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The Beijing Declaration 25 years on – three priorities for humanitarians


Written by Kerrie Holloway

Hero image description: Heela Yoon, Cora Weiss Peacebuilding Fellow at the Global Network of Women Peacebuilders speaking at the 64th session of the Commission on the Status of Women, N Headquarters in New York on 8 March 2020. Image credit:Photo: UN Women/Ryan Brown Image license:CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Twenty-five years ago today – on 1 October 1995 – the Beijing Declaration and Platform of Action was agreed at the United Nations Fourth World Conference on Women.

The declaration was the culmination of decades of work on concerns around women’s equality in the development sector. Yet it was not until the early 1990s that the humanitarian sector began to integrate gender into their programming.

Gender mainstreaming has persisted in humanitarian policies, but in practice it has been criticised for maintaining an ‘add women and stir’ approach to gender equality, rather than understanding local communities and actors, both men and women, and the embedded nature of gender relations.

Now, 25 years on, UN agencies – along with donors and NGOs – should revisit what the Beijing Declaration offered humanitarians: an agenda for gender responsive action that is groundbreaking even today.

Gender mainstreaming in 2020

Beijing was a watershed moment in gender programming because it helped ‘mainstream’ gender across the UN system (including humanitarian, development and peace-building) through commitments to women’s, as well as men’s, particular gendered concerns and experiences. These were reflected in the design, implementation, monitoring and evaluation of policies and programmes to achieve gender equality.

This agenda has become even more critical during the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic, which disproportionately impacts women and girls and compounds gendered issues in humanitarian contexts.

Over the past few months, budgets have been reallocated to Covid-19 and away from gendered programming. Lockdowns have also cut off economic opportunities for women and educational opportunities for girls, while they remain the primary caregivers for families when children are out of school and others are sick.

At the same time, humanitarian actors should remain mindful of the impact that gender programming can have on affected populations.

Efforts to create gender equality and transform gender roles can have unintended and even adverse outcomes, such as marginalising the women they seek to help, empowering others in their place or ignoring more marginalised groups.

Here are three key things humanitarians should be doing now.

1. Partner with local rights-based organisations

Humanitarians should partner with local women’s rights, feminist and lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) groups on feminist, grassroots, locally led responses. This would help humanitarian programming become more inclusive and sensitive to the local context.

The Beijing Platform for Action recognises a range of exclusions that women face at work, in the public sphere and in the household. Humanitarian actors must learn to do the same by working hand-in-hand with gender equality advocates and activists.

Likewise, the western model of the nuclear family remains the basic unit of analysis used to determine aid distribution, which does not reflect diverse family structures across different social and cultural contexts (subscription required).

2. Work more closely with development and peace-building partners on gendered concerns

This is important as people marginalised by their gender live in a constant state of crisis that transcends humanitarian settings. Our previous research on how gender roles change in displacement highlights that while gendered threats are exacerbated by conflict and displacement, they are not confined to those spaces alone.

Making real progress on gender equality globally will be difficult, if not impossible, without breaking down the silos between humanitarian, development and peace-building work.

3. Stop conflating ‘women’ and ‘gender’

Though mainstreaming ‘gender’ replaced mainstreaming ‘women’ following the Beijing Declaration, the focus remained, and continues to remain, on women alone.

This is to the detriment of a more comprehensive, relational and intersectional understanding of gender. Men and masculinities must become a key part of the picture in sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV) programming, but humanitarian actors also need to move beyond the binary to take non-heteronormative practices and identities into account.

Humanitarians have a responsibility to continue deepening and expanding the scope of gender mainstreaming in programming to achieve gender equality. This is an ongoing challenge that we at ODI remain committed to. We encourage the sector as whole to ensure the edicts of the Beijing Declaration continue to be held in spirit, and even more crucially for the future, acted on in practice.