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UN Reviews Women's Progress Five Years After Beijing
by Jo Freeman

Published in off our backs, October 2000, pp. 1, 6-7.

a button written in spanish about the New York conference in 2000 In the last 25 years the United Nations has sponsored four international women's conferences in different parts of the world: Mexico City (1975), Copenhagen (1980), Nairobi (1985), and Beijing (1995). These were major events, bringing not only official delegates from the world's governments to the official conferences, but tens thousands of women from all over the world to auxiliary conferences and festivals held simultaneously. Instead of another biggie, the UN held a mini conference, called a Special Session of the General Assembly (UNGASS), at its headquarters in New York City the week of June 5-10. As before, there were numerous companion meetings of NGOs (Non Governmental Organizations) open to any woman. But everything was smaller: time, numbers and purpose.
The purpose of UNGASS was review progress made in implementing the 150 page Platform for Action written in Beijing in 1995, not to write a new document. That's why it was unofficially called Beijing Plus Five, and not the Fifth World Conference. Officially, it was called "Women 2000: Gender equality, development and peace in the twenty-first century."
As before, 188 Member States sent delegates to argue about words. Their numbers were augmented by 2043 representatives from 1136 NGOs, filling the UN buildings with 2,300 extra bodies. The usual tourist tours were canceled as the conference rooms filled to hear 207 speakers address ten plenary sessions.
Instead of a gigantic NGO Forum as had been held in 1995, there were multiple forums scattered throughout New York City. These attracted some 7,500 hundred women (and a few men).
As head of the Host Committee, the US mission provided space in the basement of the old U.S. Customs House on the tip of Manhattan for special panels. Highlights included panels on Women, Science and Technology by the Association for Women in Science; Women and Racism; Men's Roles and Values; Gender Statistics; Poverty Eradication Strategies; Internalized Oppression; and Gender Apartheid in Afghanistan by the Feminist Majority Foundation. With help from a few corporate sponsors, the Host Committee hosted a picnic on the Husdon for NGO representatives and their friends.
Among the many panels and plenaries held elsewhere were a human rights panel at Columbia University, a series on health at Hunter College and a film festival at Manhattan Community College. WEDO (Women's Economic and Development Organization) sponsored workshops on "50-50 by 2005" featuring women Members of Parliament from around the world. The Center for Policy Alternatives organized an all-day Economic Empowerment Forum. The National League of Cities sponsored Women in Local Government. And Japan held its own week-long Global Forum across the street from the UN, with speakers and entertainment translated between English and Japanese.
The Church Center across from the UN was the NGO home away from home. A second floor conference room housed internet computers that any woman could use; the seats were always full. On the upper floor different groups continued their conversations almost every day. There were ones on the impact on women of armed conflict, indigenous women, violence against women, gender strategies, and many, many more. The US and Canadian delegations briefed whomever cared to show daily on the twelfth floor.
Three newspapers published daily during the week, as tabloids and on web sites: Earth Times, which normally provides biweekly coverage of the UN; WomenAction, a global information network printed its commentaries in French, English and Spanish; Flame, an African daily, published in French and English. There was a daily internet TV program (in French) and daily radio broadcasts.

