Women ring the changes in Beijing

Progress and frustration characterised the final days of the Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing, writes Colleen Lowe Morna

Across the hallway from where Islamic delegations were registering reservations to the Beijing Platform for Action, a group of veiled Yemeni women were explaining that Islam in its truest sense is gender neutral.

Upstairs, meanwhile, the lesbian caucus was expressing its dismay at the failure of the Platform for Action adopted by the conference to acknowledge the discrimination they face because of their sexual orientation. At the same time, the women claimed a major victory in “swinging open the closet doors” at the largest-ever UN conference.

The scenes from the just ended Fourth World Conference on Women that brought together 50 000 women from around the globe, spoke of the mixed sense of progress and frustration that characterised the gathering in its final days.

Amid the torrent of reservations expressed by the Vatican and conservative Catholic and Muslim countries, Particia Licuanan, chairperson of the main negotiating committee, offered this insight:

“The reservations have to be seen in the context of the period in which the conference is taking place. The women’s movement has made incredible advances. At the same time, there has been a conservative backlash. The reason why we have these battles is that there are many men who feel very threatened.”

While some hoped for gains that had not occurred, the Philippines activist said: “There are certain issues you have to keep putting on the table; this is eventually how change comes about.”

The cards were heavily stacked against the gathering. The Vatican and allies such as Ecuador, Argentina, Guatemala, Honduras and Malta signalled their intention to reopen debates on reproductive rights and sexual health — contentious issues at the United Nations Population Conference in Cairo last year — at a preparatory conference in March. The Vatican sees these terms as code words for abortion.

In references to women’s rights as human rights, the Vatican sought to insert the word “universal”. Women activists fought against this reference, which would imply modifying rights applicable to women to only those that are universally accepted.

Several Islamic countries, such as Iran and Sudan, had sought to replace the word “equality” in the Platform of Action with “equity” — a far weaker legal term — during the preparatory conferences.


In an unprecedented debate at the preparatory conference, both the Vatican and Islamic countries objected to the term “gender”, which they argued encompassed homosexuality.

And the Tanzanian secretary general of the conference, Gertrude Mongella, who is also a Catholic, put her foot in it when she decided to pay a private visit to the Vatican ahead of the conference, claiming after the meeting that the Pope is one of women’s greatest

As if these controversies were not enough, the choice of China as venue for the conference threatened to overshadow all substantive concerns. Trouble began with the failure of hundreds of women to obtain visas on time. Many of these were associated with exiled Tibetan and Taiwanese organisations, or causes like gay rights.

The decision by Chinese authorities to shift the non- government organisation (NGO) forum to a tourist resort called Huairou, 50 km away, sparked an outcry from these groups, who lobby governments heavily at such

The NGO forum began before the official conference and overlapped with it by four days. It was dogged by reports of human rights activists from countries as diverse as Iran, Iraq, Sudan and Tibet being harassed, followed and their literature seized.

But, as Joan Dunlop, president of the International Women’s Health Coalition, pointed out: “Most women never considered boycotting Beijing, because what is at stake is more than a referendum on China and its policies and police. This conference could well determine the course of women’s progress into the 21st

As in Cairo, the Vatican refused to join the consensus on the entire health section. Unlike Cairo, the Vatican failed to dominate the conference, in part because the Pope had taken a strategic retreat, appointing a female envoy for the first time, in the form of the soft- spoken, outwardly reasonable Harvard law professor, Mary Ann Glendon.

Islamic countries wanted it known that any agreements they reached had to be strictly interpreted according to Sharia law.

But an encouraging feature of the conference, says Licuanan, was “the number of Catholics and Muslims who have taken on the task of interpreting religious dogma”, and distancing themselves from negative aspects of religion.

Anita Nayar, of the Women’s Environment and Development Organisation, which played a key role in co-ordinating NGO inputs into the conference, said it had succeeded in meeting the bottom line set by activists: consolidating the gains made in Cairo and at the UN human rights conference in Vienna.

“There are some gems in there that we can pull out … organisational hooks as we leave Beijing,” Nayar noted. Key among these are the affirmation of:

* Women’s rights are human rights. The word “equity” is replaced with “equality” and “universal” deleted as a qualifier;

* Sexuality as an important human right. Objections by the Vatican and Muslim countries to the term “gender” were overturned;

* The emphasis on poverty and the importance of the economic empowerment of women, as well as the recognition, for the first time ever in the UN document, of the need to measure unwaged work;

* The importance of establishing effective national mechanisms for advancing gender equality, and of mainstreaming gender concerns in government planning;

* The plight of the girl child, which has never before received such attention at an international conference;

* The recognition of the negative effects of violence against women and of rape in situations of conflict as a war crime.

Although agreement could not be reached on including sexual orientation in a list of factors which contribute to discrimination against women, the negotiating committee had an unprecedented, hour-long debate on the issue.

Several countries from the south joined western countries in condemning the homophobia propagated largely by the Vatican and Islamic countries. South Africa, whose constitution explicitly outlaws discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, was especially vocal in distancing itself from the more conservative countries of the G77.

Another feature of the conference was the new emphasis on gender equality being more than just a women’s concern. Scandinavian men broke new ground by launching a book at the conference, called Men on Men.

In the foreword to the anthology, Swedish Prime Minister Ingvar Carlsson declares that “merely breaking down the barriers faced by women on the labour market and in public life is not enough. The next breakthrough is a change in men”.

Although governments were collectively reticent about committing themselves to “new and additional” resources for implementing the Platform for Action, NGOs mounted a campaign to get them to make commitments in their

Mounting a commitment scoreboard just outside the press lounge, where over 3 000 journalists passed each day, NGOs allocated points for commitments and analysed what each of these meant.

The 27 000 NGO representatives — diverse, colourful, restive and not always agreed among themselves — nonetheless offered the greatest hope that someone will be keeping an eye on the promises made in Beijing.

On the closing day, a lively group of NGO representatives engaged the World Bank’s new President, James Wolfensohn, in an unprecedented debate. At the close of the session, Hazel Medina, who introduced herself as a “structurally adjusted youth from Trinidad and Tobago” made a date with the Australian-born bank executive: to meet on his final day in office to compare notes on how “the situation of women and poor people has changed”.

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