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Cooperation could lead to feminism without generational gaps and advances for everyone's human rights
Sahar Moazami is UN Program Officer at OutRight Action International
In 1995, 17,000 participants and 30,000 activists arrived in Beijing for the Fourth World Conference on Women. After weeks of intense political debate, the result of the conference was the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action (BPfA), to which 189 governments committed. The BPfA remains one of the most progressive blueprints for the realization of global gender equality to this day.
Twenty-six years later, the world is far from achieving the goals outlined in the BPfA, despite gains in some areas. To commemorate the 25th anniversary of the occasion and check in on the applicability of these commitments in today's world, UN Women rolled out the Generation Equality campaign. Through it, UN women have brought together feminist actors from the original platform with new voices and created a coalition of feminists that spans generations and borders.
While remaining one of the most progressive blueprints for global gender equality, the BPfA made many compromises for the sake of universality that are especially jarring today, specifically in relation to LGBT+ equality.
At the time, OutRight Action International served as a hub for lesbian activist groups and ensured that lesbian issues were raised at all preparatory meetings. As a result, the word gender (rather than sex) was used, and four references to sexual orientation appeared in the draft platform.
However, the proposal of inclusive language, conversations about sexual liberation, choice and empowerment over women's bodies, resulted in explosive debates at the conference. As such, Beijing in 1995 became the birthplace not only of one of the most progressive documents on gender equality to date, but also of the growing anti-gender alliance of the Holy See, conservative Christian and Islamic states, and fundamentalist religious NGOs.
In this effort, the anti-gender alliance initiated rhetoric focusing on the protection of women from specific individual harm, as opposed to the freedom to truly shape their lives and enjoy their rights. The role of women’s sexuality was relegated to the realm of procreation, all but eradicating conversations about women’s right to sexuality and sexual freedoms.
Gender equality more generally was spoken of in reference to violence against women, which produced protectionist rhetoric that placed women in the role of victim in need of protection, as opposed to someone who is an agent of change, and a rights-bearer. Meanwhile, references to sexual orientation were deemed as “dangerous” and intrinsically linked to immoral perversions.
On the last night of the Beijing conference the alliance succeeded in removing all references to sexual orientation from the draft. While the word “gender” remained, many states issued statements clarifying their interpretation of the word as referring to two sexes.
Opposition to an inclusive definition of gender has continued and grown in years since and is central to what we now call the “anti-gender” movement. A movement of conservative states and civil society dedicated to protection of so-called “traditional values,” determined to preserve outdated perceptions of a social order characterised by two distinct sexes, no diversity of sexual orientation or gender identity, and subservience of women.
The use of the word gender – and other inclusive language such as “all families”, or references to diversity – has been and continues to be, alongside sexual and reproductive health and rights, and LGBT+ rights, debated whenever it is used on the international stage.
The anti-gender movement is damaging to all efforts that aim to advance gender equality, of which achieving the human rights of LGBT+ people is a critical part. Movements led by LGBT+ people have been historically intertwined with feminist concerns. The same archaic perceptions of gender roles and gender expression, toxic masculinity, and perceptions of how things “should be”, maintain systems of inequality among people of diverse genders, positioning LGBT+ people as a threat to society. The compromises that were made with the BPfA hurt the feminist agenda, which includes a desire to see LGBT+ people’s human rights recognized and upheld.
With movements like Generation Equality, and other such efforts to re-evaluate our campaigns for gender equality, we have opportunities to recognize the links between diverse struggles, and produce a new blueprint that embraces an inclusive and expansive view that refuses to exclude any individual on the basis of their identity, and which centers intersectionality.
Cooperating with each other could result in a feminism that does not have generational gaps, and focuses on the advancement of the full range of human rights for everyone.