UN Conference on Women -- Then and Now
June 23, 2000
Five years ago this summer every feminist eye in the world was on
Beijing. The Chinese were a bit startled at what happened when they
offered to host the United Nations Fourth World Conference on Women. It
turned out to be the biggest U. N. conference in history, and there were
30,000 activist females from 181 nations running around Beijing, or
sloshing in the mud of Huairou, talking a lot and carrying signs. The
Chinese were not used to that sort of thing.
But despite some Chinese hostility and protest from American
conservatives -- Focus on the Family called it "the most radical,
atheistic and anti-family crusade in the history of the world" -- the
conference went on as scheduled. The delegates produced a formal
document which addressed the major problems of women world-wide, such
issues as education, health, economic opportunity and freedom from
violence. One of the main speakers, Hillary Clinton said, "If we join
together as a global community, we can lift up the health and dignity of
all women. Human rights are women's rights, and women's rights are
Five years after the Beijing Conference set women's equality as an
achievable world-wide goal, 4300 delegates from more than 180 nations
met at the U. N. last week for Beijing+Five. And guess what! Rather
than concentrating on expanding the basic rights of women, they had to
fight to keep from losing some of the gains they had made in Beijing.
The main goal of the United States delegation at both meetings was to
promote policies around the world --including our own country -- that
improve the status of women, children and family.
We -- men and women -- in America are horrified at what women are
suffering in some parts of the world, but these practices are
commonplace. In India it is acceptable to douse wives with gasoline and
set them afire because they don't contribute enough wealth to the
family. The practice of genital mutilation of young girls is still
prevalent in many African and Asian societies. Note: After five years
of effort, the Colorado legislature by a thin margin finally made such
practice illegal in our state just this past year. Thousands of women
in Bosnia and later in Sarajevo were prizes for the invaders and were
raped repeatedly. In Afganastan and many parts of Asia it is perfectly
legal for a man to stone his wife, sister, daughter or mother if she
appears in public with even her eyes showing. One Taliban leader
clarified the issue. "There are only two places for Afghan women -- in
her husband's house, and in the graveyard."
The New York conference which was concerned with such issues and many
others ended with an all night session which capped a week of heated
arguments. Despite fears that delegates would chip away at the Beijing
platform, they did not do so. They didn't go forward much, but they
didn't go backwards. The battle lines mirrored those drawn at Beijing:
The Vatican and a handful of Islamic and Roman Catholic countries
against the west and hundreds of women's rights activists.
The new document calls for tougher measures to combat domestic violence
and sex trafficking, and to tackle the global impact of HIV/AIDS on
women. It also added the statement that "women have the right to decide
freely and responsibly on matters related to their sexuality." Although
it does not have the force of law anywhere, it establishes international
norms that may be used by women in efforts to change the laws in their
Angela King, the U.N. official in charge of women's advancement said,
"We have a very strong document that not only reaffirms Beijing and
other relevant conferences on human rights and social development, but
also moves forward."
Well, not very far forward, but every inch is worth the battle.
Secretary of State, Madeleine Albright said, "Some say this is all
cultural and there's nothing we can do about it. I say it's criminal
and we each have an obligation to stop it." Susan B. Anthony would
probably have been a leader of Beijing+Five. She gets the final word.
"With women such as these consecrating their lives, failure is