Beijing Report: The Fourth World Conference on Women
by Jo Freeman

View photos and political pins from the Fourth World Conference on Women.

Published as "The Real Story of Beijing," in off our backs, Vol. 26, No. 3, March 1996, pp. 1, 8-11, 22-27.

In the twenty years between the First World Conference on Women, held in Mexico City in 1975, and the Fourth, held last September in Beijing, China, the women's movement has swept the globe. Not the same movement in every country, it is more like a well-used patchwork quilt, organized and tightly sewn in some places, ragged and torn in others, and rudimentary in many. But as the most recent conference in Beijing made clear, it is pervasive. In every country, even the smallest or least developed there is a greater awareness of women, women's problems and women's importance than ever before. And in every country, women's consciousness about themselves has changed. Feminism is no longer viewed as relevant only to the industrialized nations of the North. In all but the most conservative of countries, the feminist message that women are people, not just wives and mothers, is taken seriously.
As in the past, there were two parallel conferences. The official Fourth World Conference on Women (4WCW) was held in the Beijing International Conference Center (BICC) from Sept. 4 through the 15. There 4995 official delegates from 189 countries fashioned a Platform for Action with the aid and advice of 4035 representatives from 2602 Non Governmental Organizations (NGOs). Added to this mix were 3,245 members of the press and another five thousand representatives and staff from UN agencies and many other intergovernmental organizations, who hung around advising, observing, talking and meeting.
A separate conference, of, by and for NGOs was held from Aug. 30 through Sept. 8 in Huairou, a small town 35 miles northeast of Beijing. It was originally planned for the Beijing Workers' Stadium, but in March the Chinese Organizing Committee (COC) announced that there were "structural defects" which made that location unsafe. No one believed this story; the alleged defects could not be confirmed. The foreign press reported that Li Ping, Prime Minister of the People's Republic of China (PRC), ordered the NGO Forum moved after he was heckled about human rights issues at another UN Conference held in Copenhagen that month.1 Despite a worldwide protest that the Huairou facilities were "totally inadequate" and an initial rejection by the NGO Forum facilitating committee, the COC would not budge; hold it in Huairou or not at all. However, the COC did withdraw its request that only 20,000 be allowed to come. Instead it erected numerous hurdles for those wishing to attend which had almost the same result.
To participate in the NGO Forum each person had to send $50 and a proper application form to the Forum's New York office by April 30. Acceptances were mailed in May and June. The COC then announced that original acceptance letters and hotel registration forms had to be sent to Beijing and only when the latter were confirmed could one apply for a visa. As soon as the forms began arriving, the COC changed the hotel form and demanded that everyone send new ones. The COC also changed the hotels. Confirmed reservations made by a travel agent were often meaningless.
In July the COC decided that participants had to have special conference visas; getting these required confirmed hotel reservations and even people with all the proper paperwork couldn't get them quickly. Only 27,000 applicants succeeded. Of the 35,000 people who registered by the April 30 deadline, between 25,000 and 26,000 survived the winnowing process to go to Beijing, including roughly 1,500 men.2 By the time Forum participants arrived in Beijing, they were exhausted by the hassle, time and anxiety consumed just to get there. And there was more to come.


The practice of holding parallel meetings to official UN conferences dates from 1968. Initiated by the Conference of Non-Governmental Organizations (CONGO), each takes on a life of its own once the Planning Committee is formed and fundraising begins. The $5.2 million it cost to produce this Forum came primarily from interested governments and foundations, though the World Bank also contributed significantly. Both the official conference and the NGO Forum were the largest in the UN's 50 year history, attracting a combined total of over 50,000 people.
Unlike the official conference, attendance at the NGO Forum is not restricted. Any number of women and men, even without a real NGO affiliation, could attend provided they properly registered and could get transportation, accommodations and a visa before departing. PRC nationals were restricted to 5,000 women selected by the All China Women's Federation (ACWF). In addition the Chinese tried to limit the participation of Tibetans, Taiwanese and a few others. After the conference I asked the head of the ACWF in the southwest province of Yunnan how those from her area were chosen. Her description reminded me of delegate selection to the Democratic and Republican conventions in those years in which there is no serious competition for a party's nomination; women were picked because of what they represented, who they knew, and their own financial ability to attend. Not all were subsidized.

Although I have been involved in the feminist movement in the US in some way since it began in the mid-sixties, this was my first international conference, and my first exposure to the international women's movement other than my presence at the birth of Nyfeministene in Norway in 1970. In order to attend the official conference at least part of the time, off our backs obtained media accreditation for me at the UN and for the conference. This was no mean feat for a small feminist monthly. There was no separate press accreditation for the NGO Forum; anyone with a UN press pass could go.
I paid my own way. My only subsidy was bed and board in the home of my Chinese friends, whom I had helped during the five years they lived in New York. They live in a large apartment building on the Northwest edge of Beijing and had long urged me to attend the conference and stay with them. After I arrived they told me that they took "some little risk" because it was illegal to permit foreign guests to stay overnight. In fact, Rule 2 in a pamphlet handed out to conference attendees by the "Security Committee for the Fourth World Conference on Women" said that those staying "in your relative or friend's house" should register with "the local public security organ" (the police). We didn't do this. But Mr. ## liberally handed out the "little gifts" he told me to bring to the ever observant elevator operators and others in his neighborhood. When approached by the neighborhood watchwoman, his wife assured her that she knew "how to handle" foreign visitors. There were no problems.
This was the first of many rules I was to break. An American working in Beijing I met at the NGO Forum observed that the biggest profession in China is making rules; the second biggest is breaking them. I practiced the latter. The only rule I couldn't crack was the requirement that all press sleep in Beijing. In fact, we were supposed to stay at a limited number of expensive hotels. That was not enforced, but when I tried to find accommodations in Huairou, I was refused. At the Pass Distribution Center, which also assigned sleeping space, I was told that none of the hotels or the newly built "apartment estates", which provided primitive accommodations for $10-$20 a night, would accept me even though they had space. If I had separately registered for the Forum and kept my press credential hidden I might have been allowed in, but foreigners had to have a conference credential to rent a bed in Huairou, and mine said press. Since the busses back to Beijing left before the evening entertainment, this effectively kept the press from reporting on most of the cultural events and limited my access to the "Huairou experience."
Fortunately, the COC had busses leaving early every morning from major hotels all over Beijing; one was a short ride on a public bus from my friends' apartment. Boarding a Beijing bus during the 7:00 a.m. rush hour severely tested my New York City subway skills. Getting off without losing my backpack in the human crush was harder. The conference buses by contrast were luxuriant; one almost didn't mind the hour's ride on the newly built highway to Huairou. I had a lot of good conversations with some interesting women (and a couple men) from many countries on that bus. No one even asked to see the $10 pass I bought to ride it. The same Western face that kept me out of a Huairou hotel got me on the bus without any questions.

There is no simple way to describe the NGO Forum or the Huairou experience. Organized around the theme "Look at the World Through Women's Eyes", there was no political issue which dominated each days' discussions as had been true of past conferences, where North/South and Middle East conflicts replicated themselves almost everywhere. The essence of the conference was not in any event large enough to observe, but in thousands of conversations and exchanges of ideas and experiences that took place in small groups, over meals and on the buses.

