Where Is Our Beijing, 20 Years After?

By: Amina Salihu

In 1995, we stood at the cusp of her story. With the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action, BPfA, adopted by UN member nations, suddenly everything looked possible: new pathways for women, new opportunities, new hopes. Through the BPfA, governments were charged with providing platforms for women – through that Declaration’s 12 goals – to realise their potential and create economic, health and educational opportunities for their growth and their protection from violence and so bring their voice into the political space and process.

Of course, there will be lessons to be learnt later but back in 1995, it was a celebration of the power of the possible. We knew then that deeply rooted attitudes and practices that fuel inequality and promote discrimination against women had to be addressed. We needed systems, institutions and new social values to break down walls of negative attitude in order to address them. And in BPfA, we had a tool to work with. Now, 20 years after, it is germane to ask questions and proffer answers to them. For instance, “What progress have we made; where are we; what next”?

We can assess our gains by looking at each of the 12 critical areas of the BPfA on women’s rights, or we could assess our gains by looking at women’s struggles, where they were before now, where they have reached because of the BPfA, and where they want to get to next. All of these may be necessary. We have learnt quite a few lessons since the BPfA:

  • We have to focus on both girls and boys. They require opportunity to break the cycle of poverty. Access to education is critical in meeting all other development goals. In this country, we have 10 million children out of school. In Northern Nigeria, only one out of four girls will finish secondary school every year (GiN Report, 2012). Teachers need to be taught new skills. They need to transfer society-relevant learning to their students.
  • Opportunity is not either/or; it is not just having education or health or food. It has to be a totality of all these plus the enabling condition to access them. In this case, the condition is safety and security, all happening at once. Right now, we have 3.3 million internally displaced persons in Nigeria (IDMC, 2013). The Chibok girls were abducted a year ago (as at March 2015) from school, one of society’s institutions where our children should be safest.
  • Politics and economics have to go together. If women’s political participation is strengthened, they can protect other rights. The right to vote and be voted for is in defence of all other rights.
  • It makes no sense to provide resources to build schools and hospitals without strengthening the accountability systems in government and thus bring in the demand side players who are outside government.
  • Investing in youths: a few decades from now, access to family planning services can create positive demographic dividends for Nigeria by way of having a youth population driving its development, as against having a nation focused largely on child rearing.
  • Partnerships with faith-based leaders, most of whom are men, will help change a negative mindset towards women and girls.

Change is happening but in incremental steps only. We must however celebrate these gains whether these are little or much and so ensure that they are not eroded. Winning for women must be redefined. The moment we learn to say, ‘No or yes’, the moment we win the support of good men who abhor all forms of oppression, the moment more girls begin to go to school and more children are born in healthcare facilities, the moment more women political aspirants begin to emerge, then we have won. The next winning moment will be when we have more women in office, when no woman dies from childbirth, when all girls and boys get equal chance to go to school and complete a given discipline and when domestic violence is non-existent.

As we evaluate the gaps, let us, therefore, remain mindful of the good changes. Just a few days ago, we learnt Malawi had outlawed child marriage. Africa has had two female presidents (Liberia and Malawi), a development not imaginable before 1995. Nigeria’s federal legislature (the National Assembly) now has a gender strategy as does the Independent National Electoral Commission, INEC. As it were, BPfA is extremely important as a codified beacon. Certain milestones are necessary if we are to reach the destination. No matter how long it may take to get there, those signposts assure us we are travelling the right road. Having legal frameworks is a necessary but insufficient condition for change. So we needed a BPfA. Yes, but we equally need the energy, the commitment of our activists and governments, and the moral support of our men and communities to deliver the change we desire.

I was asked by the ‘Group of 6’ (six intrepid women’s organisations known by that name) to write a foreword to their assessment of the attainment of the goals of the BPfA in Nigeria, 20 years after. One of the leaders, Itoro Eze-Anaba, is a 2015 nominee for the Vlisco Woman of the Year award for her work in establishing the Mirabelle Centre, a support centre for survivors of rape, the first of its kind, in Nigeria. I hope Nigeria goes online and votes for her.

Itoro’s story represents the spirit of the Beijing Conference – the ability to shine a spotlight on issues that define security and safety for our children, a subject which we hardly speak about or address. A rape centre located in one of the busiest hospitals in Nigeria – the Lagos University Teaching Hospital (better known as LUTH) – is a strong evidence of what can be done when government and non-governmental players work together strategically for girls and women.

As we celebrate International Women’s Day 2015, I salute the G6 (ECOWA, GADA, PJ, VSI, WLDCN, and WRAHP). Doing leading work, breaking barriers and keeping spaces safe and accessible for girls and women is transformatory work. They continue the tradition of giving voice to the voiceless, heralding the possibility of a better, brighter new day, one which upholds the personhood of every being.

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