Plus ça change ...

In United Nations practice, big development projects carry the name of the capital cities where they take place. Women’s empowerment was plotted in Beijing; social development goals were set in Copenhagen; urbanisation policy was penned in Cairo.

The UN regularly assesses its big plans and these follow-up meetings are called the “plus” conferences.

For two weeks until March 11 the sisters descend on New York for the Beijing +10 [years] conference.
We are here to take stock of achievements since the Fourth World Conference on Women, held in China in 1995.

This is certainly not Beijing — neither geographically nor politically. Gone is the colour. Muted too is the energy and vibrancy of that memorable conference where more than 10 000 women came together to demand “equality, development and peace”. The United States Young Marines march around reminding us that this is a different world.

Back then we got most of what we wanted, the Beijing Platform for Action, with its 12 critical areas of concern. The document became our key reference text. Beijing also developed a deeper meaning in public discourse. “Ah, you are one of those Beijing women? We are now scared of you,” many men said, often with smiles. Some meant it as a joke, but with many you could smell the fear. Women had arrived. We had become a political entity. There was so much hope then, so much promise.

We celebrate as many governments now take women’s participation in decision-making seriously.

On the African continent, South Africa shows us that it can be done. The Southern African Development Community forged a declaration setting a target of a minimum of 30% female representatives in office by 2005 — countries are striving toward it; several have already made it.

Dozens of feminist activists are now Cabinet ministers, diplomats and high-level political leaders. We can point to them and say “we know these women”. We are now taking stock of what these representatives have achieved for women.

But it’s a minus that millions of women still don’t get to choose their own governments. In Saudi Arabia recently, women were not allowed to vote.

Another plus is the explosion of information and communication technology, which has given women’s movements new tools to communicate with one another. But it is a case of one step forward, two steps back: the Internet has brought pornography to personal computers. Naked girls have become cellphone screensavers. It is now easier to buy and sell women on the Net. And millions of poor women have never seen a computer, let alone have access to a public phone for use in emergencies.

Another minus: HIV/Aids has claimed the lives of thousands of Southern African women of reproductive age — a scourge we could never have predicted 10 years ago.

Responses have yet to come to grips with fundamental women’s rights questions: sexual violence, inheritance, access and control over property, women’s control over their own bodies. United States President George W Bush’s Pentecostal administration says there is no such thing as “sexual rights”. And Kwa-ZuluNatal’s answer to HIV/Aids is to test young women for virginity. Swaziland’s King Mswati III has seen lots of progress since Beijing. He now has more than a dozen wives — each new one is tested for HIV so they don’t infect him.

It’s a plus that the 16 Days of Activism Against Gender Violence is now a worldwide campaign. Some governments and other institutions of power have thrown their weight behind the annual focus. A South African woman recently served a symbolic five-minute sentence for killing her violent spouse. In the same month an Afghan mullah declared, “A woman belongs only in two places: the house or the grave.” Progress on the Beijing goals is extremely uneven.

We are in New York, not to celebrate Beijing but to defend it. The US Young Marines marching at the conference are symbolic of why the struggle has gone backward.

This is 2005. We are in the age of US unilateralism and militarism; in the age of fundamentalism. Even though the pope is incapacitated, his presence looms large as conservatives seek to roll back gains on women’s freedoms.

The secular state, to which we looked for protection of our rights, is under threat; so is the Beijing Platform for Action, the document many of us regard as the passport to equality. Our mission in New York is to defend that platform and not advance it. We cannot have it changed with Bush in the White House and the UN’s future under threat.

New issues have emerged for women, such as militarism, fundamentalism, HIV/Aids and increasing poverty. But this is not the time nor place to put these on the agenda. Many of us hope to return home with our Platform for Action still intact. And, given this defending agenda, we must ask whether this is a Beijing plus or minus?

Everjoice Win is a Zimbabwean feminist activist based in South Africa

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