Think of the NGO Forum as making a cake the old fashioned way, "by guess and by gosh". Imagine an embryonic university, or a free school with minimal distinction between faculty and students. Mix in a county fair with theme tents, an exhibition hall, booths and tables. Throw in a dab of flea market. Add a computer room and a film (actually video) festival. Sprinkle with bulletin boards and poster walls, many spontaneous ad hoc demonstrations and lots of dancing and singing. Put all of this on a gerrymandered campus consisting of some aging middle school buildings, a shooting school, a paved over soccer field, a movie theater (renamed the Beijing-Huairou International Conference Center), some half finished cement structures, and numerous tents in all shapes and sizes. Pour in four days of rain and lots of mud. Stir with several thousand little spoons, moving in different directions at different speeds. And bake the entire concoction in a large oven of culturally diverse entertainment, both professional and amateur.
The taste was sweet, but the batter was lumpy; you never knew what the next bite would bring. The administration of this temporary school produced an impressive catalog of over 5,000 events, but making them happen when and where they were supposed to happen was problematic, even when the weather co-operated. My estimate from my own experiences and my informal survey of other participants is that about half of the workshops one tried to attend were not there. Some were moved; some were canceled, some were changed. A lot just didn't happen. The administrators didn't ask the workshop organizers when they would be in China before assigning times; some didn't know until the last minute that they had a time slot. Even after the program was printed, workshop leaders were posting requests on the Internet asking to exchange time slots to correspond with their travel plans and plane tickets. Nor were the events rationally scheduled. Three workshops for disabled women were listed on the third floor of the Middle School, which had no elevators. Workshops on similar topics were often given the same time slot. No one could predict how many people would come to each workshop; most were overflowing while some rattled around in too much space.
Exhibitors also had trouble. Typical was the Once and Future Pavilion. Originally a long, low shed housing a shooting school in front of a muddy courtyard with gun stands and targets, one end was transformed into a science and technology exhibit only a few days before the Forum began. At the other end were booths and tables for Women in Alternative Media, including Women Ink, the publishing bureau of the International Women's Tribune Center, and FIRE (Feminist International Radio Endeavor) from Costa Rica. In between were spaces displaying the wares of such entities the United Nations Development Fund for Women (UNIFEM), set up after the 1975 Mexico City conference, WILD Women (Women in Livestock Development) and women inventors. The first two days the exhibitors were still setting up, and for several days they had no audience because few knew where they were. The crowds increased as the NGO Forum wound down. In the meantime rows of outside exhibition booths in the specialty tent area remained unoccupied. Offered to NGOs at $300 each, many groups declined to occupy them when they discovered their remote location and exposure to the elements.
Tents were group in thematic clusters, but whoever decided what went where missed a few beats. The tent for People with Disabilities was in one of the farthest, most hard to reach areas, while that for Youth was near the entrance. (The former was later moved to a more convenient spot). Large tents for each region of the world were erected on a hill between the shooting school and the middle school. One of the most popular spots, the narrow paths to get there were always congested and the rain caused a wall holding up one of them to collapse (the only damage was to a truck; the wall was quickly repaired). What was labeled as the Healing Tent was put next to the Quiet Tent. While many forms of massage and other nonmedical techniques were exhibited in the former, most of the time this tent was used for ballroom dancing with musical accompaniment.
The COC had touted the fact that several meeting halls were set aside for those wishing to hold religious services. Rule 5 informed us that "Out of respect for the religious beliefs of participants, we have designated ... places for religious activities.... Please refrain from staging religious activities or distributing religious publicity materials in other places." These places were four small rooms with tiny labels: Bhudda Hall, Catholic Oratory, Christian (i.e. Protestant) Oratory and Mosque. The Islamic room had separate entrances for men and women with a sheet dividing the space inside. Although members of other religious faiths were present (especially the Baha'i) they didn't have their own space.
There were language barriers. The simultaneous translation into six official languages that had been promised didn't happen. With a few exceptions -- Latin American workshops were in Spanish and Islamic ones in Arabic -- English dominated, overwhelmingly. At the Forum there was some systematic translation with hearing devices between French and English, but most of the rest was private. Women who didn't speak English huddled next to a friend or volunteer translator. Fortunately, there was a lot of good will and multilingual volunteers. Nonetheless those who spoke (or at least understood) English had a lot easier time than those who didn't. How hard it must be was brought home to me the night I spent at the Pass Distribution Center trying to gain admittance to a Huairou hotel. The continuous flow of new arrivals from the airport were addressed by the Chinese Volunteers only in English. One group from South America knew only Spanish and French. After watching the two speak past each other for a couple minutes I offered to translate; my Spanish is lousy but it was the best available.
English was also the language of both of the conference newspapers. An international crew of 23 published 8 to 16 pages of Forum '95 daily with funds from several corporations and governments. World Women also published daily, during both the NGO Forum and the official conference. Only 8 pages, but with many color photos, its publisher was China Daily the official national English language paper in the PRC. The former, with an occasional piece in French, was more likely to print hard news, as well as profiles of people and places. The latter gave more emphasis to dining and touring opportunities, cultural events and reprints of speeches. As was typical of its parent, it emphasized the positive aspects of the news. However it was the only paper to print an official explanation of why the Chinese police tried to confiscate a video shown by Tibetan exiles. This "was an attempt to split China, and was deemed unacceptable to the police officers on duty and an infringement on China's sovereignty," it reported.3

Whatever else the joint meetings were about, they were about words. The sheer volume of words was overwhelming. In preparation for the meetings countries large and small produced millions of words. UN agencies produced still more words. The words were spoken at preliminary meetings, official and unofficial, and printed on documents. Several forests were decimated. Thousands of pounds of pamphlets, posters, leaflets and books were shipped to Beijing and passed out there and at Huairou. Every day I picked up more paper than I could comfortably carry and I was highly selective. Of this I shipped back forty pounds back to New York. Just reading the titles, publishers and the places tells a great deal about who came to Beijing and why. Included in my pickings were the following in English:

"The Condition of Women in Romania (1980-1994)", National Report of the National Committee for World Conference on Women (70 pages).

"Women's Studies Center at the Party School of Central Committee of Communist Party of China" (short pamphlet in Chinese and English), "The Program for the Development of Chinese Women (1995 -- 2000)", All China Women's Federation (28 pages).

"Women Association of Moldova" (short pamphlet)
"The Wisdom behind the Islamic Laws Regarding Women", The Islamic Assembly of North America (33 pages).

"Dalit Women Living in Caste Discrimination", Feminist Dalit Organisation, Nepal, (6 pages; Dalit means Untouchables).

"RUWA - An Introduction", Rajasthan University Women's Association, Jaipur, India, (short pamphlet).

"Beneath Paradise: A Collection of poems from the women in the Pacific NGO's Documentation Project", International Women's Development Agency, Australia (84 pages).

