25 Years After Beijing: An Update on Access and Progress of Women Leaders in Global Health

Roopa Dhatt, Co-Founder and Executive Director at Women in Global Health and

Jasmine Burton, Communications and Design Associate at Women in Global Health

For the third consecutive year, the Women Leaders in Global Health (WLGH) conference was convened to “bring together established and emerging leaders from across sectors and cultures to work towards gender equity in health leadership and to improve health for all.”[1] The 2019 conference, held between November 9-10, boasted an impressive 1,000 participants from 100+ nationalities inspired by 100+ powerful speakers through 26 transformative sessions.

Beyond the sheer volume of action-oriented content and impassioned registrants from around the world, this year’s conference marked a new chapter for WLGH –the recognition that the conference vision (which is for women around the world to find their voices, receive leadership training, and gain a sense of community and inspiration) cannot be fully realized without diverse access and globally representative WLGH host cities. With the 2017 WLGH being hosted by Stanford University’s Center for Innovation in Global Health and the 2018 WLGH being based at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, 2019 was the first year in WLGH’s short history where the conference coordinators took strides against representation bias and visa constraints that often exist for conferences hosted in North American and European countries.

“Individual researchers and science societies are finding solutions so colleagues around the globe can attend conferences, from remote presentations to relocating conferences” [2]

Hosted in the vibrant city of Kigali, Rwanda and by the University of Global Health Equity, the WLGH 2019 convening delved into in some timely issues in the Gender Equity in Global health space particularly in relation to the Beijing Platform for Action Declaration made by the UN Fourth World Conference on Women in 1995. Women in Global Health (WGH) was pleased to be represented by women from Pakistan, Chile, India, Somalia, Zambia, and the USA in addition to the WGH Africa Hub.

According to this Declaration, there were twelve “areas of critical concern” that 189 governments committed to prioritizing were and issues related to women were among them. However, the 20 year report noted the “unacceptably slow and uneven progress” across these twelve critical areas. In light of the increase global momentum around gender equity, fueled by the likes of #metoo and #timesup, an expert panel including Senait Fisseha, Paul Farmer, and Women in Global Health’s very own Dr. Mwenya Kasonde and Dr. Roopa Dhatt took the WLGH 2019 plenary stage and future-casted on the implications of the Beijing Declaration progress report of 2020.

The Beijing Platform for Action remains to be an inspirational document, but that it was designed for a different world from which we have evolved. At the time, the Berlin Wall had just fallen, China hosted the conference but had not emerged as a global player, Greta Thunberg had not yet been born and girls were more frequently and overtly seen as vulnerable beneficiaries rather than as change agents. At that time, there was a strong faith that multilateral action could address global issues and the likes of social media, with all its downsides for women, was not yet a part of our daily lives and politics around the world.

Frozen in time, the Beijing Platform for Action has remained mostly untouched for 25 years in fear that a 5th World Conference for Women would reopen the Declaration and women would lose the rights that were agreed up at that time.

So the outstanding problems that exist are two-fold:

  1. The Beijing Platform for Action has not yet been fully achieved

  2. And we have not been able to move the women’s rights agenda forward as global agreements at the same political level.

These points were subsequently echoed by the calls to action to ensure that all actors remain accountable. Roopa noted that gender equality is everybody’s business and therefore

1. Women must seek power. Not just leadership but power. And do that deliberately to exercise power for good. Only 24% parliamentarians globally are female. Women hold only 25% senior posts in global health. Change will be slow until we have gender parity in POWER and gender transformative leaders - including men

2. Start and join movements. #MeToo shows the power of women shining a light on unspoken abuse. Old challenges remain but we can mobilize in ways not available to women a quarter century ago. WGH demonstrates we can mobilize using womanpower, inspire a global movement and leverage change. As Neslon Mandela said "It always seems impossible until it's done."

3. Feminist organizations remain underfunded and women still carry a heavy burden of unpaid work. We must ensure that governments, philanthropy, multilateral and bilateral donor organizations recognize the work and contribution of women and women’s organizations as drivers of change and fund their work.

4. We must expect the backlash against women’s rights and never relax our guard. 25 years ago the world’s governments stated in the Beijing Platform for Action that ‘women’s rights are human rights’, but it remains clear that not everyone agrees. Just a few months ago the world saw a concerted attempt to push back the rights of women and girls in the Political Declaration from the UN High Level Meeting on Universal Health Coverage (UHC). In light of this, WGH joined with Women Deliver and the International Women’s Health Coalition to convene a new Alliance on Gender Equality and UHC. Within two months, the Alliance had 107 nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) working together at national and global levels to resist the attempt to push back women’s rights, working with likeminded member states determined to do the same.

We remain stronger together in this work and must continue to join forces in alliances until gender equality is the default and the rights of women and girls are a reality everywhere.

In closing and as a final reflection - old challenges remain and actions fell between the cracks, but despite this we as a community of gender and health equity practitioners and advocates can mobilize differently. WGH demonstrates that we can mobilize with womanpower alone, but together with allyship inspire a global movement and leverage change.

[1] https://wlghconference.org

[2] https://www.the-scientist.com/news-opinion/as-visa-difficulties-persist--scientists-push-for-change-66114

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