“Do not be daunted by the enormity of the world’s grief. Do justly now. Love mercy, now. Walk humbly, now. You are not obligated to complete the work but neither are you free to abandon it.”
– the Talmud
In September 1995, the Beijing Declaration, although not without its flaws, demonstrated a significant step towards bridging the gap between men and women in every sphere of our lives. And yet, today, almost 22 years later, women continue to disproportionately face a multitude of problems ranging from sex-selective abortion to violence at the hands of a partner or family member. Having been born and brought up in India, the topic of women and human rights hits very close to home for me. I was fortunate enough to be born into a family where a girl child was cherished rather than seen as a curse, where a women’s role was not defined as a home maker and where I was never left wanting. It was almost as though I lived in this little bubble, almost completely isolated from the daily challenges that women face here. Yes, I had to deal with my share of lewd stares and sleazy cat calling but it was nothing compared to what the average woman here has to go through.
This summer, however, within seconds of setting foot in Delhi, the capital, I was quickly but surely wrenched out of this oblivious bubble of mine. I had been accepted for an internship opportunity at the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative and was excited to start working on prison reform in India, despite all the horror stories I had been told about Delhi. Unfortunately, they were all true. I have never felt this unsafe in my country before. I am not allowed to step out of the house after dark for fear of being abducted or raped; not allowed to wear any form fitting clothes to avoid drawing attention to myself and worst of all, not allowed to challenge men who undress me with their eyes, objectifying me freely with their disgusting stares and perverted smiles. But the worst part is, that many women here are not educated enough, or at all, to even understand that they deserve better, that they deserve to feel safe in their own homes. Women have been told, from birth, that they are worth less than men, that their place is at home; and this ingrained mentality of subordination allows for horrific acts of say, marital violence to take place. Which brings me to my main argument, or rather purpose of this post: social justice, women’s rights, equality, these are not just concepts that need to be achieved for “development” reasons. This is an issue of basic human rights, rights that both, men and women must fight for.
The Beijing Declaration was a step towards this, but somewhere along the way, it seems as though we lost sight of our end goal; I mean, Trump was elected just last year. So in the next few paragraphs, I will be highlighting the two most important aspects of the Beijing Declaration, things that we seem to have gotten right the first time around, in an attempt to bring these goals back into focus.
One of the most integral aspects of this declaration can be summed up in Article 14 of the Declaration; that is, “women’s rights are human rights” (Beijing Declaration). Far too often women’s health issues have been approached as “purely “development” issues” and thus, it is of great significance that in 1995, the Beijing Declaration in Article 9 clearly delineated women’s rights as “inalienable, integral and indivisible part of all human rights and fundamental freedoms” (Murray 9, Beijing Declaration). More than 350,000 women die each year from completely preventable childbirth-related injuries and illnesses. Murray states that seventy-seven million girls world-wide, compared with sixty-five million boys, do not go to school. Our fight to award women with the basic right to education should not be charged by a rationale focused on development, but rather so that women can be empowered, can escape the darkness of staggering poverty and more so, pervasive violence.
Feminism has in the recent years, gained a reputation as being extremist or even worse, as being a women’s fight. Feminism means one thing, and one thing only – equality. The Beijing Declaration captured this perfectly in Article 25, which stated a commitment to encourage men to” participate fully in all actions towards equality” (Beijing Declaration). This links back to ideas expressed previously in the Declaration which demonstrates that advancing the status and empowerment of women is in the “interest of all humanity” (Beijing Declaration, Article 3).
One could argue that this document was ahead of its time. One could also argue that the commitments stated are idealistic, unrealistic even. However, equality and women’s rights is unfortunately, still an ideal and is yet to be tangible. Thus, setting a standard, something to aspire to is essential when engaging in a difficult task like this. Yes, it may take long, yes it may be harder for some countries to fulfill the commitments of the declaration than for others but at least we, as an international community, know what it is that we are working towards. No commitment is too much of a commitment for even if a few countries are able to fulfill it, it demonstrates significant steps in the right direction. As the Talmud states, “do not be daunted by the enormity of the world’s grief” – do justly now.