"Report of Polish Women associated in nongovernmental pro-family organizations of Polish Federation of Pro-life Movements ... prepared for IV World Conference on Women" (20 pages).
"We are fighting for Equality in the Japanese Workplace", Equal Work Equal Wage Tokyo Circle, (36 pages), "NGO Forum Report by Women Workers' Group from Tororen" (16 pages), "Gender Issues in Saitama Prefecture, Japan", (6 pages).

"Some Information about the situation and role of nuns in Cambodia and of the "Cambodian Association of Don Chees (nuns) and Lay Woman" founded in May 1995 (3 pages).

"Training on Gender Violence in the Contemporary Pacific Context", Fiji Women's Crisis Center, (short pamphlet).

"Emang Basadi Newsletter - Women's NGO Bulletin", Botswana (4 pages).

"New Voice: Sudanese Women's Voice for Peace", (4 page newsletter).

"National Report on Women in Malta", Commission for the Advancement of Women, Malta, 1994, (67 pages).

"The Philippine NGO Report on Women: Issues and Recommendations", National Steering Committee of NGOs, (63 pages).

"National Report on Advancement of Libyan Arab Women", The National Committee, Women's Affairs, Secretariat of the General People's Congress, The Great Socialist People's Libyan Arab Jamahiriya, (62 pages in English and 60 pages in Arabic).

"Women of Tunisia - Women's Organizations and Associations", and "The Legal Status of Women - 1993 Reforms" (short pamphlet), Republic of Tunisia Ministry for Women and the Family (16 pages).

Several international groups took advantage of the fact that many of their members came to China to hold their own conferences within the Forum. One of these was the Second World Women's Congress for a Healthy Planet, which first met in Miami in 1991. Organized by Daughters of the Earth, a cooperative of 78 environmental organizations started by WEDO (Women's Environment and Development Organization) to emphasize women's importance in maintaining the environment and fostering development, it held two days of hearings and other events in Huairou. The Center for Asia-Pacific Women in Politics held their Second Congress of Women in Politics for two days as well, while also sponsoring initial Congresses for women from other regions. They planned to hold a one day global Congress, but it was washed out by Hillary Clinton's speech to the NGO Forum and a major rainstorm.


Enthusiasm was high the first few days. By the end mud and exhaustion were taking their toll. Of the many people I spoke to, those for whom this was their first such conference got high off the shear numbers and diversity of people to talk to and things to do. Those who had gone to the Third conference in Nairobi ten years before were more likely to complain about the logistics. I talked to no one who was sorry she went. Despite the hassles and obstacles, everyone felt she was better off for the experience.
The extensive preparations for the Beijing meetings brought tens of thousands of women together where they could identify their problems as women. At the conference women learned from each other. Some examples:

  • An Asian Women and Shelter Network was started in March 1995 to prepare for Beijing; at Huairou women who had been involved in housing issues for years redefined them to include women's special concerns. These will be taken to Habitat II, a UN conference on housing to be held in 1996.
  • Western women working in construction have long viewed themselves as engaged in "nontraditional" occupations. At an NGO Forum workshop they discovered that for women in many countries, such as India, construction is a traditional female occupation. It is when technology changes it from one of primarily heavy lifting with poor pay to a skilled or semi-skilled job with better pay that males take over. After listening to the stories of Indian women Vivian Price, a union electrician from Southern California, realized that "women from Southern countries do heavy work and are kept out of skilled work; women from the North have a tiny foothold in skilled work but are told that women are not strong enough."
  • In the Peace Tent women from many different religious faiths discussed how to live together with people who believe differently.

There were repeated surprises. One day I passed two women in full chador selling t-shirts for $1. On them was printed: "WE WELCOME WOMEN'S LIBERATION AND RENOUNCE PERMISSIVENESS". I bought one. They sold out quickly. To think that "women's liberation", which was driven out of the American vocabulary over twenty years ago after being tainted as a synonym for permissiveness, was now making a come-back in Islamic guise! These women exemplified the thriving conference capitalism. Although the COC had designated market areas and sold booths to vendors, street sellers proliferated toward the end. Some were participants selling local wares to raise money for their fares. Several were Chinese capitalists who realized they could profit by selling bus tickets to local tourist spots and commemorative pins. Indeed the COC missed a few opportunities to cover some of its costs. It had printed several colorful posters and banners which it gave to stores in Huairou to decorate their windows, but none were available for Forum participants to buy. The enormous variety of things to do created a classic elephant as experienced by the proverbial blind person; what you felt depended on where you stood. The only way to keep from getting lost was to follow a theme. I pursued the events on women and politics, and heard of more that I didn't find. These workshops were among the least controversial at the NGO Forum. If anyone opposed getting more women involved in politics, they didn't say so.
Women began talking about the need for more women in politics at the 1985 Nairobi conference; by 1995 they were exchanging organizing strategies. Thus I heard numerous reports on women's efforts to integrate the political sphere in many countries, their progress and problems. In the last few years there have been numerous conferences, training sessions and publications on how to get more women involved in politics all over the world; some funded by private foundations and some by UNIFEM (UN Development Fund for Women) which was created after the 1975 Mexico City Conference. Some highlights:

  • The Center for Korean Women and Politics was founded in March 1990 to do relevant research. It also runs training sessions for women candidates, newly elected politicians and others interested in electing more women and acts as the Secretariat and resource center for the Asia Pacific Women in Politics Network.
  • In the Filipinos the Center for Legislative Development created a Women's Legislative Program in 1992 to monitor legislation and provide seminars for candidates and organizations. The 25 women elected to Parliament that year formed a caucus to enhance their impact.4 In Thailand the Gender Watch Group was formed in March 1993 to monitor the government and political parties on gender issues, in order to "put women's rights into the Thai Constitution, to shift political power from men to women, to ensure the implementation of the government stated polices on workers, prostitution, and job discrimination against women." It publishers a newsletter which evaluates legislative actions. One stimulus was the fact that women were over half of the actual voters in the 1992 elections, but only four percent of the Members of Parliament. In the 1995 elections, 50 % more women were elected as MPs.5
  • In Nepal there is a Women for Women Empowerment Program to provide training on gender issues and a support network for women professionals.In Bangladesh a Women in Politics program was launched in February 1994 to increase voter awareness, educate the political parties about women's issues, and involve more women in the political process.
  • In June 1994, the Center for Asia-Pacific Women in Politics (CAPWIP) brought 237 women from 155 NGOs in 23 Asia-Pacific countries to Manila for the First Congress of Asia-Pacific Women in Politics.6 In the next year CAPWIP published a regular Bulletin and held regional conferences in Bangkok, Bangladesh, Nepal and Taiwan.
  • In India the Centre for Social Research organized several regional conferences of women political leaders, grassroots activists and academics in 1994, to prepare for a national conference held in February 1995.

CAPWIP, whose President was also the Convener of the NGO Forum, Khunying Suptra Masdit, planned five regional women and politics conferences in Huairou. Four of them happened; that for Western Asia (aka the Middle East) only attracted one person from that region, a Palestinian who only wanted to talk about Israeli oppression.


