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

by Jo Freeman

<< Part One

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 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 World 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 whom 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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