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NGLS Interviews Radhika Balakrishnan, Executive Director, Center for Women’s Global Leadership

arton1747In the lead up to the 15-year Review of the implementation of the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action by the Commission on the Status of Women, which will take place on 1-12 March 2010 at UN Headquarters in New York, NGLS interviews Radhika Balakrishnan, Executive Director of the Center for Women’s Global Leadership and Professor in Women’s and Gender Studies.

NGLS: For you, what was the most significant outcome of the Fourth World Conference on Women held in Beijing in 1995? Did you attend the other World Conferences on Women as well? How was Beijing different?

The 1995 World Conference on Women was the first women’s conference I attended, I was not in Nairobi, but was very active in the conferences in the 1990s that led up to Beijing. The Vienna Human Rights Conference in 1993 [14-25 June1993] galvanized women’s groups from around the world to make women’s rights human rights. This was a coordinated effort and the Center for Women’s Global Leadership played a critical role in that process. After Vienna came the International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD) in Cairo [5-13 September 1994], where reproductive and sexual rights were the main issue on the agenda. There was also a great deal of work by women’s groups on the looking at the relationship between ‘population’ and ‘development’. Feminists, in particular, paid attention to the ‘D’ in ICPD by looking at global economic power as well. The delinking of these two issues (population and development) was a critical change that impacted the policies that had shaped population control for many decades. For those of us who were working on the development issues, the next conference, the World Social Summit in Copenhagen [6-12 March 1995], was a natural follow-up to Cairo. The focus of Copenhagen was on poverty and social disintegration, and there, as women’s groups, we were able to bring attention to the problems of structural adjustments policy and the need to pay attention to issues of poverty in the world. We were able to look at the impact of debt and IMF [International Monetary Fund] policies on women’s lives. We brought the work that had been done by feminist economists to engage the conversation. I still remember vividly the hunger strike that women went on inside the UN meeting bringing attention to the rising problems of debt and related consequences.

From there we went to Beijing and so it was really like taking all those issues that we worked on in those many conferences and bringing them to the World Conference on Women.

NGLS: How have efforts to implement the Beijing Platform for Action (BPFA) evolved? Has this been satisfactory?

That’s a complicated question, it’s not an easy answer. The Beijing Platform has been used in many countries at the local level, and also at the national level to change national level legislation to be more fitting with the Beijing Platform. So yes, there has been some incredibly effective ways in which the Beijing Platform has been used. It has also been used as a galvanizing force for activists. On the other hand, since Beijing, governments have changed – and we’ve tried to hold on to what we achieved in Beijing. In a way, we had hope that we could move forward – and fifteen years later we haven’t really pushed that far forward. We have an incredible document in the Beijing Platform and now, because of the changes in the world, we’re trying to hold on to what we had rather than expand what we were able to achieve in 1995.

NGLS: In your opinion, what areas need additional efforts? Should any new critical issues be added to the 12 originally outlined by the BPFA?

In my own focus, I think we need, although the Beijing Platform did address it, a lot more interest on economic issues, particularly a feminist take on what economic policy should be. I know that in Beijing we talked about the World Trade Organization because it opened as an institution in 1995. There has been much work on gender and trade and there are now several global networks that look at the relationship between trade and gender. The WTO meeting also became a location for activism; the energy around the work done both inside the meetings and on the streets was exciting. The WTO meeting in Seattle felt like a new coalition of groups – women’s groups, environmental, workers and unions, immigrant rights groups, etc, – coming together over common interests.

The current economic crisis is, in some ways, an opportunity to do some new thinking. We have ample evidence that the neoliberal policies of the last three decades have not worked. We need to think about ways in which we help mold economic policy, especially after the crisis that we’re currently going through. I think we have a window of opportunity to be able to not just critique the policies that we have so far, but really to start trying to think about new ethical ways to assess macroeconomic policy. The work I’m doing right now is on trying to use a human rights framework and a human rights lens, especially focusing on economic and social rights, to be able to assess macroeconomic policy. It provides a feminist perspective so that is one attempt, and I know people are doing different things around the world. Perhaps integrating the work that we did in Vienna – which was to say that women’s rights are human rights and that focused mostly on violence – to now saying that human rights are also women’s rights in terms of economic policy.

NGLS: What is the Center for Women’s Global Leadership focusing on in the run-up to Beijing+15?

The Center this year is going to hold a one-day symposium because it also is the Center’s 20th Anniversary. The symposium will be held in the middle of the Commission on the Status of Women meetings in New York [1-12 March 2010] and it is both a reflection of the work the Center has been doing and also a place in which we, as women’s groups and feminist organizations, can come together and discuss, looking backwards and forwards, what we’ve done with the Center. I became the Director of the Center three months ago, and Charlotte Bunch had been there for twenty years, so it will also be a reflection of her leadership. We’re also organizing a panel within the UN Conference on the economic crisis.

NGLS: Concerning the recent General Assembly resolution [A/Res/63/311] that seeks to establish a new women’s rights entity at the United Nations, what kind of political will and concrete elements will be needed to make such an entity operational and effective?

The one thing I want to say is that my predecessor Charlotte Bunch was very active in the whole GEAR [Gender Equality Architecture Reform] process and was very central to the civil society voice that went into the GEAR. I think what we need in this new entity is to have it at a very high level, the Under-Secretary-General level, and not deputed down with no power. I also think that country governments have to really invest resources and not just have an organization and name that’s going to take care of all of women’s issues in the world. They must really commit resources and field offices so that there is going to be serious planning and activity around women’s issues globally.


This article is available in Spanish.

The UN Non-Governmental Liaison Service (UN-NGLS) is an inter-agency programme of the United Nations mandated to develop constructive relations between the UN and civil society organizations.


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