There were other workshops on women and politics in addition to those organized as part of the Congress. At one I heard African women describe their problems: raising money, getting on the party lists and being taken seriously. I learned that in Botswana an NGO called Emang Basadi, formed in 1986 in response to the Nairobi conference, is training women in political skills. In Uganda 15 % of the seats the 1994 body created to design a new Constitution were reserved for women. The women delegates -- 17% of the total -- formed a Women's Caucus, held "Gender Dialogues", and joined with others to organize the Forum for Women in Democracy. In Zambia, which doesn't reserve seats for women, a nonpartisan National Women's Lobby Group convinced the Constitutional Commission to incorporate women's rights proposals into the draft Constitution.7
A legislative aide for the European Parliament reported that her own behavior varied with the sex of the MP she worked for: she obeyed the man and argued with the woman. When someone asked how American women created the gender gap I explained that there were in fact three gender gaps (based on sex, party and attitudes toward abortion), but that credit for them really belonged to women's anger at President Ronald Reagan. However, the feminist movement prepared the ground and key catalytic events galvanized mass consciousness. Afterwards I walked with a woman from Nigeria exchanging views on the barriers of women's greater political participation.
When I went to a large workshop entitled Italian Women and Politics the three speakers were all from New York, and none were Italian. But a small one led by a Moldavian MP, with women from her country, Russia, Norway, Uganda, Poland, Romania, Australia, and the U.S. had a great discussion (in English, with private translation into Russian for some) on the relative importance of electoral systems, reserved seats, parties, and the general status of women in enhancing women's opportunities. The Norwegians are light years ahead of the rest of us. In 1991 the leaders of the three major political parties were all women; no matter who won the election, a woman would be prime minister. There is a social consensus that a cabinet "where much less than half of the members were women would look strange and undemocratic." The Constitution does not reserve seats for women, but "four of the six major Norwegian parties apply a gender quota system in nominations to elections and the composition of governing bodies of the party at all levels."8
In all of these workshops there was a great interest in the role of reserved seats for women. Many countries require that from ten to thirty percent of a party's slots, or legislative slots, go to women. In India the constitution was amended in 1993 to require that one-third of local council seats be reserved for women, but Indian women are already demanding an increase to fifty percent. Some are convinced this is the only way to increase women's influence quickly; others that the women will just be lackeys of the men. All agreed that a strong feminist movement is crucial to changing consciousness about women's importance and needs.

There were a few themes that kept cropping up in workshops on very different topics. One was how much women work, and how little it counts, or is counted. During the 1950s, before there was much consciousness about sexism in the U.S. or any place else, I often heard a couplet describing woman's fate. It went:

Man must work from sun to sun.
A woman's work is never done.

In Huairou women from all over that world made that same claim in many different ways, only now it was as a complaint rather than a lament. Women around the world aren't ready to go on strike, but they are demanding that their unpaid work be measured and valued. The U.N.'s Human Development Report 1995 asserts that women do eleven trillion dollars worth of "invisible work." Based on data from 31 countries, the Report asserted that "Women work longer hours than men in nearly every country", performing 53% of the economically productive work in developing countries and 51% in industrial countries. However, women are only paid for one-third of these activities while men are paid for two-thirds. Consequently women are 70% of the world's 1.3 billion poor.9
"If women's work were accurately reflected in national statistics, it would shatter the myth that men are the main breadwinners of the world," said Mahbub ul Haq, principle co-ordinator of the Report and a former Pakistani finance minister.
These calculations include non-market work by both men and women which is economically valuable, such as collecting firewood and carrying water. While few propose that women be paid for this work, many feel that it should be counted. Once governments understand women's full contribution to a country's economy they might be more willing to invest in women's health and education.10
Women from the third world complained that investment in women is being undermined by structural adjustment programs demanded by the World Bank so countries can repay their foreign debts. The resulting reductions in social spending fall more heavily on women and girls. According to Oxfam, during the 1980s per capital outlays on education in Africa fell by a third, and on health by two-thirds. When parents must pay school fees because the government no longer provides free education, they pay them for boys first. When there is limited food, males eat before females. Rationed health care also favors males. As a result, according to the UN, there has been a 60 % increase in poverty for women since 1970 compared to a 30 % increase for men. Women are two thirds of the one billion illiterates.


The World Bank acknowledges that "gender equality is not only a matter of social justice but also good economics.... [It is] one of the best investments a society can make." It published its own analysis, emphasizing the need for "public interventions" to promote equality "because of market failures and social externalities". These included changes in law, increased access to credit, encouragement of women's business enterprises, "safety nets specifically targeted to vulnerable groups", and redistribution of education subsidies from tertiary institutions to primary and secondary education where female enrollment is higher.11 It took the position that it was government policy and not international monetary policy that caused women to bear the brunt of economic hardships.
Another theme was the pervasiveness of violence against women and girls. The UN reports that "documented evidence reveals violence against females to be a widespread global problem." Each year roughly one million girls are forced into prostitution and 100 million girls suffer genital mutilation.12 At the NGO Forum there were so many different workshops on violence -- rape, domestic violence, war, dowry murders, trafficking, genital mutilation -- that one person could not have attended them all in the nine days.
In these workshops the tone was more personal than in those on economics and politics. Testimony and anecdote evoked emotions in a way that dry statistics did not. At the Global Tribunal on Accountability for Women's Human Rights some women spoke for themselves and others for women who could not be there. One described the life of Warda of Algeria, who was kidnapped at age 17 by Muslin militants and repeatedly raped. Another told the story of Agnes, a 14-year-old Ugandan who was forced into sexual slavery by anti-government rebels and birthed a baby "she now fights not to hate." Mary McGoldrich of Ireland recounted 11 years of psychological and physical abuse by a husband in a country that did not allow divorce. And Daphne Scholinski, a lesbian from California, described her adolescence spent in three mental institutions where she was committed by her parents for a "gender identity disorder."
In contrast to the scheduled workshops and panels, the regional and theme tents were centers of activity that was more spontaneous. The first day I spent a few hours in the very large Peace Tent watching groups form and dissolve. At one point there was a major meeting at which Cora Weiss of Women for Peace spoke and then led group singing. Another time I found myself on the edge of a discussion group of about twenty women arguing in Italian. Often there were scatterings of small groups of women just sitting, eating, talking and displaying literature. If there was any organized scheduling of all this activity, it wasn't obvious.
The Grassroots tent held a variety of events every day. It was run by GROOTS International (Grassroots Organizations Operating Together in Sisterhood), "a bottom-up global network of existing indigenous women's organizations with a vision of developing ... a movement giving voice and power for change to low-income and poor women's initiatives". The idea for this network emerged from the Nairobi NGO Forum, but GROOTS wasn't officially founded until a 1989 meeting in Jamaica. Since then GROOTS has "reached more than 13,000 women in fifty countries ... [through] workshops, over seventy forums, focus groups community conversations, surveys, questionnaires and open letters" to involve them in generating proposals for international meetings, as well as this Forum.13 Every time I entered this tent, there was an organized meeting of some sort going on, let by women from different regions.
The Lesbian tent also had organized events, but I usually saw four or five small group discussions rather than the larger ones at the Grassroots tent. It was the most tightly organized of the theme tents, with a receptionist at the entrance who monitored visitors and the literature table. Eight co-ordinators selected at the beginning of the week allocated time and space to any lesbian group that needed it, but a lot of their time was spent simply explaining lesbianism to women from countries where the subject was so taboo it could not be discussed. Photographs were also restricted; permission had to be asked for each one. According to Kate Wilson, one of the co-ordinators, lesbians held two dances -- one in Beijing -- and one march, where "we had a lot of fun". Although a lot of Chinese men hung around the first couple days, they eventually left the tent alone. The only problem, she said, was that they confiscated their literature in Chinese. She found the whole experience to be "a positive one" with a lot of networking and outreach.

