The Beijing Platform for Action, developed at a 1995 United Nations conference, set an agenda for women’s empowerment and identified 12 critical areas of concern. Twenty years after Beijing, ShareAmerica assesses global progress in each critical area. This article discusses the important role of government institutions in ensuring equal rights for women.

Since the women’s suffrage movement in the early 20th century, nearly every country has established national institutions for the advancement of women.

International organizations have also done their part. The oldest regional agency of this type is the Organization of American States’ Inter-American Commission of Women, established in 1928 as a forum for advancing women’s rights. Many more such efforts followed. In 2010, U.N. Women unified the work of several United Nations offices to promote the advancement of women through development funding, research, training and advocacy.

International Monetary Fund Managing Director Christine Lagarde is among the dynamic women leading the way for women in institutions that can help accomplish gender mainstreaming. (© AP Images)

Evolving approaches

Approaches to women’s empowerment have evolved over time. Initially, most “mechanisms for advancement” focused on enacting and enforcing policies that ensured equal treatment of men and women. This strategy eventually came to be criticized for simply assimilating females into a male standard that may be inappropriate for them. Then distinct policies for women and men to achieve gender parity were considered. Finally, “gender mainstreaming,” introduced by the Beijing Platform for Action in 1995, came to the fore.

Mainstreaming evaluates prospective policies for their different implications for women and men and for how well they promote equality. Gender mainstreaming is reflected in the mission of the White House Council on Women and Girls, created by President Obama in 2009 to ensure that each U.S. government agency “takes into account the needs of women and girls in the policies they draft, the programs they create, the legislation they support.” It is also a U.N Millennium Development Goal.

Nepalese women in Kathmandu demand a new provision in Nepal’s constitution to allow citizenship through mothers as well as fathers. (© AP Images)

Only the beginning

Despite the widespread presence of women’s policy mechanisms, the policies are not uniformly effective. Resources are vulnerable to changes in government and donor funding priorities. In some countries, agencies have ministerial rank, while in others they are under the auspices of the president or another ministry, such as justice or social development. Few such agencies negotiate their own budgets. In addition, their status may depend upon the will of the president or prime minister. An ongoing concern is whether these agencies have sufficient power and resources to be effective in promoting gender equality and women’s empowerment.

Governance and national planning pave the way for women’s advancement. Once women hold public office, they can organize as the Uruguayan Women’s Caucus has done. This bipartisan caucus prioritizes gender equality, and members work together for legal protections for women. The Inter-Parliamentary Union offers guidelines for forming women’s caucuses. Government funding for gender equity is needed and has made a difference in Ecuador and Morocco, among other countries.