International Women’s Day will be celebrated globally on March 8, 2015, and at this month’s meeting of the 59th session of the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women, delegates will review the progress, or lack thereof, in the twenty years since the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action was signed by 189 governments, including Canada, at the historic meeting in China in 1995.

Many women who have been associated with LEAF over our 30 years attended the meetings in Beijing in 1995. Most were delegates to the Non-Governmental Organizations (NGO) Forum that accompanied the official UN Conference for Women in Beijing. Relegated to a muddy site in Huairou, an hour’s drive away from the official Conference site in Beijing, they joined tens of thousands of women’s rights activists from all over the world to demand action on the issues preventing women and girls from attaining equality. The hour’s drive and the poor site conditions did not weaken the sounds of their voices or dampen their enthusiasm.

LEAF Legal Director Dr. Kim Stanton remembers very well standing in a sea of umbrellas at the NGO Forum site listening to Hillary Clinton’s famous “women’s rights are human rights” speech being broadcast to those outside in the pouring rain. The Canadian NGO Forum delegates held regular briefings to hear from those who had access to the official government meetings in Beijing. Kim recalls: “We were by turns raucous and respectful, downtrodden and hopeful, tired and elated. But we were determined to be heard by the government delegates. There was a tremendous amount of energy for change, and a formidable strength in numbers.”

The Platform for Action contained some important successes, including recognition that sexual violence and other forms of gender-based persecution are legitimate grounds for refugee claims, and the acknowledgment that the use of rape as a weapon of war can constitute a crime against humanity and an act of genocide. There was also recognition of sexual and reproductive rights as part of women’s human rights. While none of the inclusions went far enough for many of the NGO Forum delegates, the clauses would not have been there at all had it not been for the sustained commitment of women’s rights activists from around the world.

The heady days of the NGO Forum have turned into the ongoing struggle for protection of what has been gained and promotion of what is yet to be achieved for women’s rights. Twenty years later, together with a network of sister NGOs, trade unions and experts, LEAF contributed to a report, “Progress on Women’s Rights: Missing in Action”, critiquing the Canadian government’s performance in implementation of the Beijing Platform for Action.

We at LEAF know the importance of continuing to meet with our sisters here and around the world, to talk and listen to one another, and to build networks of resistance and solidarity. Our belief in the principles that so many women fought to have enunciated in the Platform for Action has not wavered. LEAF continues to raise its voice for the rights of women refugees to health care and to social assistance, for reproductive justice, equal access to employment, protection from hate speech and sexual violence, and access to justice for Indigenous people in the criminal justice system, for homeless people, for sexual assault complainants, including those who wear a niqab or present with intellectual disabilities, for women in family law cases, as well as seeking justice for Indigenous women and girls, among other pressing issues.

We know the critical importance of working tirelessly to achieve equality, and with your support, we will continue to use litigation, law reform and public education to do so.

Best wishes from LEAF for a happy International Women’s Day!

p.s. LEAF is a member of the pan-Canadian Alliance for Women’s Rights campaign Up for Debate – please join our call for a debate on women’s issues in the next federal election by signing the petition and sharing our vision to end violence and economic inequality and to support women’s leadership.

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