Although I didn't read the Western press until I returned, most of the reportage missed the message of the conference, which was admittedly diffuse and hard to grasp. Instead the press focused on a perception of oppressive security measures and the numerous logistical problems. I did hear about "the Western press" while in Huairou. Several Chinese, seeing the press tag hanging from my Western neck, politely told me how biased we were. Since I couldn't interpret stories I hadn't read, I tried to explain press relations strategy. "The press is like a hungry lion", I said. "If you don't feed them, they go hunting, and their favorite prey is criticism and scandal."
In truth the press paid little attention to the real accomplishments of the COC, such as the magnificent opening ceremonies, complex transportation system, clean grounds, ornate flower displays, thousands of young Volunteers from local universities who worked 16 hour days to help participants and almost enough toilet paper in a country where BYO is the norm. The COC did not run the press operation at the Forum, and the Westerners who did were amateurs. There were no regular press conferences or efforts to provide reportable stories. The response to almost every question was "we're working on it." With inadequate ready-to-eat fodder reporters blew a little scandal and criticism into major stories.

At one press conference a hundred reporters and a couple dozen TV cameras waited impatiently for a major announcement only to be told that there was nothing to announce that day. As the reporters grumbled, human rights lawyer Reed Brody strode to the microphone and announced that out of 50 Tibetans registered for the Forum from other countries, only nine had obtained visas to enter the PRC. He described how they were filmed by Chinese men who covered their ID badges and tried to confiscate their video. He then answered questions on the Tibetan exiles. When he left, a couple other participants with their own agendas took over the mike.
This was press food. The stories I later read didn't mention the booth obtained by subterfuge that displayed banners declaring "Tibetan Women in Exile" and "STOP the KILLINGS!" where the nine women and their friends talked to anyone who came by. Nor did they mention the Tibetan tent put up by the PRC, which was bigger and more colorful than the African, Asian and Latin American tents in the same area, or interview the women in it (who were pro Chinese government to be sure). Instead every major newspaper wrote about the unsuccessful attempt of Chinese security guards to confiscate a video tape on Tibet entitled "Voices in Exile" from a hotel showing and the demonstration by the nine women wearing gags to protest repressive Chinese rule.
This was not the only demonstration. There were too many to count. Rule 8 of the Security Committee informed us that "Procession, demonstration or sit-in by participants should be carried out within the place designated by the Conference." After some initial, well publicized difficulties the Forum Facilitating Committee and the COC agreed that within the campus "people would be totally free to carry on any activity" and that there would be "no security, no surveillance, no censorship".14 The cornucopia of demonstrations was largely ignored by the media, even though they made great camera copy. Beating drums and gongs, the Korean Council for the Women Drafted for Military Sexual Slavery by Japan demanded reparations for all the World War II "comfort women" forced to service Japanese soldiers. Bosnian women wrapped in scarves protested U.S. policy. Lesbians marched up the main street. Women sewed together banners brought from all over the world and wove their way through the campus before pinning them to the wall of one structure. Nothing was sacred. Esprit, a corporation which provided 38,000 bags for Forum participants to carry all the paper they picked up, was leafleted for using "sweatshop labor in the production of its garments". Only Women in Black, who managed to march a few blocks off of the campus to protest violence against women before being turned back by the Chinese police, received more than a bare mention in the major press.15
The COC did create the impression of serious security, but most of this was an illusion. We all had to walk through metal detectors at four entrances to different parts of the campus. Going to another area required exiting and reentry through still another metal detector. This certainly seemed oppressive. The first day the line to go through each one was long and the "Safety Inspection" signs which hung over them were a source of derisive commentary. I put my backpack on the belt and walked through the metal detector expecting the usual hand search on the other side. My "photographer's vest" was embedded with metal. The pockets housed buttons and film canisters. As I walked through I heard the detector beep, but no one wanted to search me. The young woman in uniform simply smiled and motioned me on. I watched others go through, and for most of them it beeped as well. The next time I didn't even take off my backpack.
Beep, beep.
Occasionally someone would be told to put their bags and packs on the belt. But by the end of the day, most walked through the detectors carrying everything, while the guards just smiled.
Beep, beep.
The second day the machines were turned off. We still had to walk through them, but they no longer beeped.
The machines were turned back on the day Hillary Clinton spoke at Huairou, but the procedure didn't change. Rain moved her appearance from the soccer field to the movie theater. The latter only had 1,200 seats and we all had to enter through the one door that led to the metal detector. This created quite a crush of bodies and umbrellas on the front steps. I edged my way through the little crannies in the crowd that occasionally opened up, wondering how many of the short people would be trampled, or the tall ones stabbed by umbrellas. When a TV crew plowed through I ducked in behind them and followed closely until I was through the door. There I threw my pack on the belt and went through the metal detector.
Beep, beep.
As usual, no one did a hand search, no one paid attention. The crowd poured through.
Beep, beep.

The guards would not let me enter the main floor of the auditorium because press were supposed to sit in the balcony. Upstairs I found that all the front row seats were occupied by Chinese men. I doubt they were there out of enthusiasm to see Hillary. Nor did they provide potential security. They wouldn't see anything happening behind them, and couldn't reach any disturbance on the floor. During Hillary's speech nothing was done when women held up banners on the main floor protesting US policy in Bosnia. If those women had been in the balcony they could have draped their banner over the edge and not blocked anyone's view. The illusion of security created more problems than it prevented.
In the balcony the photographers and TV cameras packed the two aisles. I could have shot my camera over their heads by standing in the back, but I couldn't sit and see. When I spotted a cluster of empty seats in front of the stage to my left I went down to try again. This time I ducked through a side door into a long waiting room that paralleled the auditorium, where several workshops and slide shows had already been held. Doors from this waiting room led directly to the side aisles of the auditorium. They were not guarded. After waiting in the crowded aisle I grabbed a seat a few rows from the stage.
These seats had been roped off for "Hillary's people", but she was so late that some were opened up to those in the aisles. The entire auditorium was soon filled with wet, irate women demanding to see Hillary. They sat on the floor and stood in the aisles. Forum staff insisted that we created such a fire hazard that some had to leave, but after waiting in the rain for so long, no one would cooperate. The day was saved when Shirley Mae Staten, who was in charge of cultural events at the Forum, went to the podium and announced we would begin. She didn't tell us that Hillary was still an hour away. Instead, she led the crowd in singing freedom songs from the civil rights movement and cracked jokes. When someone yelled from the audience "are you Hillary?", she pointed to her black skin and close cropped grey hair and said "You got that right. Hillary just got a sun tan." The crowd roared.
From ear and eyeballing the crowd, I guessed that two-thirds were Americans old enough to know the words to the songs. When Staten asked other women to lead songs in Spanish and Chinese, I calculated that 10 percent knew the former and 5 percent the latter. The women who had stood in the rain and pushed their way in to see Hillary were largely her peers. By the time she finally arrived, Staten had turned that hostile horde into a lovefest. We were having a good time.
Since the crowd in front also blocked my view, I left my seat to shoot. As I worked my way to the foot of the stage I nodded to the secret service agent, wondering if he knew how many of us had set the metal detector off. From a nice spot at the edge of stage right, about fifteen feet from the podium, I took my shots. I only shoot a camera. So much for security.

