by Linda Viertel
Twenty-one years ago, then First Lady Hillary Clinton stood at the podium at the 1995 Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing and declared, “If there is a message that echoes forth from this conference, let it be that human rights are women’s rights and women’s right are human rights, once and for all.” Her statement was a clarion call that marshalled women’s activism and energized the international women’s rights movement.
But, this ground-breaking event would not have happened were it not for the organizational efforts of Sleepy Hollow resident Kristen Timothy Lankester, who coordinated China’s hosting of more than 50,000 women and men from all over the world. In her role as the former United Nations Deputy Director of Women’s Rights, Timothy Lankester was a pivotal force in organizing this massive and complicated event – the largest international conference on women’s rights ever held.
Timothy Lankester’s professional life at the U.N. was, as she says often, “A dream come true.” As a Cheyenne, Wyoming high schooler, she won the Rocky Mountain regional contest for the best essay about the U.N. She then got on a bus with other regional winners and visited the U.N – a further inspiration, she says. As a debater, her given topic happened to be “How to Strengthen the U.N.,” and she won for the Rocky Mountain region once again.
Following her college education at Tufts University, she received her M.A. in African Studies at Makerere University in Kampala, Uganda. She joined the U.N. in 1970. Her first assignment was to train middle level employees in Asian and Latin American developing countries to focus on social projects that would benefit the people through infrastructure work, schools, nutrition and health programming. She recalls, “In the 70’s many countries were following the lead of the western nations by building up their military structure. The U.N. was devoting itself to social programs instead.”
In the ‘80’s she was a founding member and then president of The Association for Women in Development (AWID). This organization, still going strong, brought female scholars, professionals and international leaders together in order to increase interdependence amongst these three groups and pressure the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) to include more women in the projects the government was funding.
After her posting to Thailand in 1989-91, where her husband had also been assigned to head the Mekong River Basin Authority, they moved to Sleepy Hollow with their four-year-old daughter.
Starting in 1992, Timothy Lankester went to work planning the fourth international women’s conference for which there was, in fact, a historical precedent. The United Nations had established the U.N. Commission on the Status of Women (UNCSW) in 1946 as a mechanism to promote, report on and monitor issues relating to the political, economic, civil, social and educational rights of women. Three conferences were held subsequently: in Mexico City (1975- declared the International Year of Women), Copenhagen (1980), and Nairobi, Kenya (1985). At each of these conferences, programs of action were signed onto so that women in these countries would use those programs to lobby for girls’ and women’s issues.
“These action plans were critical empowerment tools, “she said. “Traditionally, most U.N. meetings were attended only by men; now women had the opportunity to be active.”
“There was a push to hold a conference in 1995,” Timothy Lankester recalled, “but, where? One-half of the world’s women live in China, and the country wanted to hold the Olympics – so this was a way for it to show the world ‘we can do this.’”
It took her and her staff three years of preparation and the use of many resources at the UN: translators, interpreters, the press office, even security guards. “Bella Abzug said that China thought it was hosting a large swim meet initially,” she said. “They didn’t know we were going to have 50,000 people participate!”
All of this happened before the Internet, so forms were submitted and communication was done by facsimile. Faxes often arrived every 30 seconds from around the world. Chinese embassies often did not grant visas, and, when urged to process them, visas sometimes arrived on the day before or day of a participant’s departure.
“There were constant struggles, at the conference to get so many different cultures and countries to come up with common goals,” Timothy Lankester explained, “Meetings often went until 2 a.m. to agree on crucial issues. But, once approved, the Beijing Platform for Action became the blueprint for women’s groups around the world to bring about change for all levels in their own countries.”
The idea that women’s right are human rights then became incorporated into action for the first time.
Each year the Commission meets to review the Platform to see what countries have done and are doing to comply. “Before,” Timothy Lankester said,” the dialogue had focused on women as victims. At Beijing, the discourse moved in a different direction: women became political actors, they have a say to fight for their own rights. This shift in discourse took a long time and was one of the great achievements as a result of Beijing.”
“I never dreamt I would be able to work at the U.N.” Timothy Lankester stated, but how fortunate for women all over the world that she did.
To view the documentary, Once and for All, for a behind the scenes look at the Fourth World Conference on Women held in Beijing, go to: http://makers.com/once-and-for-all.