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Only through movements will we be able to bring about change – International Women’s Day 2016

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8 March is International Women’s Day. A day to celebrate and reflect on progress made in the ongoing fight for gender equality. As part of its 25th Anniversary, the Asian Forum for Human Rights and Development (FORUM-ASIA), together with members, partners and friends reflected on the last 25 years of the promotion and protection of human and women’s rights. Many things were said, but one thing came clearly to the fore: Only through movements of women and human rights defenders have we ever, and will we ever make true and lasting change for women in Asia.

To begin with, all progress that has been made related to women’s rights was realised by or with the support of the women’s movement. The 4th World Conference on Women held in 1995 in Beijing resulted in some of the most comprehensive and forward thinking commitments related to gender equality to date. It is unimaginable this would have happened without the women’s movement.

However, with time, criticism and disappointment has increased about the lack of implementation and practice when it comes to the Beijing Declaration and the Platform for Action. Last year’s report by UN Women, ‘The Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action Turns 20’, opens with a foreword by Dr. Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, United Nations Under-Secretary-General and Executive Director of UN Women, who describes the report as ‘(..) it is a salutary account of a world that has not, in the main, improved much for women and girls, and for some has got a lot worse.’

As such, the main achievements of Beijing had little to do with the words that were put on paper by the UN Member States. The strengthening of solidarity and collaboration between women’s movements from different countries and regions; the alliance with the human rights movement; and the crucial recognition of women’s rights as human rights, were possibly much more significant. These results have since been of much greater value to promote gender equality compared to the lack of real implementation stemming from the Platform of Action.

It is not surprising that the women’s movement has persevered were Governments fell behind. Historically the women’s movement has been one of the most organised and active of the different social movements. Asia is no exception. On the contrary, particularly countries which have male-dominated societies and have been repressive of women and girls have been the birth places of some of the strongest women’s rights activists of the region. These women have stood up because of the injustice and repression they face for being women, and it is this determination and bravery that assures that they have and always will be key-drivers for change.

Finally, the women’s movement in Asia continues to grow. It seems to have been able to reinvent and reenergise itself. Across the region brave women are standing up for their rights, and pushing for the realisation and implementation of the commitments made over 20 years ago. These new activists are bringing with them new ideas, new viewpoints and new energy. It is how the movement will adapt to the needs of our time, and will continue to be able to advocate and demand changes based on current needs.

Hence it is crucial that the women’s movement in Asia and beyond continues to grow and expand. It needs to open its doors to young women’s rights activists even more. To empower them and enhance their capacities based on the knowledge and experiences from the past, but also allow them to change and revitalise the movement.

However, possibly more importantly, renewed efforts should be made to assure that the women’s movement and the human rights movement reinforce, align and strengthen each other. Only when the women’s movement and the human rights movement truly join hands, will the chance of gender equality become an attainable goal. When both movements recognise that neither can obtain their vision for the future without realising the other, when both promote women’s rights as human rights, and human rights as women’s rights, only then, change will become a reality.

This statement is based on the reflections about women, women’s rights and the women’s movement as part of the development of the publication, ‘Our Struggle for Human Rights – 25 Years of FORUM-ASIA’. For a video of some of these reflections click here.