Just as the Western press exaggerated the kernels of truth about Chinese security measures and Forum logistical problems, so did the Chinese emphasize what they feared most about Western women: sexual deviance and moral corruption. On the plane over Canada a headline in the Toronto Globe and Mail caught my eye: "Half-naked activists China's worst nightmare".16 I was into the second paragraph before I realized their "nightmare" was us. "We can't afford to have half-naked lesbian activists walking through the Streets of Beijing" the story quoted one municipal official as saying privately about the forthcoming Forum.
Since I long ago learned not to believe everything I read in the press I dismissed this report as a journalistic fantasy. But the rumors persisted. Standing in line to register two days later, other Western women told me about the rumor that prostitutes and lesbians were invading Beijing for the Women's Conference. Again I dismissed it -- until my Chinese friends asked me if prostitutes and lesbians really were coming. Yes, I said, there will be some prostitutes and lesbians. Only some, they asked. It seemed that the Chinese press was writing that the NGO Forum would be flooded by lesbians, nudists and AIDS carriers. Hotels and police were issued white sheets to throw on anyone who publicly disrobed.
American expatriates living in Beijing told me they were asked about this by their Chinese friends and colleagues. It was spread through neighborhood committee meetings, warnings to taxi drivers and Volunteers and was even "on the buses" -- i.e. everywhere, as the official explanation for moving the Forum out of Beijing. Toward the end of the Forum, one of the Chinese women who had chastised me about the biased Western press matter-of-factly asked me when would we hold the nude demonstration. "The what?!" I sputtered. She had heard that it was a tradition at all women's conferences for the women to parade in the nude, as an affirmation of the beauty of the female body. As I stood waiting for the bus back to Beijing, shivering in the light rain, I wondered where they got the idea that we would want to take our clothes off. I wanted to put more on.
One answer was given by Virginia Cornue, a Rutgers University anthropologist I ran into on the bus. A former Executive Director of NOW-NYC and a friend I hadn't seen in years, she was living in Beijing to study women's informal organizations and self-help groups. "There is a long tradition of associating Westerners with spiritual pollution", she said. The Chinese have always tried to protect their people from the moral contamination of the colonizing powers. "The rumors about sexual deviance and licentiousness fit into their preconceived notions about Westerners in general and Western women in particular," she said. Since "homosexuality is viewed as a psychological abnormality and prostitutes are the trash of society", the rumors that these were the women coming to the Forum helped deter personal contact.


Spreading these rumors was consistent with the other actions the Chinese took, or appeared to take, to draw a curtain between their people and the international visitors. Friends staying in hotels told me how few of the staff spoke even rudimentary English; most hotel staff in other PRC cities they visited as tourists spoke some English. One reported that only certain taxi drivers were allowed to pick up those wearing NGO Forum badges. One day, when I was slightly lost in Beijing, I opened my map ten feet from a police officer, expecting him or someone to offer directions. Though the Chinese I met in similar circumstances outside Beijing and after the conference were very friendly and helpful, I was completely ignored by everyone at this time. The officer obviously didn't know Rule 11 of the Conference Security Committee: "The policemen will help you warmheartedly if you have any difficulty."
Needless to say the only nudity I saw was on one small poster in the movie theater lobby in Huairou. Showing back views of naked male and female torsos, it said "Why should this (male) body rather than this (female) one sit in a university chair?" Put up by a Norwegian student association it was gone when I passed by fifteen minutes later.
Mere facts and logic always have a hard time defeating preconceived ideas. Even my Chinese friends, who spent five years in New York and knew lots of Westerners, believed the rumors had some basis. The only time they showed any interest in the Forum was when I brought back a poster for a workshop on prostitution -- one of dozens of posters I collected. Indeed Mr. ## told me his son's friend had seen Western women disrobe on a Beijing street that very week. "Why wasn't it in the papers?" I asked. "Why would the women disrobe if not to get publicity." "Our papers wouldn't print something like that," he rejoined. I told him none of us had heard about any nude protest, nor had the Americans I met who lived in Beijing, including one working as an English editor for China Daily. But he believed it nonetheless.

The NGO Forum overlapped by five days with the official UN conference, forcing those who could attend both to choose. I missed one day at Huairou to see the opening ceremony on Sept. 4, and attended four days of the UN conference after the NGO Forum ended. The opening ceremony wasn't particularly instructive, but it was fun. When I went to the hotel to board the bus to the Great Hall of the People, I was almost denied entry because I didn't have a printed invitation. Had I stayed in a hotel I might have known that a press pass wasn't enough; you needed an invite from the PRC host committee, available from your embassy or a benefactor in the UN. I told the bus Volunteer that a friend had my invitation and would meet me at Tian An Men Square. She let me board. Hundreds of busses from all over the city converged on the Square with police escorts that literally pushed all traffic out of the way. The Square itself, a popular cite for tourists and locals, was closed to anyone not involved with the event. At the door I saw Chinese Volunteers checking invitations, so I hung out on the steps looking for "a friend".
Just as it seemed my luck was running out I spied a cluster of people dragging something up the stairs. It was Bella Abzug in a wheelchair (at 75 she can walk, but not well or long). Bella and I are not bosom buddies, but we have known each other since I volunteered in her 1976 Senate campaign (as her chauffeur among other things). I went over to say hello, took a photograph and began chatting with her aide, Susan Davis, Executive Director of WEDO which Bella heads. Susan had an extra invitation for Bella's daughter, Liz, but they hadn't found her. Would Bella like to have a personal photographer, I asked Susan. Sure, she replied, handing me the yellow envelope.
Once inside we were directed to the third floor mandated by our invitations. But Bella did not like it; from her wheelchair she couldn't see. "Gertrude Mongella (head of the official conference) told me I could sit on the first floor," she insisted. Over Susan's better judgement and the protests of the Chinese Volunteers, back down the elevator we went. On the first floor the Volunteers tried to stop us because yellow invitations were not permitted there, but Susan just pushed the wheelchair forward with a steely eyed glare while Bella repeated "first floor, first floor" and pointed at her wheelchair. The young Chinese Volunteers were quite distressed as their obligation to enforce the rules contested with their mandate to be polite and helpful. Their limited English was not up to more than repeated requests for us to stop and they weren't willing to throw themselves in front of Bella's wheels. Eventually they returned to their posts and we pushed on.
On the main floor there were plenty of unoccupied seats. Susan parked Bella in a spot down the aisle and we took seats nearby. When the speeches began I noticed a half dozen cameramen taking photos near the stage. "I want to go down there" I told Susan. "This is too far for my lens." "They are all Chinese", she said. "The rest of the press are in the balcony." I looked up and behind me and saw a swarm of press people and cameras looking down. "Just one good shot", I replied, easing out into the aisle. I walked down it in a crouch, my camera held out before me so observant security guards would know my intentions were harmless. I got a couple good ones from the foot of the stage about ten feet from President Jiang Zemin before I saw a man motion me to leave. As I turned I saw an empty seat behind a front row desk right on the aisle. I sat down. While enjoying the great view and wondering how long it would be before someone asked me to leave, I read the name plates of the people in the front row. Next to me sat Mr. Mongella. The empty seat on his other side was for his wife, who was at that moment speaking from the podium. In the middle of the front row were several elderly Chinese women whose name plates were in Chinese characters.
I introduced myself and asked if the seat I was in belonged to anyone. No, he said. "I'm taking photographs for Bella Abzug. Do you mind if I stay?" "Bella's a fine person," he said. Later, during the entertainment, when the Chinese opera singers tossed souvenirs into the audience, I fetched a couple from the floor in front of us and tossed him one for his wife. I kept the other one. Periodically I left my seat to take a shot from the foot of the stage, but I was close enough to get some pretty good ones from the seat. It was a photographer's field day. After the speeches and entertainment I collected some unclaimed programs and finally went outside. There I ran into Liz Abzug. Fortunately she had another invitation. "I had a great time with yours," I told her.


