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Women in Canada and around the world worked hard to prepare for the 1995 Fourth World Conference on Women, held in Beijing China. For many women in Canada, the Conference and parallel NGO forum sparked interest in the United Nations system. That World Conference resulted in 189 UN member states, including Canada, committing themselves to the Platform for Action (the PFA), which defines strategic objectives and actions to be taken by governments, the international community, NGOs, and the private sector to achieve fundamental changes to advance women’s equality by the year 2000.
In June 2000, the United Nations held a Special Session of the General Assembly called Women 2000: Gender Equality, Development and Peace for the 21st Century to review and assess the progress made in the 5 years since countries committed themselves to the PFA. The Beijing +5 process, as it came to be known, was meant to renew and build on commitments contained in the PFA, to examine obstacles to the implementation of the goals of the PFA, and to look at further actions and initiatives needed to achieve global gender equality. However, as preparations for the Special Session began, many women were concerned that it could provide an opportunity to rollback gains made, particularly given that it was clear that no country in the world, including Canada effectively implemented the commitments made under the PFA.
Preparing for Beijing +5
In the five years since the Beijing conference, some equality-seeking women’s groups began focusing on strategies to participate effectively and strategically at the international level. One such strategy was to establish the Canadian Feminist Alliance for International Action (FAFIA). Over 40 Canadian equality-seeking nongovernmental organizations, including NAWL, founded FAFIA at a February 1999national consultation of women’s organizations in Ottawa. The FAFIA alliance is coordinated through an elected Steering Committee and is anchored in a secretariat located in Ottawa.
FAFIA’s goals are to:
* develop the capacity of Canadian equality seeking women and women’s groups to participate in current and future domestic policy debates as those debates are informed and affected by globalization trends and the liberalization of trade;
* facilitate the ability of Canadian women’s NGOs to intervene effectively at the United Nations and other international forms
* to assist women to develop strategies, methods of working, and means of coordinating their activism to strengthen the international dimension of the work of women’s NGOs for gender equality,
* hold our governments (federal, provincial and territorial) accountable to the international commitments and obligations signed by Canada. These include the Beijing Platform for Action (Fourth World Conference on Women), the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and its accompanying covenants, including the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), the Covenant on Social, Economic and Cultural Rights and the Convention on all Forms of Racial Discrimination(CERD). FAFIA seeks the full implementation of all international human rights instruments and agreements in Canada in order to address the economic and social inequalities that women in Canada continue to face.
In preparation for the Beijing +5 process, FAFIA undertook coordination of Canada’s NGO Alternative Report. This involved gathering information on where and how successfully the Beijing PFA has been implemented in Canada, where and how it has not been implemented, and where gender equality has been eroded since 1995.
The Canadian Alternative Report is divided into two parts. The preliminary portion of the report is entitled The Other Side of the Story: A Feminist Critique of Canada’s National Response to the UN Questionnaire on the Implementation of the Beijing Platform for Action. This report was completed in December 1999.
The second portion of the Alternative Report is entitled Toward Women’s Equality: Canada’s Failed Commitment. This report was prepared for the UN General Assembly Special Session in June 2000. The FAFIA report was included in the global alternative report, which made clear that no country in the world has implemented the commitments contained in the PFA. Government inaction rather than implementation was the global norm. Toward Women’s Equality was launched in Canada at a press conference held in Ottawa on September 27, 2000. The report more fully documents the progress, failures, obstacles and issues of concern for women in Canada and makes concrete recommendations on what Canada must do to comply with its international obligations, in particular the full implementation of the PFA.
As part of the « Beijing + 5 » activities, FAFIA held its second national consultation in Ottawa from February 11-14, 2000. Building on the work of the 1999 national consultation, the February 2000 consultation marked an historic effort in coalition building and making the links between international and domestic efforts to achieve gender equality. In addition, a training session on UN meetings and mechanisms was held.
FAFIA led teams of equality seeking women in Canada to preparatory meetings held prior to the Special Session, including the Economic Commission of Europe and North America (ECE) and the Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) meetings whichwere held in Geneva in January 2000 and New York in March 2000.
As a result of the FAFIA consultation, for the first time, Canadian equality-seeking women’s NGOs had agreed upon common positions for the CSW meeting held in NewYork in February-March 2000. The delegation of equality seeking women who participated in the CSW in March 2000 held agreed upon positions on the Outcomes document (the UN document under consideration), in all 12 critical areas of concern and took a coordinated approach to working at the UN. Finally, the consultation provided an important venue for dialogue between government and equality-seeking NGOs in relation to the international work on gender equality.
Where Do We Go From Here?
In June 2000, FAFIA led a group of equality-seeking women to participate in the Special Session in New York, including women in mentored positions. Making the links between domestic priorities of the women’s movement in Canada and the government’s foreign policy is new to many equality seeking NGOs. Effective lobbying at the UN is a skill that must be developed over time. The « Beijing+5 » process provided invaluable opportunities for equality-seeking women’s groups in Canada to work and lobby at the UN. We must continue to develop the capacity of equality-seeking women in Canada to work at the UN.
One of the most important aspects of participating in the Beijing +5 process was the opportunity for equality-seeking women in Canada to work with and learn from women of the south. Too often, the racism that permeates the government negotiations can also be replicated in the NGO caucuses. Understanding those dynamics and having the opportunity to work with NGOs from the south provides invaluable perspectives for our domestic and international equality work in Canada.
The UN system is difficult to navigate and the government negotiations at the June Special Session almost broke down entirely. However, after much last minute negotiating, a new Further Actions and Initiatives document was agreed to which did not roll back the PFA. In many instances, the new document repeated the language of the PFA verbatim but there were some areas where advances were made. For further information on the Beijing +5 Special Session, copies of FAFIA’s Fall 2000 newsletter entitled from Beijing to Beijing +5 are available, or feel free to consult the FAFIA website at .
As was the case in 1995, when the UN meeting ends, women face the enormous task of taking international commitments home and holding our respective governments accountable to implement the international commitments made. The Beijing +5 process has demonstrated that nowhere in the world has the PFA been adequately implemented. In the post Beijing +5 period, it is paramount that PFA standards are turned into actions and outcomes of Canadian policymaking. In this implementation phase, the importance of ongoing and consistent equality-seeking women’s contributions cannot be overstated.
One strategy that women’s groups in Canada can employ is to ensure that they include references to the international commitments that Canada has made in all of the lobbying work that is done at the municipal, provincial/territorial and federal levels. We can also refer to intensest that the links be made between the Canadian Demands of the World March of Women and the international commitments that Canada has already pledged itself to.
In February 2001, FAFIA will be holding a think tank on Implementation Models which will focus on developing and proposing appropriate models for the domestic implementation of Canada’s international commitments on gender equality using an integrated feminist analysis through participatory research.
Strategic international participation by equality-seeking women requires a continued commitment to press Canada to live up to the commitments it has made. This will be an ongoing struggle but an important one if Beijing and « Beijing+5 » are to have any real impact for women in Canada.
Suki Beavers is the Executive Director of the Canadian Feminist Alliance for International Action, FAFIA.