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Beijing Plus Five: Reviewing Women's Progress, Part One

by Jo Freeman

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 of thousands of women from all over the world to auxiliary conferences and festivals held simultaneously.
     This time, it was a mini conference, (a Special Session) in New York City during the week of June 5-10.  As before, there were numerous companion meetings of NGOs (Non Governmental Organizations) open to any woman. Everything was smaller: time, numbers and purpose.
     The purpose of UNGASS (United National General Assembly Special Session) was to 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 2,043 representatives from 1136 NGOs, filling the UN buildings with 2,300 extra bodies, waiting to hear  207 speakers address ten plenary sessions. 
      Throughout New YOrk City, there were numerous NGO meetings on the impact on women of armed conflict, indigenous women, violence against women, gender strategies, and many, many more. 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 Hudson for NGO representatives and their friends.
     Three newspapers published daily during the week, as tabloids and on web sites:  Earth Times, which normally provides biweekly coverage of the UN; Women Action, 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 as 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 14 million of the world's poorest families are being reached by 1,065 micro-credit institutions and 75% of the clients are women, there was much for governments to do.
     African women questioned whether micro-credit 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, Holbrooke 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.

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