When I returned to my friends' apartment they were surprised that I had gotten in without an invitation. When I told them where I had sat, they were incredulous. "You were lucky," they said. "No", I responded, "I was brazen."

The Fourth World Conference and the 130 page Declaration and Platform for Action it produced were the end product of a lengthy process. Three conferences on women intended to mark the beginning, middle and end of the UN Decade on Women, were held in Mexico City in 1975, in Copenhagen in 1980 and Nairobi in 1985. At the last one there was some sentiment to hold a future meeting to assess implementation of the proposals, however the UN General Assembly did not vote to do so until 1990. It was held in Beijing because the PRC and Austria were the only two governments willing to host it and the general sentiment was that it was Asia's turn. Two-thirds of the language in the final documents was agreed upon long before Beijing. Organized under the aegis of the UN Commission on the Status of Women (CSW), the Fourth World Conference was preceded by five regional conferences in 1994 in Argentina, Austria, Jordan, Senegal and Indonesia, all of which produced their own Platforms identifying the important issues in each region. Reports on implementation of the Nairobi Strategies were submitted by 165 Member and Observer States. The CSW held three preparatory meetings in preceding years. At the third in March of 1995 it spent three weeks reviewing a draft prepared by the UN Secretariat and negotiating language changes.
At that time there was a major controversy over use of the word "gender" when several conservative Catholic and Muslim countries objected that the word was a smoke screen for an alleged five genders. "It covers a whole range of meanings, including homosexuality, lesbianism, bisexuality, whatever you want," stated Khadiga Karar, a delegate from Sudan. Right wing groups in the U.S., Central and South America, parts of the Middle East and Africa turned this false accusation into a propaganda attack on the entire conference. However, the UN resolved the matter by appointing "an informal contact group to seek agreement on the commonly understood meaning of the term 'gender'." Their recommendation -- that gender "be interpreted and understood as it was in ordinary, generally accepted usage" without defining what that was -- was approved in Beijing by the meeting Chair, Patricia Licuanan of the Philippines, without comment, thus diffusing the entire issue.17
There was still plenty to do in Beijing. Of the 362 paragraphs in the draft, 438 sets of brackets in 171 paragraphs remained. These were debated until the very last minute. Decisions were reached by consensus; brackets indicated a lack of consensus. Delegates try to find language on which they can agree, even if the result is very vague and subject to interpretation. Toward this end numerous Working Groups and Contact Groups are created, though the most productive negotiations are often between unofficial nongroups. This process has created its own jargon. Even in UN reports terms such as "informal informals" and "non-papers" abound. Countries which disagree with the consensus can add "reservations" or "interpretations". Those from almost fifty states (and some non-states) added another twenty pages to the Platform for Action.
The NGOs maintained a powerful presence throughout the official conference. For the first time they had organized parallel conferences to all of the UN preparatory meetings. By the time they came to Beijing the NGO representatives already had long standing working relationships. There they created an organized lobby, known as Equipo (Spanish for team). Every morning at 8:00 both the UN Secretariat and Equipo briefed NGO delegates, press and whoever cared to attend in a large auditorium at the Beijing International Conference Center (BICC). They kept score of government commitments to the points in the Platform for Action and reported these each morning. By the end of the conference at least 90 governments had made public commitments to improving the status of women, though the biggest problem -- paying for them -- was avoided.18 The donor nations resisted demands that they underwrite commitments made in the Platform. Indeed, the new president of the World Bank, James Wolfensohn, warned that existing aid programs were threatened by budget cuts in the West.
When not lobbying official delegates, NGO reps had a wide range of things to do. A daily dose of official speeches could be seen on wide screen TV in an NGO lounge. UN Agencies organized workshops and panels on issues before the Conference. Between 20 and 30 caucuses as diverse as Algerian NGOs, Wisdom in Action, Girl Child and Indigenous Peoples held daily meetings in which the topics were often a continuation of those discussed at the Forum. Except for the surroundings I couldn't tell the difference; in Huairou we stood in aging classrooms and tents, while at the UN meeting we crowded into the gilt-and-plush rooms of the Beijing Recreation Center or spread out on the main Disco floor.
There were even more daily newspapers than in the NGO Forum. World Women continued to publish in English. Earth Negotiations Bulletin and Earth Times, which produce regular reports on UN activities, became dailies in Beijing for the duration. Beijing Watch was published by the Women's Feature Service, normally based in New Delhi, and inserted into Earth Times. Each had a slightly different take on events. ENB provided detailed daily reports in English and French. The other three published regular news stories, interviews and columns, including some in French and Spanish. Yet despite all this coverage, staying on top of what was happening was very hard as most of it was diffuse and behind the scenes.
Arguments over sex, in its various forms, continued to dominate. Most of the reservations and interpretations to the Platform concerned this theme, especially to the sections on "health" and "human rights". After much debate the term "feminist" was retained, but four references to "sexual orientation" were removed after it became apparent that inclusion was only supported by Western governments plus Japan. (Three governments -- Israel, South Africa and the U.S. -- added interpretations of other language to include this phrase). Use of "families" rather than "family" created concern that this would embrace same-sex couples. Several states added that "family" must be interpreted in the traditional sense of originating from a "union between man and woman". As in previous conferences, strong disagreements over abortion lurked in the background of discussions on reproductive health, reproductive rights and the right to control sexuality. Some states also interpreted these rights to mean "responsible use of sexuality within marriage" and others to apply "solely to heterosexual relationships." Condemnation of rape, whether in the family or as a weapon of war, was probably the only sexual issue on which there was no dissension.
There were other points of contention. Arguments over "equity" vs. "equality" were prolonged; both words were left in the final document. Assaults on inheritance rights favoring males resulted in language that could be interpreted as each country chose. Models of development, distribution of resources, economic skewing by the globalization of the economy and structural adjustment policies came under fire. Intellectual property rights, hazardous waste disposal, and commercial utilization of traditional knowledge and practices, all caused caustic conflicts.


