Blog: The HERstory of South-South Cooperation: International Women’s Day

March 8, 2021

By Xiaojun Grace Wang, Deputy Director, UNOSSC

Many would trace the origin of South-South cooperation (SSC) to the landmark Asian-African Conference of Bandung in 1955, where developing nations laid the fundamental principles for cooperation. When visualizing that historic moment, how many of us recall images of China’s Zhou Enlai to India’s Nehru, from Egypt’s Nasser to Indonesia’s Sukarno? Naturally so. From a historical perspective, do we see women in the making and shaping of South-South cooperation? On the occasion of International Women’s Day 2021, let us look into the mirror of history and see the HER-Story in South-South Cooperation.

Dialing back to the prior Bandung Conference, women’s movements across the developing regions demonstrated solidarities and mutual support. The 1944 pan-Arab Feminist Conference hosted in Cairo and the 1945 All India Women Conference (AIWC) exchanged messages delivering “great hope” of working together for the cause of the East. The first pan-Asian women’s conference in 1949 brought together 367 women from 37 countries in Beijing to campaign for women’s rights as human rights, inspired the emerging pan-Asian and Afro-Asian cooperation, and nurtured a common ground for a global agenda in advancing gender equality. The 1958 Asian-African Conference of Women held in Colombo was jointly funded by five national women’s organizations in South and Southeast Asia countries (Sri Lanka, Myanmar, India, Indonesia, and Pakistan) with commitments to improving women’s social development. The Afro-Asian Women’s Conference held in Cairo in 1961 clearly focused on cooperation in advancing women’s legal and political rights.

These events during the 1940s to 60s  sent a clear message to bid farewell to the “charity model of feminist internationalism” and embrace a solidarity approach, where the developing countries’ women took leadership and provided mutual support and inspiration, although regrettably such a strong voice of women did not get written into the final Bandung Communiqué . Yet, it served to shine the beam of hope as history got written into the next chapter.

The women’s movements for cooperation among developing regions had climbed to new heights in 1975, when the first United Nations World Conference on Women took place in Mexico City, ushering in the UN Decade for Women (1975-85). The conference was initially planned to take place in Colombia. When Colombia encountered funding challenges, the Mexican government stepped in and demonstrated leadership from the South, inspiring participants from the “third world”. While gender equality was recognized as a common agenda for both developing and developed countries, a large number of non-aligned and developing countries collectively called for a new world economic order and for gender equality to be integrated in addressing economic and social equalities within and between countries.

Not too far from Mexico City, and not long after the 1st World Conference on Women, the Buenos Aires Plan of Action (BAPA) on Technical Cooperation among Developing Countries (TCDC) was adopted in consensus by 138 Member States of the United Nations, in September 1978, in Argentina. The BAPA document clearly indicated “integration of women in development” as one of the recommended cooperation areas among developing countries (BAPA, para 17).

The UN General Assembly called on all governments and the UN system to implement the BAPA recommendations, including strengthening the Special Unit for TCDC (now the UN Office for South-South Cooperation, UNOSSC). It is worth noting that the Unit had provided substantive policy analysis in support of the preparations for the 4th World Conference on Women, held in Beijing in September 1995. The Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action  stressed  regional and subregional cooperation and explicitly called to “develop a South-South cooperation programme with a view to assisting in the capacity-building of national machineries on women through, inter alia, the sharing of expertise, experiences and knowledge of national machineries on women’s empowerment, gender issues and gender mainstreaming methodologies and approaches on the twelve critical areas of concern of the Platform for Action” (para 93 b).

Now let’s fast forward to today, the SDG era, beyond Beijing+25 and over four decades after BAPA. The second High Level United Nations Conference on SSC (BAPA+40) has highlighted demands for SSC support to women and girls in areas such as poverty eradication, education, Science Technology and Innovation, as well as women leadership and decision making. The outcome document recognizes “the contribution of South-South and triangular cooperation in promoting gender equality and the empowerment of women and girls in sustainable development and encourage further efforts to mainstream gender perspectives in these modalities of cooperation” (para 19).

Indeed, many good practices in South-South and Triangular cooperation for the SDGs have been tackling development issues globally. The ‘India, Brazil, South Africa (IBSA) Rocket Stove project’ in Fiji, engaged women in a cleaner energy solution, reforestation, and enhanced livelihood for communities; Indonesia shared with Afghanistan the concept of home industry, established a packaging centre for women, and presented funding possibilities for scaling up; The Egyptian Agency of Partnership for Development (EAPD) provided tailored training to women from the African continent on vocational skills and entrepreneurship; The Governments of Brazil, partnering with UNFPA, UN Women and the UK Department for International Development, supported Mozambique to strengthen inter-sectoral responses to gender violence and women’s economic empowerment. Given the impact of COVID-19 on human development, UNOSSC has brought together partners and facilitated a series of knowledge sharing events and exchanges to spotlight women’s leadership in responding to the pandemic among developing countries.

The upcoming 65th Commission on the Status of Women  will focus on women’s full and effective participation and decision-making in public life, as well as the elimination of violence, for achieving gender equality and the empowerment of all women and girls; African Union Ministers have already adopted the Common African Position to ensure the aspirations of the continent and African women and girls are well articulated at the global discourse. From BRICS Women’s Business Alliance to Women20 as part of G20 dialogues and the ASEAN Commission on the Rights of Women and Children to women’s strong leadership behind Ibero-America to the South-South Global Thinkers and the Development Alternatives with Women for a New Era (DAWN), will “networked and inclusive multilateralism” with Champions from the Global South transform the impact of our collective efforts in advancing human progress and gender equality?

We can now tell the champions of the women’s movements from half a century ago that we have seen what they had expected, and their efforts have pushed for human progress. Will the next few generations be able to see a better world? I am confident that, in the Decade of Action for SDGs, a new chapter of the Herstory of South-South cooperation will be written by all of us.

Learn more about the history of women’s rights and the UN’s contributions here.