The historic fourth UN World Conference on Women held in Beijing, China, in 1995 was chaired by Ms. Gertrude Mongella of Tanzania who to this day is called “Mama Beijing” in her home country for being instrumental during deliberations at the conference.
Mongella was born in September 1945, a month before the United Nations was incorporated that same year. She was born in Ukerewe, an island in Lake Victoria, and then went on to school at age 12 in the Tanzanian mainland. She is married with four children: one daughter and three sons.
The 75-year-old diplomat said she is a proud citizen of the world, an educationist who taught at Changombe Teachers College, Tanzania, from 1970 to 1975. She was also a curriculum developer at the Institute of Adult Education from 1975 to 1978. Mongella is a defender of women’s rights and a politician who has served in several capacities in her country and on the international front.
The diplomat told Africa Renewal last month that she is happy to be alive because she survived at birth as a baby girl at a time most babies did not. A parliamentarian in Tanzania, Mongella served in the Prime Minister’s office from 1982 to 1985 responsible for Women’s Affairs.
In 1985, she was vice-chair of the World Conference to Review and Appraise the Achievement of the United Nations Decade for Women and chair to the African delegation to that conference.
The highlight of her career was when, as a diplomat to the UN, she chaired the Fourth World Conference on Women as the General Secretary. According to her, the status and dignity of women in the global arena were elevated by the UN through this conference. She said the conference remains one of the largest conferences ever to be held in the UN as it brought together about 15,000 people from 185 nations who met in Beijing. They discussed issues affecting women such as HIV and AIDS infection, literacy and education, violence and abuse, and poverty.
The conference brought to the forefront issues relating to gender equality and women’s empowerment. “It brought a kind of ‘revolution’ where we have to look at women and men as equal citizens of this world. Women should not be considered like ‘invitees’ on this planet. They belong to the planet just like the men,” she recalled.
The Platform of Action, which Mongella refers to as “the most important document” she has ever come across, was produced and adopted in Beijing by the General Secretary and all other participants. The Platform of Action remains the most progressive blueprint ever for advancing women’s rights.
According to The Courier magazine, Mongella’s “tremendous personal energy” greatly contributed to the Beijing conference’s success.”
Her “commitment and maternal warmth (which conceals a steely determination), helped in the conference’s trickier moments. She had to reconcile the irreconcilable: trying to bring countries at opposite ends of the moral spectrum together to agree on a final text.”
The level of diplomacy exhibited by Mongella was exceptional. According to reports, she exhibited patience, tenacity, respect for one another’s opinions and simplicity. It was also the first time in history that “important decisions at this level” were deliberated and put into action by a women-only forum.
Mongella is still championing women’s rights 25 years after chairing the UN World Conference on Women. She told Maryknoll reporter that year that “women will change the world when they lead it.”
The educator and activist is highly committed to the political integration of Africa and advocates for the strong participation of women in political leadership. She nonetheless believes men should not be marginalized as the world makes strides in educating women and financially empowering them.