Violence against women, twenty years after the Beijing Declaration

Jo Morris examines the Beijing Platform for Action, 20 years after its adoption.

Violence against women is a human rights violation and a serious impediment to women’s progress in any area of life. It undercuts women’s health, prospects for education and productive work, and ability to participate as full members of their societies.

Sobering numbers show how common violence is — and how many forms it takes. According to the UN:

  • Around the world, 1 in 3 women have experienced physical or sexual violence.
  • About 120 million girls have been forced into intercourse or other sexual acts at some point in their lives.
  • In 29 countries alone, 133 million women and girls have undergone female genital mutilation.
  • Around the world sexual harassment and a various forms of violence against women is common in many workplaces. Workers employed on precarious or insecure contracts, who are migrant or lack the protection of a trade union are especially vulnerable to sexual harassment, verbal abuse or assault from colleagues and managers alike.
  • More than 700 million women alive today were married as children. Almost all of the estimated 4.5 million victims of forced sexual exploitation are women and girls.

The Beijing Declaration

Already in 1995,  189 UN Member States adopted the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action, during the Fourth UN Conference on Women.  This Declaration was a global call to end all forms of violence against women and girls. It highlighted violence as a critical area of concern, and served as a progressive blueprint for advancing women’s rights. World governments recognised that violence is one of the main mechanisms that deny women equality. It is also expensive, as it imposes high social, health and economic costs. And they made the concept of violence very tangible. According to this consensus, violence against women can take place within the family or community, but it can also be perpetrated or condoned by the state.

Even 20 years later, it remains a powerful source of guidance and inspiration.

The Platform for Action imagines a world where each woman and girl can exercise her freedoms and choices, and realize all her rights, such as to live free from violence, to go to school, to participate in decisions and to earn equal pay for equal work.

Since 1995, governments, civil society and the public have tried to translate the Platform for Action’s promises into concrete changes in individual countries – and FWF’s programmes to prevent violence against women is an example of practical action on one of the 12 critical areas of concern that the Beijing Platform for Action identified. While more women and girls are protected by laws against gender-based violence, gender based violence remains an increasing challenge to women around the world, making the practical implementation of laws against GBV and sexual harassment a key priority in workplaces and the community.

Still, the Platform for Action envisioned gender equality in all dimensions of life—and no country has yet finished this agenda. Women earn less than men and are more likely to work in poor-quality jobs. A third suffer physical or sexual violence in their lifetime. Gaps in reproductive rights and health care leave 800 women dying in childbirth each day.

Since Beijing, an historic two-thirds of countries have put laws on the books to stop domestic violence. But legislation to protect women in public spaces – including workplaces – is less common. Gaps in laws, implementation of legal protection and essential services remain. Women are still reluctant to report violence. Attitudes in some places tolerate, if not encourage, it.

The 20th anniversary of Beijing opens new opportunities to reconnect, regenerate commitment, charge up political will and mobilize the public. Everyone has a role to play—for our common good. The evidence is increasingly in that empowering women empowers humanity. Economies grow faster, for example, and families are healthier and better-educated.

The Beijing Platform for Action, still forward-looking at 20, offers important focus in rallying people around gender equality and women’s empowerment. Its promises are necessarily ambitious. But over time, and with the accumulating energy of new generations, they are within reach.

The promise of Beijing was that governments, community organizations, schools, businesses and others would work tirelessly to stop violence, in whatever form it takes. Momentum has begun, but needs to rapidly accelerate. The world can be free from violence — that is women’s inherent right.



Jo Morris is  Visiting Professor in Practice, London School of Economics and Political Science, Gender Institute.  She is FWF’s gender expert.

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