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National NOW Times >> August 1995 >> Article

Anticipation Builds for 4th World Conference on Women

by Sharon Hollon, NOW Intern

NOW National Secretary Karen Johnson, pictured along with NOW President Patricia Ireland will lead NOW's delegation to Beijing.

Anticipation is building for the United Nations Fourth World Conference on Women, which will take place August 30 to September 15. NOW President Patricia Ireland and National Secretary Karen Johnson will be among the 7,000 official delegates from non-governmental organizations (NGOs) in Beijing, China, to observe the conference, and lobby the official delegates.

The goal of this conference is to adopt the "Platform for Action." The Critical Areas of Concern outlined in the Platform include the burden of poverty on women, access to education, violence against women, effects of war or armed conflicts on women, equality in power-sharing and decision-making, and access to mass media. Priority issues for the U.S. include: Human rights of women, including actions to end violence against women; A lifespan approach to health and education; Efforts to balance work and family responsibilities of women and men; Economic security; The importance of nongovernmental organizations as partners in building communities; The full participation of women in political and economic decisionmaking.

The official U.S. representatives to the conference include Hillary Rodham Clinton, Honorary Chair of the U.S. delegation, as well as Chairs Madeline Albright (U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations), Co-Chair Donna Shalala (Secretary of Health and Human Services) and deputy chair former Pennsylvania Congresswoman Marjorie Margolies Mezvinsky.

More than 70 NOW members will attend the NGO Forum from August 30 through September 8 under NOW's auspices. A caucus meeting of NOW members will occur in Beijing. NOW is working with the State Department to focus on issues important to U.S. women, including women's reproductive health.

"Women able to attend the conference will come away with a fantastic sense of being part of the global community," Johnson said. "Our sisters from all over the world will get together at this conference to share stories and strategies and bring these back to the local level.

"Women in local communities can play a role in this movement as well, by working on women's issues that effect their local community: literacy, voter registration, getting feminists elected to local office," Johnson emphasized.

Much of the Platform language was decided in a series of "prepcom" meetings, the most recent of which was held at the United Nations in New York in April. However, some 40 percent of the language of the platform is still under dispute. Members of NOW want to influence the U.S. State Department representatives to the Conference to work for a strongly worded Platform.

An example of the need to maintain strong language came in April when the Vatican challenged the word "gender" because it could include homosexuals and transsexuals. While only an observer at the conference and meetings, the Vatican has powerful allies in some Central American countries. After much debate, it was agreed that gender would be defined at the beginning of the document, and the word became accepted.{See HB 2047 which includes legislation concerning the use of the word "gender" }

Despite the challenges involved in deciding the language, Johnson believes the Platform's merits are worth all the hard work. Another area of recent controversy surrounding the conference arose because of a change in the site of the NGO forum. The Chinese government was initially expecting approximately 15,000 - 20,000 representatives from non-governmental organizations to register as participants in the NGO Forum. Much to the surprise of the Chinese, more than 36,000 applications were received by the United Nations.

Because of the numbers and some structural problems at the former site, the Chinese government decided to change the venue of the NGO Forum from Beijing to a remote, rural town 32 miles northeast of the city. The U.N. has asked the government for better accommodations, and some concessions were made, but the controversy continues.

"The goal of the Fourth World Conference for Women is to empower women and girls globally. Activists from all over the world worked hard to make this conference a reality. However, this conference is just another step in strengthening a global commitment to women and girls," Johnson said. "Much work will be required on our parts after the Conference to ensure that our global community honors its commitment."

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