As I mentioned in a previous post, I’ve spent part of the pandemic taking classes online through Coursera. One of those courses is from Stanford University, taught by Anne Firth Murray. The class explores Women’s Health and Human Rights around the world, and one of our first assignments was to read the 1995 Beijing Declaration, which emerged from the Fourth United Nations Conference on Women.
Taking online classes throughout the pandemic has been eye-opening for me, partially because I’m learning more about the world in which we live, and also because I’ve realized how little I actually learned in four years of high school and two years of college (I started undergrad as a junior thanks to a dual-credit program at my high school). Truthfully, I’m sickened when I think of all the maps we were assigned to color in high school geography and history classes with little context to the events that were happening around the world. There has to be more, I would think, coloring the different countries in Africa various shades based on their exports. Why can’t we learn what’s happening in these countries, instead of just where they are or what they do for the developed world?
By my senior year of high school, I was fed up with the surface-level lessons about the world. I spent my summer break researching global issues, blogging about women’s rights. For the first time, I learned about female genital cutting and was horrified—how had I learned so much about the exported goods of Africa without ever learning about this torture women are forced to endure? As a result, when school started and our first assignment in speech class was to give an informative speech, I chose to speak for five minutes about female genital cutting, much to the horror of my classmates, who’d chosen topics like “What is 4-H?” and “The Five Positions on a Basketball Team.” I believed that, even though we were in a somewhat privileged community in the American Midwest, we still needed to know what people on the other side of the world were facing. After all, how could we know where life after high school would take us, or who we might meet in the coming years? I believed that by being aware of the traditions and customs throughout the world in which we live, we might foster compassion amongst ourselves.
Now, almost ten years later, as I consider school options for my two children, one of the things my husband and I keep circling back to is that we want to raise aware people. As important as we believe it is to protect our children and maintain their innocence in their youngest years, we believe it is equally important not to hide the world from them. For example, whenever we downsize gently-used stuffed animals and books, we explain we’re sending those items to Stuffed Animals for Emergencies, a charity that provides a cuddly friend for children who have just been through an emergency or natural disaster. When our four-year-old asks “What’s that?”, we explain what a tornado is in terms he can understand. Ultimately, we want to raise people who understand that they have privileges many do not, and that we can all use our privileges to help others who are at a disadvantage for whatever reason. We don’t need to feel guilty for what we have, of course, but we have a moral obligation to make our part of the world a little bit better if we can. And we can only learn how to make our communities—our world—a better place if we first learn where and how people need help.
Learning more about women’s issues around the world now, at twenty-six and as a mother, impacts me so much differently than it did when I was a teenager. Like many mothers, I want my children to have a better life than I did. When I think about my daughter, I want her to grow up safer and far more empowered than I did. And when I learn about the issues women in Afghanistan are facing today, for example, in the wake of the U.S. withdrawal and Taliban takeover, I ache for those mothers and children, because even if I can’t understand their circumstances, I do know what it’s like to love as a mother. I want better for them, and so I do all I can to learn about our world’s policies and what the global community has discussed in the past to prevent such crimes against humanity from continuing. As a feminist and member of the #MeToo Movement, one of the phrases I’ve seen most often is “Women’s rights are humans rights.”
While this slogan had been used often throughout the 1980s and 1990s, the most widely-recognized usage of it was by Hillary Rodham Clinton at this very conference—the Fourth United Nations Conference on Women—on September 5, 1995. Yet I wonder how many of us know the context in which this slogan was so famously used, or how broad a scope of women Clinton was referring to when she made the statement.
From the Fourth United Nations Conference on Women emerged the Beijing Declaration, which begins with the objectives of the United Nations regarding women. In Annex I of the document, which lists some key objectives of the Conference, I found three lines in particular that I believe we can all implement in our communities, regardless of where we live.
First, I was captivated by the words in Line 9: “Ensure the full implementation of the human rights of women and of the girl child as an inalienable, integral and indivisible part of all human rights and fundamental freedoms.” This line is so important because it fully recognizes women (both female children and adults) as sovereign beings, who are entitled to respect, autonomy, safety, and protection under the law, the same way men have been recognized and protected for centuries. As overdue as such a statement was by 1995, seeing the words on paper that provide myself and my daughter—and so many mothers and daughters around the world—with this recognition is a powerful thing.
Similarly, in Line 12, the Beijing Declaration ensures and recognizes the need to the provide for the “spiritual and intellectual needs of women.” This acknowledgment empowers a woman by recognizing who she is, rather than merely what she is able to do for the men in her life/community. The Beijing Declaration is an official, international document that says “We see you, and we know you are more than perhaps you’ve been told” to women around the world. By recognizing this notion and affirming what many women have wondered but been intimidated or otherwise preventing from believing, and thus, acting on said belief, the Beijing Declaration further protects the liberty of women, even in thought. This document tells women that the global community believes they have a right to learn, both in education and spirituality (however they define the latter). For women who are still prohibited from learning how to read, this statement surely brings a modicum of hope.
Additionally, in Line 26, the phrase “Promote women’s economic independence” caught my attention because, once again, this is another facet of women’s needs around the world and a way in which world leaders recognize it. By theoretically fulfilling the other promises made in the document, world leaders are able to promote women’s economic independence. Without providing for the intellectual needs of women (Line 12), such as literacy and their right to an education, women face additional challenges in accomplishing full independence.
Overall, I find the Beijing Declaration to be filled with lofty goals, and while meeting each is necessary, I believe the document is rather idealistic. Since the Declaration was written twenty-six years ago, our world has changed, and I believe we recognize that it isn’t idealism that will change the world—it’s action. As Jerry Brown, an American politician in the mid twentieth century said, “Inaction may be the biggest form of action.” While I recognize that not all of us can be diplomats or work for Non-Governmental Organizations and effect change on a global scale, each of us can take action within our own communities.
We can take a little time each week to learn more about our communities and the unique needs of our neighborhoods. What are the biggest needs of children in our communities—school supplies, ending hunger, safer parks? How can we support parents in our communities, either expectant parents who may struggle to acquire baby supplies and furniture, or parents with low-paying jobs who need childcare, or who are still in some form of school? And even if we still can’t go out much due to the pandemic, we can still donate some extra healthy groceries to a local food pantry, clean out our closets and storage areas to donate gently-used clothing, coats, books, and toys to local charities, or take some time to research whatever issues are most important to use and how we can make a difference in our own piece of the world.
How can we ensure literacy in our community? Is there an organization, like The MENTOR Network, where we could volunteer to read with students after school?
How can we empower women in our community? Is there a way we might be able to stand by someone’s side, such as a single mother who might need low-cost childcare so she can finish a degree? Instead of shaming a single mother, why not find a way to stand beside her and say, “I believe in you”? Or if a woman chooses not to have children—or cannot—rather than asking her why she doesn’t have kids yet, what if we chose to support her passions just as much as we support the mother’s? Both women are women with dreams beyond the womb, with value beyond their fecundity; why not recognize their value and encourage them both to pursue those dreams?
How can we ensure the economic independence of women in our community? What would it cost us to take the time to write to our legislators to implore them to raise the minimum wage in our state, closing the gap between wages and inflated prices on essential goods?
We don’t have to host an international conference or draft a two hundred-plus page document about women’s rights to change the world. We can start in our own hometowns and neighborhoods by asking those around us. When we share a slogan online, we can take a moment to ask ourselves how we can implement that slogan’s meaning in our everyday lives, and if we’re able, how we can ensure the slogan is implemented in households and communities which are less privileged than our own.
And even if we graduated years ago, we can continue to learn, just as the world continues to turn.