On the 16th of February the Heinrich Böll Foundation Cambodia hosted a roundtable workshop on Beijing +20 at the Metahouse in Phnom Penh. 2015 marks the 20th anniversary of the Fourth World Conference on Women, which took place in September 1995. 17,000 participants and 30,000 activists attending a parallel forum streamed into Beijing to further the empowerment of women and promote gender equality. After two weeks of intense debate, the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action had been drafted, a milestone in the promotion of women’s rights. Until this day, the Declaration is one of the most quoted human rights documents concerning women.
In March, the fifty-ninth session of the Commission on the Status of Women will take place in New York, with a main focus on reviewing the progress made in implementing the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action. The 20th anniversary of the Beijing Declaration therefore offers the opportunity to look back to the hopes and promises of Beijing, and evaluate what has been achieved and what remains to be done. It is an important year to listen to women's voices all over the world. The workshop was split into two panels: the first panel looked back to Beijing in 1995, drawing on personal experiences of the panelists. The second panel consisted of women who were too young in 1995 to participate in Beijing, and discussed the question to what extent the Beijing Declaration is still relevant today. Ms. Benu Maya Gurung from the Alliance Against Trafficking in Women in Nepal chaired the workshop. This was particularly interesting as she was able to offer insight on the situation of Nepalese women 20 years after Beijing.
The first panelist was Ms. Lochbihler, member of the European Parliament. In 1995 she was working for the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom in Geneva, and thus involved in activism for the peace agenda of the Beijing Conference. The Cold War had just ended and societies in Eastern Europe were being restructured, so most women from former Soviet countries were not able to attend the Conference. Ms. Lochbihler and her colleagues organized a peace train that went through some of these countries, so that they could stop along the way to listen to the concerns of Eastern European women, and bring their demands to Beijing for them. One of the main challenges she and her colleagues faced in Beijing, was that they were dealing with an authoritarian government as a feminist, western NGO. The Chinese wanted control over what was said, especially concerning peace topics such as nuclear arms. Peace was a political issue at the time. When looking back at the demands she had in Beijing, demands for long-lasting peace and the dismantlement of armies, she feels that the world has failed. On the other hand, regarding the flourishing of civil society groups and women's networks entering the political sphere, she argued that a lot has been achieved.
Ms. Hoy Sochivanny, president of Positive Change for Cambodia was the second speaker on the first panel. She also participated in Beijing together with 85 other Cambodian women from civil society, and 35 members of the Cambodian government. She found the Conference very inspirational, as the Cambodian women saw that many women from the other 185 countries were brave, strong and letting their voices be heard. This was a stark contrast to Cambodian women who were shy and oppressed at the time. Following Beijing, she helped pressure the government to adopt a new law on domestic violence, and conducted trainings on the rights enshrined in CEDAW and the BPFA. Ms. Hoy explained that 20 years after Beijing huge progress has been made in advancing women's rights in Cambodia, as women have moved into the labor market and are aware of, and speaking out about their rights. She did, however, list six of Beijing's key areas, for example girls in secondary education and the lack of legal justice services for victims of violence, in which more progress was needed. Overall, however, compared to the situation Cambodian women were in in 1995, Ms. Hoy believes that Cambodia has come a long way.
The third panelist was Ms. Ung Yokkhoan, director of AMARA, Cambodian Women's Network for Development. Ms. Ung started off her speech by painting a picture of what women's lives in Cambodia in 1995 looked like: There was an utter lack of principles and laws to support and promote female participation outside of the domestic realm, and there was no gender equality in government institutions. Furthermore, Cambodia lacked strong female role-models as well as women's networks to encourage women to participate in political and public affairs. Following Beijing, the government took several steps to implement gender equality, for example through the creation of a Ministry of Women's Affairs and many laws promoting women's rights. Today, women hold seats at almost all levels in government, and more women than ever before work in the public and political domain. However, women still tend to undervalue their competencies and are considerably less likely than men to run for political offices.
Ms. Nakagawa, professor at Pannasastra University Cambodia was the first panelist on the second panel. Having taught Cambodian students for the last 15 years, she has been able to observe a huge development in the empowerment of her female students. Professor Nakagawa helped the Cambodian government draft the report on the implementation of the Beijing Declaration, and shared her findings with the participants at the workshop. Overall, Cambodia is on track to improving the lives of women. Labor force participation rates are on the rise and literacy and primary education levels have increased immensely since 1995. Although some parents in minority communities are unaware of the importance of sending their girls to school, this is now an exception. Maternal health and infant care have improved dramatically, and violence against women is far less accepted than it was 20 years ago. Despite these achievements, the Cambodian government reports two areas of concern: gender parity in secondary education remains problematic as social norms prioritize boys' education over girls', and many young women are sent to work in garment factories rather than continuing their schooling. This links to the second short-coming, namely the lack of access to better paid employment for women. Overall, however, Ms. Nakagawa found that immense progress has been made in Cambodia since 1995.
Ms. Sok from the Khmer Youth Alliance for Democracy had a much less optimistic stance on the government's achievements since 1995. She argued that the youth, and especially women are still grossly underrepresented in political and public offices. She stated that women are often still too shy to speak out, and often lack the capacities to become involved in politics. Although female education rates have risen, many girls only study three or four years and then drop out of school to help support their family. Hospitals care more about making a profit than the well-being of their patients, and donors often do not follow up on how well the school or hospital they built is serving those in need. Ms. Sok believes Cambodia still has a long road ahead if it wishes to fulfill the promises of Beijing.
The last panelist was Ms. Ly from the Women's Network for Unity. Ms. Ly argued that change has happened on an individual level, but not in terms of systematic or structural change. The privatization of social services such as educational or health facilities remains a serious issue that is rarely addressed. Up to 70% of Cambodians are paying out of pocket for health care. When the government does not invest public funds on basic social services, it is a women's issue, as women's access to such services will remain limited. Ms. Ly also criticized gender based violence in the treatment of sex workers by government officials. The stigma of sex work coupled with the lack of a reliable court system and other means of enforcing one's rights renders sex workers highly vulnerable to abuse. She also highlighted the situation of women working in garment factories who are laboring under incredibly poor conditions for starving wages. This sector has had a huge impact on Cambodian economic growth, yet no one seems willing to improve the workers' conditions. The lack of adequate social services and safe employment opportunities for decent wages threatens the security of many Cambodian women. According to Ms. Ly, the promises of Beijing are therefore still far from being implemented.
The Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action constituted a major milestone in the advancement of women's rights. Today, 20 years after Beijing, it is indisputable that Cambodia has come a long way in empowering women and enhancing gender equality. The first panel consisted of women who were activists at the time of the Beijing Conference. Having experienced the time prior to, and after Beijing, they were able to praise the Declaration as having laid the groundwork for many positive developments in Cambodia. The younger women, on the other hand, were very critical of the government's achievements, as many young women still don't receive secondary education, have access to basic social services or employment opportunities that offer decent wages. Cambodia has come a long way since 1995, but much remains to be done.