On Eve`s of footsteps

On Eve`s of footsteps The recently concluded Fourth UN world conference on women (FWCW) in Beijing, scored important gains for the fair sex while avoiding the setbacks which been apprehended. Women the right to sexual self-determination and equal inheritance in the face of well organised event backlash. Beijing M also set a new world record for cc participation with 37,000 and men attending the and the parallel NGO Forum to chart out paths for their just and peaceful coextstence.

IF-Tbe ink has barely dried on the for Action, the 130-page document negotiated into existence at the conference. The parting words of ilibrunk Mongella, secretary-general of Conference (and Tanzania's former &=or to India), urging action to JF" intent deserve much praise at a Time when international agreements are brorkered and broken with alarming casualness.

The themes of equality, development and peace at the Conference referred to the 3 uN conferences held on women's status and quality of life during the UN Decade for Women (1975- 1985). Equality had been the focus in Mexico in 1975, development in Copenhagen in 1980, and peace in Nairobi in 1985. Many believed that the Forward Looking Strategies (FLS) for the Advancement of Women to AE) 2000, the document adopted at Nairobi in 1985 was the last document.

The FLS was a multi-level timebound programme for governments to follow to ensure equality between the sexes. But even where some governments were obliging and kept honest by over-watchful women's rights activists, political agendas were shaped more by global events than rhetorical commitments to gender equality.

The'80s witnessed the transformation of the geo-political map of the world with Cold War ending and Hot Peace beginning. This was accompanied by the rise of new global economic and ideological forces, natural disasters like drought and famine, human-made disasters like structural adjustment pro- the iqP "f RTV/AlDq and the return of old diseases like polio and, perhaps the most profound change of all, human-inducted threats to life.

Few feminist analysts doubted that these events could unfold without leaving their mark on women's lives. A 1990 study by the UN Commission on the Status of Women (csw) to review the impact of the Nairobi FLS contained both good news and bad news.

The good news was that the national legislation to end discriminatory practices had improved, and that machinery was now in place to analyse and address gender inequality. The bad news was that the legislation was not implemented and the machinery was ineffec- tive. The inequality indicator developed by Krishna Ahooja-Patel at the International Labour Organization confer- ence in 1978, continued to reflect the true state of women: constituting 50 per cent of the world's population, they perform 70 per cent of the world's work, earn 10 per cent of the world's income, and own 1 per cent of the world's property. The appraisal of the FLS further revealed a range of disturbing trends from female foeticide to the Despite legislative reform, the structural and cultural foundations of women's subordination had remained unchanged. The inexorable results were reflected in worldwide phenomena like persistent wage disparities between men and women, the casualisation of the female labour force, the gender gap in access ' to natural resources, women s rights to property, reproductive healthcare or judicial authority - the list was depressingly long.

The Beijing Conference on Women was born to resolve for meaningful and sustained action. The Conference secretariat, established in 1991, decided that its strategy would be 2-feld - to raise awareness and public interest on gender issues, and focus on a few key areas of concern rather than reproducing a long list. The location for the Conference was determined by the UN'S tradition of regional balance for conferences. Asia was next in line with China being the only Asian country offering to host the Conference.

Unlike its 3 predecessors, the preparations for the FWCW were designed to be participatory and inclusive. Governments had been instructed by the csw to prepare national reports on women's status with the active participation of NGOS - the major new force on the global stage. Although, not all countries did, many embarked on a voyage of discovery often guided by women's organisations into the ground realities of their most disenfranchised arid disempowered fellow citizens. The official process was complemented by an even more rigorous NGO process.

Women's organisations holding their parallel preparatory meetings, issued 'shadow' national reports to counter the deficiencies of the national report and networked across issues and cultures. Women from all walks and purposes of life made their claims to the process and moved their concerns centrestage. Five regional preparatory conferences for governments had been held in 1994 in Dakkar (Africa), Jakarta (Asia and the Pacific), Jordan (Arab region), Vienna (Europe and North America) and Santiago (Latin American and the platforms for action. These -regional documents were in turn synthesised by the Conference secretariat, and assembled into the draft Platform for Action to be adopted by nations in Beijing. The draft Platform for Action was built on 12 'critical areas of concern' covering poverty, education, health, violence, economic participation, decisionmaking, mass media, armed conflict, human rights, environment, institutions and the girl child.

Controversies galore
The dress rehearsal for Beijing came at the final PrepCom (preparatory committee) during the 39th session of the annual meeting of the Commission on the Status of Women in New York, in March/April 1995. It was in New York that things came to a head as delegates from the 187 UN member states assembled to thrash out their differences and clear the way for Beijing in September. It took an additional week to settle controversies over the use of the analytical term 'gender'regarding women's sexual rights and sexual orientation.