Although most issues had been discussed in previous conferences -- particularly the 1994 one on Population in Cairo and the Social Development Summit held in Copenhagen in March 1995 -- there were some new ones. Sections on the girl child and the environment were added to the original draft. Violence against women was directly attributed to the attitude that women are secondary beings. Improving the status of women was acknowledged as crucial to economic development. The Platform took a holistic view of women's health, expanding it's importance beyond reproduction.19

Most felt the Fourth World Conference was a success, though many certainly had a vested interest in saying so. The European Parliament endorsed it on Sept. 21, calling on member states to implement the Platform's provisions. Earth Times, which is not feminist, and WEDO, which is, both gave very positive assessments.20 At the least, the two conferences compelled governments to assign staff to write reports on the condition of women. At the most, they escalated government understanding of the importance of women. As Bella Abzug of WEDO told a follow-up meeting in New York "we won the words at Beijing." If words alone could conquer, victory was ours.
Not everyone was happy. The Vatican was "not entirely pleased".21 Some women at the NGO Forum issued an alternative "Beijing Declaration" which focused on the consequences of economic restructuring. One way of judging satisfaction was to read which countries "reserved" on what. Most "interpretative statements" were from Catholic and Islamic states; the Vatican alone wrote four pages out of twenty. The US wrote three.
What governmental actions will come from this conference remains to be seen. It is up to women's organizations in each country to monitor the progress of their governments in fulfilling the commitments each made in Beijing. While such actions are important, the real benefit of the dual meetings was the exchange of ideas and experiences and the alteration of attitudes. If one believes that ideas matter, then international conferences serve a useful function to the extent that the views of participants are spread beyond the confines of the conference; the more people who are involved, the more useful it is. From this perspective the Fourth World Conference on Women and parallel NGO Forum were catalytic events. Women from everywhere resolved to "bring Beijing home" and, to judge from the notices on the Internet, have been conducting local forums continuously since then.
The meetings were also important for women's organizations and feminist groups. Never before had so many from all over the world come together. Never before had so many felt so empowered.
Nafis Sadik, Executive Director of the United Nations Population Fund, credited the major involvement of NGOs for "more progress than observers believed possible." UN Secretary General Boutros Boutros-Ghali lauded the "the growing influence, passion and intellectual conviction of the women's movement".22 According to political scientist Elaine Wolfson, head of the Global Alliance for Women's Health, the Fourth World Conference represented the maturing of the feminist movement. What were perceived as radical ideas in Western countries, and a form of cultural imperialism elsewhere, twenty years ago, are mainstream today. Her interpretation is confirmed by the final Report of the Secretary General which stated, "The conference ... reaffirmed clearly that societal issues must be addressed from a gender perspective in order to ensure sustainable development."23 Or as explained by Gita Sen, a professor at the Indian Institute of Management and a founder of Development Alternatives with Women for a New Era (DAWN), "in Cairo, we had to scramble and lobby intensively for governments just to understand what we were talking about. In Beijing the vast majority of governments have gotten the point."24

1 South China Morning Post, April 17, 1995. The Daily Telegraph, August 26, 1995.

2 According to NGO Forum staff, actual figures aren't available because the COC controlled the registration procedures at Huairou and refused to give them the computer disks or information on who or how many actually came.

3 World Women, Sept. 4, 1995, p. 2.


4 Lee, Lynn Frances, "Transformational Politics and Women in the Ninth Philippine Congress: A Critical Analysis", Journal of Legislative Development, Vol. 1, No. 1, Special Issue on Women in Politics, January 1991, pp. 24-78.

5 Quotes from a pamphlet entitled "GenderWatch Group". See also: Suteera Thomson, Women in Decision-Making Positions: Politics and Administration, Bangkok, Thailand: Gender and Development Research Institute, June 1995, 40 page booklet. Suteera Thomson and Maytinee Bhongsvej, Putting Women's Concerns on the Political Agenda, Bangkok, Thailand: Gender and Development Research Institute, 1995, 46 page booklet.

6 Why Women, What Politics?; Proceedings of the First Asia-Pacific Congress of Women in Politics. 154 pages.

7 African Women in Politics: Together for Change; Three Struggles for Political Rights, 16 page pamphlet published by the African-American Institute, and the United Nations Development Fund for Women, 1995.

8 Women in Politics: Equality and Empowerment, 10 page pamphlet published by the Equal Status Council and the Department of Family
Affairs and Child Care of Norway; n.d.

9 United Nations Development Program, Human Development Report 1995, New York: Oxford U. Press, 1995, pp. 4-6, 88.

10 Opposing views were printed in Forum '95, Sept. 2, p. 2 ("Valuing unpaid work can boomerang" by Birgit Wing) and Sept. 7 p. 3 ("Wages for women" by Ruth Todasco, International Women Count Network.

11 "Toward Gender Equality: The Role of Public Policy", Washington, D.C.: The World Bank, 1995, quotes from pp. 54, 67 and back cover.

12 Human Development Report: 1995, p. 44.

13 Building Communities: Celebrating Grassroots Women's Work, A Report from Grassroots Organizations Operating in Sisterhood. Sept. 1995. 64 page pamphlet.

14 New York Times, Sept. 3, 1995, p. 1; Sept. 4, 1995, p. 1. Quotes from Forum '95, Sept. 3, 1995, p. 1.

15 "'Women in Black' Defy China's Police", New York Times, September 5, 1995.

16 Toronto Globe and Mail, August 24, 1995, p. A16.

17 "Report of the Informal Contact Group on Gender", United Nations document A/CONF.177/L.2. Annex IV to the Report of the Fourth World Conference on Women (Beijing, 4-15 September 1995).

18 These were compiled and summarized by Interaction and are available at its web cite at A printed version is available from WEDO at 845 Third Ave., 15th floor, New York, NY 10022, and are summarized in its newsletter News & Views, Vol. 8, No. 3-4, December 1995, p. 5.

19 The Report of the Fourth World Conference on Women, UN document A/CONF.177/20, is available from the UN and at

20 Earth Times documented its evaluation in ten pages of its Sept. 28, 1995 issue. WEDO produced a 14 page "Brief Analysis".

21 Headline over column by Jack Freeman on the "Vatican View" in Earth Times, Sept. 28, 1995, p. 9.

22 Quotes from Sadik and Boutros-Ghali are from columns each wrote for Earth Times, Sept. 28, 1995, p. 16.

23 United Nations General Assembly, "Implementation of the Outcome of the Fourth World Conference on Women: Action for Equality, Development and Peace", Report of the Secretary-General, A/50/744, p.4.

24 Sen, Gita, "Viewpoint: Sign All the Documents, But Then Send the Cheques", Beijing Watch, Sept. 12, 1995, p. 8.