the aggregate doesn't change the life or the future of a girl who is on the wrong side of those statistics. That girl is why I'm impatient for action - and the potential she already holds within her is why I'm optimistic.

A better future starts with ensuring that all women and girls everywhere receive the quality care they need from birth through adulthood - including mental health services and treatment of non-communicable diseases - so that they are empowered to live healthy, productive lives.


Sunderbans Women Lay Their Own Yellow Brick Road To A Better Life

By Saadia Azim

COLONYPARA IS JUST ANOTHER NONDESCRIPT VILLAGE that dots the verdant Sundarbans region of South 24 Paragana district in West Bengal. Until a few years back, this remote hamlet was completely cut off from the outside world. Being surrounded by estuaries and tidal rivers, it was not uncommon for the narrow, unpaved lanes here to get inundated for weeks together forcing people to either brace themselves for a long hike through squishy, muddy pathways or live a life of confinement. Even gaining access to basic healthcare, schooling and government welfare schemes was impossible. Fortunately for everyone though, those dark days are well in the past now and it is the hard work, enterprise and the able leadership of local women, spread across 15 riverine villages, that has made all the difference. Over the last four years, they have joined hands to build more than 10 kilometres of brick roads, which have withstood the ravages of floods and disastrous cyclones that are frequent in this vast tract of forest and saltwater swamp.

'I remember how none of us could ever opt for institutional deliveries earlier. But we have decided that from now on, all pregnant women will go to the hospital located 16 kilometres away.'

WFS REF NO: INDO323          

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By Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka

TWENTY YEARS AGO, THOUSANDS OF DELEGATES had left the historic Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing on a high. The overwhelming feeling was that women had won a great victory. They had indeed - 189 world leaders had committed their countries to an extraordinary Platform for Action, with ambitious but realistic promises in key areas and a roadmap for getting there. However, looking today at the slow and patchy progress towards equality, it would seem that it had indeed been madly ambitious to expect to wipe out in 20 years a regime of gender inequality and outright oppression that had lasted, in some cases, for thousands of years. Yet, as UN Women Executive Director Mlambo-Ngcuka points out in the special opinion piece, alongside the stories of extraordinary atrocity and everyday violence lies another reality, one where "more girls are in school and more are earning qualifications than ever before; where maternal mortality is at an all-time low; where more women are in leadership positions, and where women are increasingly standing up, speaking out and demanding action". Women will get to equality in the end. The only question is: how long should they wait?

'What sort of world is it that condemns half its population to second-class status at best and outright slavery at worst? How much would it really cost to unlock the potential of the world's women? And how much could have been gained!'

WFS REF NO: OPIO0309          

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