Paper progress

The UN was awash with paper, as many countries piled tables with vast amounts of slick reports on their progress since Beijing, and quite a few posters.
In some countries "progress" has been more talk than action. Half of Kuwaiti college graduates are women, but no woman can vote. When the US military bombed Iraq to rescue Kuwait from its military embrace, it didn't demand female suffrage in exchange for restoring the all-male government to power. Kuwaiti women are now demanding it, but the men tell them to wait until they have "progressed more."
In India there has been a 40 percent increase in reported cases of sexual harassment and a 15 percent increase in dowry deaths. India is one of those countries with many more men than women, due to selective abortion of female fetuses. The loss of women available for marriage has not increased the desirability of girls; instead men import young girls from other countries when they can't find suitable wives at home.
In Afghanistan, women and girls can be beaten or killed for going to school or working for pay or leaving the house unaccompanied by a male relative and covered from head to toe.
Israel has become one of the world's centers in the trafficking of women, where it is a $2 billion-a-year industry.
In the formerly Communist countries women have lost ground. Women's employment fell by 40 percent in Hungary, 21 percent in Russia and 24 to 31 percent in the Baltic states. Fewer girls are finishing high school than ten years ago. Health care and child care have all but collapsed in many places.
UN Secretary General Kofi Annan reminded the delegates that "Most countries have yet to legislate in favor of women's rights to own land." Inability to inherit a husband's land is putting into poverty widows created by Central Africa's wars.
Two thirds of the 110 million children who are not in school are girls.
Betty King, the American envoy for economic and social affairs at the UN, said "Since Beijing, nearly 400,000 women have died unnecessarily from unsafe abortions. Even when abortion is legal, too many countries have unsafe doctors, nurses or other health providers." About 600,000 women die in childbirth every year.
Real progress was seen less in statistics than in attitude change. Female genital mutilation is no longer claimed to be "cultural," properly left to each society to decide for itself. Sixteen African nations have made it illegal. There is a growing international agreement that burning wives to get more dowry, or killing female relatives to restore family honor, should be treated like serious crimes. Rape is recognized as a war crime.
US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright has put trafficking -- taking women from their homelands to sell as sex slaves -- on the top of her agenda. Between one and two million women and girls are coerced each year into prostitution, manual labor, and domestic service. About half a million of them are from eastern and central Europe. Almost 50,000 end up in the United States. When Albright addressed the UN gathering on Thursday, she invited "everyone here to join in a multi-year, multi-national effort to win the fight against trafficking." Kofi Annan called it "a worldwide plague."

Hillary Speaks

Hillary took time out from running for the U.S. Senate to address the UN meeting on Monday. In 1995 she traveled to Hairou where the NGO Forum was being held to address the "unofficial" women who pushed and shoved their way into a converted movie theater to see her. This time she confined her remarks to the "official" meeting. Conference Room #4 was full, but not overcrowded, and the audience was enthusiastic when she told them that the Beijing conference, was "one of the most moving and meaningful experiences in my life." But "our work is far from done," she said.
"What meaning can free markets have for women who, desperate for economic opportunity, are brought and sold like any consumer product? What meaning can freedom and democracy have for the growing number of women and children who are trafficked into other countries to be abused, degraded, and enslaved?"
The lead speaker in a panel on micro-credit, she emphasized the need to bring women out of poverty and reminded the delegates that 70 percent of the world's poor are women. When she finished, Ela Bhat, founder of India's Self-Employed Women's Association, told the audience not to see micro-credit as a quick fix. Although fourteen million of the world's poorest families are being reached by 1,065 micro-credit institutions and seventy-five per cent of the clients are women, there was much for governments to do.
African women questioned whether microcredit was a boon or bane. By itself, it does not empower women said Joanna Kerr, President of the Association for Women in Development. She said that training, information, and readily available markets are what give women self sufficiency. Some of the practices are also repressive. Meetings and paperwork can consume a lot of time. Interest rates are high and repayment must begin immediately. Women who borrow to grow food can't repay until they sell their harvest. Nor does it help the truly destitute. As in the developed countries, it takes money to make money. Those on the bottom can't get up by themselves.
A few miles away in the Customs House, Richard Holbrooke, the US ambassador to the UN, told a few dozen people that investing in women, through small loans, led to more development in third-world countries than lending to men. Men spent their profits on tobacco, alcohol and leisure activities for themselves, he said. Women spent them on their children, especially for better food and school fees. This finding was part of a slow realization by development agencies that men who control household resources shortchange women and girls. Educating girls decreases poverty, family size, and infant mortality.
Tuesday evening, at a large, formal reception for honored guests sponsored by the US mission in the American Museum of Natural History, Hillary thanked Holbrooke's wife, Kati Marton, for converting him to feminism.

