Hillary Clinton’s speech at the United Nations today was always going to be a big deal. But with word that she will hold a press conference afterwards to discuss the email address she used as Secretary of State there will be considerably more attention to here remarks.

And that’s probably a good thing! This speech at the United Nations is significant on its own terms: it marks the 20th anniversary of one of her most famous speeches of all time, and will set the tone for a key international debate about achieving universal gender equality.

Twenty years ago First Lady Hillary Clinton went to Beijing for the UN’s Fourth World Conference on Women.  This week Clinton will be in New York and at the United Nations to mark the anniversary of that event at the 59th Commission on the Status of Women (CSW), which is an annual meeting focusing on gender equality. It was in 1995 in Beijing that 189 countries signed the Beijing Platform For Action, which provided a roadmap for achieving gender equality. It was in her keynote address to that conference that First Lady Hillary Clinton famously said “human rights are human rights, and women’s rights are women’s rights,” earning her rapturous. applause.

 

That speech brought wide American attention to what was a legitimately groundbreaking United Nations confab. At no other point in history had the world come together with such majority to openly say that true gender equality ought to be a universal goal–across countries and cultures.  The Beijing conference was especially powerful because it set out an actual roadmap for countries to follow, highlighting twelve specific areas in which to improve the lives of women and girls.

Needless to say, action toward gender equality has been far slower than the ambitious plan laid out in Beijing 20 years ago. This year’s Commission on the Status of Women opened yesterday, with UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon declaring “progress remains unacceptably [slow], and our gains are not irreversible.” UN Women Director Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka noted in her opening speech that this year’s CSW would look very different had countries held up their end of the Beijing Platform the past 20 years. Instead, Mlambo-Ngucka said the CSW will be discussing “modest gains” and an urgent need for still greater strides.

To coincide with the start of CSW, on Monday a report entitled No Ceilings – Not There Yet: A Data Driven Analysis of Gender Equality was released by the Clinton Foundation and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to highlight the gap in progress between Beijing and now.  Clinton wrote in the report’s introduction that she “hope[s] it serves as a wake-up call, and also as a call to action for us all.”

In 20 years since the Beijing Conference, there are still five countries where there are no female members of legislative bodies and eight countries where women do not hold high-level Cabinet positions. (It is a fact that hits home for Clinton as she gears up for a possible U.S. Presidential bid and it will certainly have a bearing on her message this week to the UN.) Data in the report and UN official statistics also say that violence against women is “alarmingly high” and that more than 170 signatories of the Beijing Platform still have legal barriers in place preventing gender equality.
Twenty years on, the path to full gender equality has been bumpy. Several of the original twelve areas have seen some progress, especially in economic empowerment, but many activists and leaders in the halls of the United Nations say that the anniversary is more of an event to mark frustration rather than a celebration. And here, the tone that Hillary Clinton strikes in her speech today will be particularly significant.

In 1995, she helped galvanize the international community around a robust plan of action to achieve gender equality. Humanity has made some strides, but we are far from where we need to be. How Hillary Clinton–a possible future US president–frames the progress we’ve made and the key challenges ahead is arguably way more historically consequential than an email address.

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