As I went on, I could feel a change in the atmosphere. Delegates, even (or especially) from countries I was criticizing, were leaning forward. And then I said this: “If there is one message that echoes forth from this conference, let it be that human rights are women’s rights and women’s rights are human rights, once and for all.”
When I finished, the room erupted into cheers. The delegates rose, giving me a standing ovation, a rarity at buttoned-up UN gatherings. As I left the hall, women hung over banisters to grab my hand. Some had tears in their eyes. The declaration of a simple, obvious message should perhaps not have had such a galvanizing effect. But 25 years ago, it caused shock waves.
Since 1995, the phrase Women’s rights are human rights has appeared on tote bags, cellphone cases, needlepoint pillows, and T-shirts. I’m happy about this. But the most transformative moment of the conference wasn’t my speech. It was the adoption of the Platform for Action, whereby representatives from all 189 nations committed to “the full and equal participation of women in political, civil, economic, social, and cultural life.” A 270-page document might not lend itself to bumper stickers or coffee mugs, but it laid the groundwork for sweeping, necessary changes.
In many ways, women are better off than they were 25 years ago. A girl born 25 years ago in Lesotho could not own property or sign a contract; today, she can. In East Africa, a girl born 25 years ago grew up in a region where female genital cutting was widespread; since then, the practice has declined significantly. In 1995, domestic violence was a crime in just 13 countries; today, it is illegal in more than 100. We’ve nearly closed the global gender gap in primary-school enrollment, and maternal mortality has dropped by more than half.
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But the work is nowhere near done. As the changes laid out in the Platform for Action have been implemented, what’s become clear is that simply embracing the concept of women’s rights, let alone enshrining those rights in laws and constitutions, is not the same as achieving full equality. Rights are important, but they are nothing without the power to claim them.
In 2017, the Women’s March brought millions to the streets to protest sexism and misogyny. More than a decade after the activist Tarana Burke coined the phrase Me too, the movement has reached every corner of the world. The coronavirus pandemic, the loss of millions of jobs, and the deaths of Ahmaud Arbery, George Floyd, and Breonna Taylor, among too many others, have prompted activists to shine a light on the injustice and inequality facing communities of color, especially Black women. All of this has a lot to do with rights, but it’s also about something more. It’s about power: who has it, who doesn’t, and how we confront that imbalance.