Women in Politics

Women are making a little progress into politics and government, but not yet enough to make a difference. Currently, eleven heads of state, twelve ambassadors to Washington, and fourteen foreign ministers are women.
Women members of Parliament held their own mini-meetings, as did women from local governments. Phoolan Devi, who gained renown as India's Bandit Queen, came with 18 other women MPs. Slightly overwhelmed by the sheer number of meetings to go to, she was pessimistic about equality coming any time soon.
Women's move into parliament has come slowly, but it has come. According to the Interparliamentary Union, the percentage of female legislators throughout the world has risen from 11.6 in 1995 to 13.9 in 2000. Women held only 3 percent of all seats in 1955. While women's representation is still low in most countries, there are few which have no women at all in their political bodies.
In only nine countries, eight in northern Europe plus Mozambique, are women over thirty percent of the members of parliament (lower house if a bicameral legislature). To remedy this there has been a push for quotas of women in representative bodies. That is how women gained so many seats in the Scandinavian countries. While several countries reserve seats for women in their legislative bodies, it is more common for political parties to allocate slots on their party tickets. South Africa's African National Congress party reserves 30 percent of parliamentary and 50 percent of local government candidacies for women. As a result women are 29.8 percent of S.A.'s MPs. India requires that one-third of village council seats go to women. Less than 13 percent of US Representatives are women, but in Canada they are almost 20 percent. The former Soviet Union had a one-third quota for women; in the new Russia, women hold 7.7 percent of the seats in the Duma.
There was a general consensus that women needed to get into decision making positions by any means possible. Quotas were the most popular proposal; no one questioned whether position would bring power. Instead there was a pervasive belief that the shear presence of women leads to gender sensitive laws and better enforcement.
While there does appear to be more woman-sensitive legislation when parliaments are at least 20 percent women, there is also evidence of tokenism. The Czech social democratic party has long had an internal quota of 35 percent women in all party bodies and also has a women's bureau. But when it recently became the Government, not one woman was appointed to the cabinet. The women promptly formed a "shadow" cabinet, to show that there were just as many women as men qualified to head departments.