The fact that the FWCW came in the rerences neia in as many years, an"eo the political baggage that the d brought to the Conference tables them. Counting backwards, thlem been the World Social Sunum . Copenhagen in March 1995, International Conference Population and Develo (ICPD) in Cairo in International Confe ce Human Rights in Vienna is 1993, the UN Conference 49 Environment and Develoynhad (the Earth Summit) in Rio Janeiro in 1992, and International Conference on Girl Child in 1991. At each a these conferences, nalssoll organised into regional inte blocs like the G-77 European Union, had ZA over everything from mo biodiversity. There that some countries woutold, Beijing as their theatre of fr.om commitments. The "I visible areas of dispute threatened backslidin, on women's reproductrIel"i sexual rights advanced at d ICPD in 1994,sality of women's human rift enshrined in Vienna in 1999 These disputes did not r confrontations between states 4q much as confrontations bet social forces with differing der ideologies across countries: conservatives wishing to ret patri archy, and liberals seeking to liberate women from gender roles that resigne them to greater hunger, illiteracy, poverty and domestic violence that men face in any society.

Other less visible areas of dispute included language on the responsibility of industrialised countries for environmental degradation, criticism of struc total adjustment programmes and ?I ative impacts of the globalisinion of tbie world economy. While the former set I objections stemmed from the ultracon servative backlash to women's gains the trend towards cultural relativisal in; the later set had to do with contain North-South divisions rega distribution of wealth, power resources. The strength and weakness of the draft Platform for Action discussed at Beijing, mirrored the tcomes of the conferences that pre- caded it. The rearguard action begun by holy alliance' states (those that had 10Z together with the Holy See, arid Honduras, Sudan, Guatemala, eptakistan, Benin) at Cairo, which smokescreeu of cultural rela itn deny women and girls the Fans of ensuring their health and bod integrity which they said was the threat to societal advancements. guard against the dilution of the on health, human rights, gen vwknce and the rights and needs of child, activists and lobbyists rly from Latin America) had that these were among the thorough and well-defended n of the document. The other areas of concern for women access to education, produc resources, political decisionmaking and porwpation in conflict resolution, were more consensus-prone and also Well-represented.

A platform for action
Of all the sections of the draft Platform For Aicuon, however, the weakest and integrated was the one on eriviron Akhough the document did con ges on the necessity for sus Zimble development and global equity, Md recognised the problems of acceler awd economic growth, unsustainable boducuon and consumption patterns, md the negative impact on women of tw-Mar", adjustment, the gender spe Wky of the impact of the environmen bi degradation and the centrality of wommen as solution for sustairiability owe absent. Environment was referred to as a resource management issue. While women's lack of access to and control over natural resources whether it is fuelwood, water or fertile lands - has to be urgently redressed, more women need to be rep'resented in government forums. The issue of over-consumption by the rich minority and under-consumption by the poor majority, in both the North and the South, as one of the most pressing issues of environmental injustice was given short shrift.

Here, the role that women as primary consumers, could play (espe- emphasised. While the document recognised that many indigenous and rural women are custodians of traditional knowledge, their control over this knowledge and their intellectual property rights went unrecognised. There was also no mention of the more fundamental critique of feminists of the development model based on the shadow subsidy of women's unpaid labour. Nor was there mention of the fundamental fallacy of promoting a growthbased economic model in a world with ecological limits.

The document also neglected the need to revive economic systems guided by an ethic of minimum interference with nature's products and it marginalised environmental issues from the decision of mainstream political economic and social concerns. The Platform for Action could have built on the Earth Summit's prohibition of the world's work done by the fair sex remains fransboundary movement of illegal toxic and hazardous waste in the Agenda 21, to include the export and dumping of all toxic, hazardous' and radioactive material. Further, it could have called for a code of conduct for multinational corporations, whose brazen profiteering often takes a ton oh women, their families and ecosystems.

Of the thousands of women who attended the NGo Forum in Huairou, to parley on issues as disparate as environmental health, economic justice, biotechnology, communitybased development and militarism all contributed to the realisation of a new life.

If we define sustainable development as development that is based on the non-hicrarchial, non-exploitative relations between women and men, then Beijing must be seen as an important stop in the right direction. When it finally emerged front under wraps, the Platform for Action did reveal some significant victories for women. The most visible victories were to do with the recognition of women's right to sexual self-determination as a fundamental human right that had been vehemently opposed by the 'holy alliance' countries.

While this recognition may not completely transform the power relations between women and men in their families, communities or countries overnight, it does acknowledge women's right to refuse unwanted sex (even marital), choose a female partner or determine when and how many children they will bear. The right to equal inheritance for women, regardless of religious or cultural prescription, was another groundbreaking victory. This was particularly significant for the African women participants in Beijing, who placed top priority on land rights. Despite fears to the contrary, the advancements made at Cairo regarding women's reproductive rights, and the term 'families' to include non-traditional family units were maintained. Among other significant gains were the commitments made to increase credit programmes for poor women, improving national accounting systems to include unpaid labour by women, and mobilising additional resources for developing countries to enable implementation of the Platform for Action effectively.