Women 2000: Five Years After Beijing

During the week of June 5-9 the United Nations and hundreds of non-governmental organizations turned their attention to the status of more than half the world's population: women.

At a special session called Women 2000: Gender Equality, Development and Peace for the 21st Century, the UN reviewed the progress -- or lack thereof -- made on global issues affecting women's lives since the UN Fourth World Conference on Women, convened in Beijing in 1995. At the Beijing conference, almost 6,000 official delegates from 189 countries had reached an agreement on a "Platform for Action," which outlined 12 areas of concern -- women and poverty, education, health, armed conflict, power and decision-making, media, the girl child, the economy, violence, institutional mechanisms, the environment, and human rights. This year's special session was designed to formulate an "Outcome Document" -- a guide to implementing the Platform.

The special session, also called "Beijing+5," was perhaps upstaged by the activity of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) that advocate on behalf of women and girls. They coordinated their own lobbying efforts, strategy meetings, information panels, workshops, performances and ceremonies beginning the week before and continuing through the Special Session. These groups have been increasingly recognized for their important role not only in helping to implement government programs, but also in designing policies and programs to advance women's status.

Why all the fuss now? Haven't women all over the world benefited from technological advances, scientific breakthroughs in fighting disease and the spread of democracy?

The facts suggest otherwise. Of the 1.5 billion people in the world living in poverty (officially defined as a paltry $1 or less per day), the vast majority are women. One of every three women has been beaten, coerced into sex or in some way abused in her lifetime, usually by someone she knows. Complications of pregnancy kill more than half a million women each year. Women make up only 12.7 percent of the members of legislative bodies worldwide.

Progress has been made in some areas. The average life expectancy for women worldwide has risen from 49 years in the 1950's to 68 years today, but there still exists an enormous disparity between the quality of health care women receive in the first world as opposed to the third world. This divide is reflected in the wide range of women's life span, from only 40 years in Uganda to 82 years Japan. HIV/AIDS is actually reversing some of the gains in many countries, particularly on the African continent.

As one would expect, life expectancy is but one of many areas where women living in developed countries are better off than their counterparts in poorer nations, especially upper-class White women in developed countries. But even women in wealthy countries have a stake in evaluating what the nations of the world are doing to advance women's rights. It became evident to me during the week of the Special Session that it is also in our self-interest to learn from the women of poorer nations.

One need only look to the recent war in Bosnia-Serbia to be reminded that the line between women's lives in developed and so-called underdeveloped countries is a fine one. Before the war, women in Bosnia lived as women lived in other prosperous nations -- they were educated judges, teachers, artists and professionals. But in 1992, Bosnian women who happened to be Muslim were subjected to "ethnic cleansing" by the Serbian army, and thousands were held in camps where they were raped, brutalized and in many cases killed.

As any of the NGO representatives at the Women 2000 conference would tell you, recognizing women's rights as human rights remains controversial. Many world leaders have dismissed abuses of women in all parts of the world as cultural practices, as if there was something natural or inalienable in the beating or burning or genital cutting of wives and daughters. As Secretary of State Madeleine Albright told the UN General Assembly on June 8, "When a woman is raped, beaten or mutilated, it is not cultural, it is criminal. Women's rights are human rights and are indivisible from the universal rights of every human being." She credited the participants in the Beijing Conference in 1995 with popularizing this notion.

Violence is perhaps the most extreme form of discrimination against women around the globe, but other forms persist as well. Some would argue that the lack of decent health care and reproductive services for women is itself one of the most serious forms of violence visited on women's bodies. Mary Ellen Glynn, spokeswoman for the US Mission to the UN, commented that the Beijing Platform recognized for the first time that human rights include the right of women to control their own sexuality without "coercion, discrimination, and violence."

Dr. Nafis Sadik, Executive Director of the UN Population Fund (UNFPA), stressed to the General Assembly that reproductive health and rights "are not abstract concepts. They have a very real meaning for women, especially our women in developing countries. We are not merely improving women's lives, we are saving women's lives," with family planning resources.

The US legislature is proving to be an impediment to the ability of women in the developing world to control their sexuality. Congress has reduced funding to the United Nations for international family planning, having confused this concept with paying for abortions in the developing world. The reality is that no US dollars are used for performing abortions in other countries. This point was emphasized by US Rep. Carolyn Maloney, a Democrat from New York who advocates for the restoration of international family planning funds to their level in 1995, in her address to the General Assembly.

Meanwhile, at an NGO-sponsored Global Forum on Women's Health on June 7, Black Women's Health Project founder Byllye Avery and Health and Human Services Secretary Donna Shalala welcomed participants to a day of workshops and presentations on women's health issues, from breast cancer to AIDS and sexually transmitted diseases to health care access and health insurance.

Many of the day's discussions were related to women's ability to control their own fertility -- to have access to birth control and safe and legal abortion -- and how this control is central to women's empowerment. On the day of the health forum, advocates for legalization of Mifepristone, a drug that can be used for non-surgical early abortion, learned that the FDA was considering new restrictions on the distribution of the drug. (Mifepristone also has potential benefits in treating breast and ovarian cancers, among other illnesses and conditions.)

"Any restrictions under discussion are wholly unacceptable, unnecessary, and dangerous," said Eleanor Smeal, President of the Feminist Majority Foundation, one of the key groups educating people about the drug. "Mifepristone is available throughout Europe and China. Millions of women have used it safely and effectively. In fact, in 1996 the FDA itself ruled that Mifepristone was safe and efficacious. It is outrageous that its use has been denied to women in the United States this long."

Perhaps if women were better represented in legislative bodies, we would not be so limited in our reproductive choices, suggested some of the women's rights groups at the conference. Remarkably, the United States is one of the less advanced countries when it comes to women participating in economic, social and especially political decision-making. Women in this US comprise only 13 percent of the House of Representatives (57), nine percent of the US Senate (9), and an abysmal two percent (just one) of 50 governors (New Jersey).

The Women's Environment & Development Organization (WEDO) proposes that a "critical mass" of women in leadership roles makes a difference, in terms of prioritizing issues such as childcare and parental leave, violence against women, and unpaid labor. WEDO's "Women in Government: Get the Balance Right!" campaign, launched during last week's conference, points out milestones that women in the parliaments of Norway, South Africa and India have achieved through their significant numbers and collaboration.

So far, only 8 governments out of 189 have met their 1995 commitment to increase women's participation in parliamentary positions to 30 percent by this year.

The UN conference was much more than just the General Assembly's review of progress made by each country on women's rights and women's lives. It was about the women of the NGOs collaborating to build a stronger women's movement. Sisterhood is powerful. International Sisterhood is even more powerful.

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