Words, Words, Words

While "unofficial" women went to panels, seminars and discussion groups, the "official" delegates argued over words. Nothing was voted on; every word required consensus. None of these words were binding on any country, yet people argued over them as though their lives depended on it. Abortion and homosexuality were the most divisive, but underneath these debates was a basic difference between countries who valued women only as wives and mothers and those that saw gender equality as desirable. This difference coincided heavily, but not completely, with that between developing and industrialized countries. Economic differences were a subtext for the debates over sex.
At the Fourth World Conference, the buzz word was "structural adjustment" -- policies required of governments by the International Monetary Fund as a condition of loans which many third world delegates felt hurt women. This time it was "globalization," though what that meant was not well defined. In a report presented by NGOs to the UN, several policies were listed which aggravated poverty for women. They were: privatization of public services, trade liberalization, deregulation of economies, withdrawal of subsidies, downsizing of government, substitution of food production by cash crops and failure to monitor and regulate foreign capital.
While some wondered what difference did all these words make, since any government can ignore them as it chooses, others said they can have "real effects." Women use the words as a statement of international norms when arguing for greater rights, and international agencies use them as goals to be achieved. Joanna Foster from Zimbabwe's Center for Women in Law and Development in Africa said the 1995 Platform for Action was a catalyst. Women used it to support their demands for quotas for women when new constitutions were written. She cited laws to end discrimination and more educational opportunities for girls as goals for which the UN document provided leverage.
Perhaps their most important effect is to raise consciousness among the world's governments. The written commitments made by governments, Kofi Annan said, "reflect the understanding that women's equality must be a central component of any attempt to solve the world's social, economic and political problems.... [G]ender equality is now one of the primary factors shaping [the international] agenda."
This realization has grown gradually since the first UN women's conference in 1975. It reached critical mass in 1992 at the Earth Summit held in Rio de Janeiro. Although the topic was the environment, women's NGOs formed a caucus and put their point of view in almost every part of the final document. They did it again in the 1993 conference on Human Rights in Vienna, asserting that "Women's Rights are Human Rights." And again at the Population Conference in Cairo in 1994. In 1995, at the World Summit on Social Development held in Copenhagen, an entire day was devoted to women's issues. By the Beijing meeting in late summer, no one doubted their importance. The fact that it was so difficult to agree on language about "reproductive issues" reflected this importance, as well as the fact that there were significant differences of opinion on what to do.
There has been a fundamentalist backlash, and it is more common to developing countries than to developed ones. At this year's UNGASS the Vatican, Iran, Pakistan, Libya, Sudan, Nicaragua and Algeria were particularly active in trying to reverse the goals laid out in the Beijing Platform. But even relatively progressive countries like India have a problem recognizing sexual preference as a legitimate concern.
However, at this meeting, G-77 (the UN name for the caucus of developing countries) was not a united front of opposition to reproductive issues as it has been in the past. It was more concerned with economic progress, which many now recognize cannot be had independently of progress for women, even when that means that "women have the right to decide freely and responsibly on matters related to their sexuality" and should be able to do so without "coercion, discrimination and violence."
The HIV/AIDS epidemic has forced some to recognize that traditional attitudes toward female sexuality have forced girls and women into sexual arrangements with men known to be infected. Women have to know that their bodies belong them to resist family and community pressures which will lead to their deaths.
Violence against women in its many forms -- war, rape, family and domestic -- was identified as a major impediment to economic progress for women and for developing countries. In past conferences, some countries had argued that some of these were "private" matters and not crimes, while others (e.g. war) did not affect women worse than men.
Although the meeting was supposed to end on Friday, the delegates weren't finished arguing. They kept at it all night, finally leaving the UN at 5:00 a.m. Saturday after almost agreeing on a "final outcomes" document.
Feminists generally felt that there was little progress, but were relieved that some of the language crafted in Beijing had not been removed, as many had feared. Charlotte Bunch of the Center for Women's Global Leadership said "We regret that there was not enough political will on the part of some governments and the UN system to agree on a stronger document with more concrete benchmarks, numerical goals, time-bound targets, indicators, and resources aimed at implementing the Beijing Platform."
Others concurred. Amnesty International said in a closing release that "When it comes to women's human rights, there is a persistent lack of political will."
Betty King, the U.S. representative to the UN Economic and Social Council, wrote a letter to President Clinton with an "interpretative statement" that outlined the disagreements of the US with the final document. She also told the UNGASS that the US believed there were key issues directly connected to issues of gender and the furtherance of women's rights, in particular "non-discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation" and access to safe abortions. Both were necessary to save and protect women's lives.
The "final outcomes" document did have some improvements over the 1995 Platform for Action.

These include the goals of:

  • Equal access to health care, including contraception, obstetric and material care, and greater attention to diseases such as breast, cervical and ovarian cancer, and osteoporosis.
  • Universal primary and secondary education for both boys and girls within the next 15 years, and a fifty percent improvement in adult literacy.
  • The elimination of all forms of discrimination against women by 2005.
  • Reconciling women's employment with family responsibilities, including better distribution of responsibilities between men and women for child care and greater responsibility of men to prevent unwanted pregnancies and to practice safer sex.
  • Legislation "to eradicate harmful customary or traditional practices, including female genital mutilation, early and forced marriage and so-called honour crimes."
  • As in the past, the real value of both the official and NGO conferences was simply bringing women together to exchange ideas and experiences. Courage comes from knowing you are not alone, and after a week of exhausting meetings in New York City, thousands of women went home ready to continue their fight for women's rights.

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