President's Message: Initiative to Renew Democracy (Suzanne Meisenzahl)|
LWV Constitutional Convention Committee Begins Its Work
Membership Luncheon on UN Conference on Women
LWVUS Delegate Shares Beijing Experience (Terry McCoy)
Remarks for the UN 4th World Conference on Women (Hillary Clinton)
Enterprise Zones Designated by Council
Leaguers Not Happy with Suffrage Stamp
Violence Prevention Coordinating Council
Hobron Lane DP Change Referred Back to Committee
LWVUS Delegate Shares Beijing Experience
I returned from Beijing with a kaleidoscope full of colorful memories, twisting and turning, providing glimpses into the lives of women and their families from all corners of the world. How different our lives are from each other and yet, how connected we felt as we gathered in preparation for the Fourth U.N. Conference on Women held in Beijing September 1995.
The actual conference, a relatively staid affair, consisting this time of official delegations appointed by governments of over 180 countries, was preceded by the more boisterous NGO Forum. The Forum had been relocated to Huairou, a nearby town, by the Chinese government, amidst much uproar from the world's delegations. It was at the Forum that the delegation from the League of Women Voters of the United States elected to spend most of its time.
Setting off, our minds were filled with rumors, matched only by the rumors floating among the Chinese. We were going to be faced daily, we had heard, by three hour bus trips, each way, from Beijing to Huairou. We and our luggage would be searched and any pornographic material or documents espousing democracy would be confiscated. The three of us were certainly not carrying any pornography but we did have suitcases and boxes full of workshop materials about how citizens can and should influence their government-after all, isn't that what the League is all about? We anticipated painful hours going through customs and obtaining our coveted credentials to the Forum.
On the other hand, the Chinese were apparently told to anticipate multitudes of prostitutes, HIV/AIDS carriers, lesbians and nudists. Word has it that police at the airport and at Tiananmen Square had been trained to use sheets and blankets to cover all the naked bodies.
Mostly all those rumors proved to be false. Only one box was searched and nothing was taken, not even the booklets entitled "Making Grassroots Democracy Work." Obtaining credentials was a breeze and there was never a traffic jam on our way to and from Huairou. And I never saw a naked body.
On site we certainly heard accounts, early on, of "harassment" on the part of Chinese delegates and police although we personally experienced no harassment, only monitoring. Police questioned our taxi drivers as to where we had come from and a policeman always kindly called an elevator for us in the hotel. A fellow American did leave our hotel grounds the first morning to buy bottled water and four policemen refused to let her photograph the street scene, probably a case of overzealousness prompted by all those rumors!
We had decided that, given our LWVUS positions which were not expected to be in any danger during the Conference negotiations, to concentrate on establishing a League presence at the Forum. Bobbie Hill had planned two workshops for us to give, good core League stuff: Making Grassroots
Democracy Work and How to Conduct Debates and Candidates Nights. Even though our workshops were very practical and skills oriented and seemed boring to me considering the plethora of workshops filled with stories, critical issues and data on women from around the world, we were filled to capacity. Participants were eager to learn how to move their agendas forward, particularly in countries where democracy is still coming of age or where women's interests have not been well served: Zambia, Dakar, The Gambia, Philippines, Kenya, Thailand, South Africa, Pakistan, Isle of Man, Hungary, India, Belarus among others.
Probably our worst moment was as the three of us tottered through the rain from the bus stop to our first workshop. In true League tradition we had a mountain of handouts. Bobbie was carrying what felt like at least sixty pounds in a backpack and I was dragging my stewardess's suitcase full to the gills. We considered it a great victory that we w ent back empty-handed! Communication at Huairou was a great problem. Although we had names of a number of Leaguers who had planned to come there was no organized way to invite them, scattered among many different hotels, to a reception that we had planned for us all. But at least word of mouth brought several dozen of us together to share our experiences, memorialized by Honolulu's videotaping!
Leaguers seem to be gluttons for punishment. By the time our second workshop rolled around, the next to last day of the Forum, a good dozen Leaguers chose to come to hear what we had to say. Can you imagine traveling across up to twelve time zones for a League workshop?
No, the site was not ideal and not fully finished by the start of the Forum. Tents and makeshift "balloon tents" kept inflated by noisy generators substituted for two unfinished shells of large buildings. Yes, it rained, walkways began to sink and sometimes there was no way to avoid the mud. Those in wheelchairs had to fight for accessibility. But delegates who had worked hard to raise money for the trip and worried about the visa process were not to be diverted from their goals. They were there to share their stories, solicit help and ideas for problem solving and, above all, to make sure that the government delegations came to agreement on issues vital to them during the official proceedings in Beijing.
First reports indicate that more progress than anticipated was made in the final agreement. Building on consensus reached in earlier UN conferences, the document calls for, among other things, the abolition of violence on women and girls, including wartime rape; closing the gender gap in education; increasing women's access to credit; and states that women have the right to "decide freely on matters related to their sexuality".
Agreement on the document does nothing immediately to change women's lives but women and men around the world can now point to that agreement as a standard which their government and their society should strive for. In order to strengthen our society each of us needs to examine practices around us which inhibit women from reaching their full potential.
But the rumors, the abbreviated media reports looking for troubles and even the intense word-smithing of the Conference obscure what was really going on in Huairou. Each participant has different stories, different moments which will remain with her or him always. But we all felt that we were part of something important, yes, perhaps even historic. Although real change usually comes glacially, Huairou and Beijing were a moment when significant progress seemed actually possible. There was a sense that women around the world are waking up, gaining strength from each other and refusing to accept any longer that the way the world is, is the way that it has to be.
Undoubtedly, the roadblocks erected by the Chinese in addition to questions over their violations of human rights, the detention and subsequent expulsion of Harry Wu and the suspense over whether Hillary Clinton would attend gave the Conference a much higher profile than it might have had otherwise. However, each UN Conference on women has grown in participation over the past twenty years since the initial one in Mexico City; I could feel the momentum at Huairou. Only time will tell whether the necessary "critical mass" was reached.
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