women's movement around the world has brought positive change. There has
been a growing recognition that countries cannot thrive if half the
population is left out of education and work, or not included in
decision-making. Laws have been introduced to recognise women's right to
safety in and outside the home, equal pay in the workplace and equality
under the law, and there have been attitudinal changes towards women.
The past 20 years have seen two landmark international agreements on women's rights. In September 1994, the International Conference on Population and Development,
which met in Cairo, for the first time shifted the emphasis on
population control from government efforts to reduce numbers through
family planning, to look more broadly at women's empowerment and how
their lives can be improved. It examined issues including access to
decent reproductive health services, sexual health advice and support
and through the elimination harmful practices, such as female genital mutilation (FGM) and forced marriage. About 179 countries signed up to the programme of action, which contained more than 200 recommendations.
The following year, in Beijing, the Fourth World Conference on Women committed to achieving gender
equality by removing the obstacles that limit women's involvement in
public and private life and prevented them from an equal share in
But with success comes the backlash, and that
backlash has been increasingly evident over the past 15 years. As the UN
looks to mark the 20th anniversary of the Cairo agreement this year,
women's rights organisations are, more and more, having to concern
themselves with fighting reactionary policies that seek to chip away at
Globally, about one in three women will be beaten or raped during their lifetime, and more than 140 million women and girls are estimated to be living with the consequences of FGM.
And despite numerous UN resolutions that state the importance of
women's involvement in peace and reconciliation, women are still not
invited to peace talks.
Women's rights groups are underfunded. Research by the Association for Women's Rights in Development (Awid) found that the average annual income of 740 organisations it surveyed in 2010 was about $20,000 (£12,000).
Tuesday, the Guardian launched a women's rights and gender equality
section to provide a specific focus on the pressing issues affecting
women, girls and transgender people around the world, and the critical
work being carried out by women's rights movements.
This year is
gearing up to be a key time for women's rights and gender equality. The
UN Commission on the Status of Women, being held in New York in March,
will discuss progress against the millennium development goals and
crucially look at how women feature in what comes next.
loud calls for a standalone goal for gender equality to be included in
any new set of targets after 2015, it is far from certain that this will
be achieved. Sexual violence against women, particularly during
conflict, is expected to receive global attention once again this year,
with a summit hosted by the UK, and the anniversary of Cairo will be a
chance for cool assessment on whether women have achieved the right to
determine when, and if, they have children.