More than 200 NOW members traveled to China for the powerful, unprecedented U. N. Fourth World Conference on Women.
The conference drew more women representing more countries than ever before. The number of attendees in China was more than double that of the last U.N. women's conference, held in Nairobi in 1985.
NOW President Patricia Ireland and National Secretary Karen Johnson represented NOW among the 7,000 accredited non-governmental organization (NGO) delegates to the U.N conference. All together, more than 30,000 women and men from more than 180 countries attended the NGO Forum, the conference's sister event, which took place in Huairou, a rural town outside Beijing.
"The experience was very powerful, very uplifting," said Johnson. "Women, no matter what their circumstances, came with a lot of hope and excitement." Johnson was most impressed with women fighting for their lives in war-torn countries; women struggling for survival from AIDS in Africa, where AIDS is considered a "woman's disease"; and the Chinese women who reflect a sense of optimism that their situation will improve.
In contrast to mainstream media coverage, which focused on the negative, Johnson tells of women singing together songs of hope and resolve, women unable to speak the same language sharing and helping one another, Chinese security guards getting caught up in the moving opening ceremony, and the many empowering demonstrations that took place on the grounds each day. A popular action was a youth demonstration chanting "What do we want? Everything! When do we want it? Now!"
A primary aim for NOW activists at the forum and conference was to expand our involvement in the global community of women and women's right supporters, according to the NOW mission statement for the events.
Barbara Hays-Hamilton, NOW's chapter and state development director presented two workshops at the NGO Forum on grassroots organizing; and on planning actions, assisted by Naomi Grupp and Anna Frieberg of NOW New York. Johnson led one on consciousness-raising and advertising and women's health. The workshops were well attended, including women from New Zealand, North Korea, Germany, India, China and Sudan. And NOW activists were well-received. "Whenever we talked about NOW we got a positive response from the women of the world," Johnson said.
It was also NOW's intent to provide a strong feminist influence on the deliberations of the "Platform for Action." The adoption of the document, a blueprint for the advancement of women throughout the world, was one of the main objectives of the conference.
Johnson says "NOW's influence was considerable prior to Beijing" in ensuring that the platform includes strong language, especially in the area of reproductive rights. NOW leaders were vocal in U.N. preparatory meetings and in working with the State Department.
The platform was approved by consensus after 12 days of lengthy negotiations. Johnson calls it "a step forward."
Johnson is pleased that much of the hard-fought language decided on last year in Cairo at the U.N. Conference on Population and Development remains in the platform. In addition to for the first time calling for women's sexual and reproductive autonomy, key items assert women's inheritance rights and affirm that women's rights should take priority over cultural traditions.
A casualty of the all-night deliberations was the inclusion of "sexual orientation" in the antidiscrimination clauses of the document. However, Johnson said that lesbian rights activists made significant progress at the conference. They got some 40 additional countries to support the platform language. And they drew warm interest in workshops, booths and demonstrations from the mostly straight conference participants from all over the world.
Ireland and Special Projects Director Wanda Alston were co-leaders of a 30-member NOW delegation participating in a U.S./China Joint Conference on Women's Issues. The week-long conference sponsored by People to People, a Citizen Ambassador Program based in Spokane, Wash., centered around working sessions with our Chinese counterparts.
Approximately 500 U.S. women representing a variety of organizations and academic institutions participated in these working sessions. The participants were from such fields as science, technology, medicine, sports and business, which gave NOW leaders an opportunity to network not only with Chinese women on issues such as the glass ceiling, but with U.S. women as well.
The Chinese women reported that while women make up approximately 30 percent of the work force in the higher-paid professional fields such as engineering, technology and medicine, as they move up into top management positions that number drops to about five percent.
One reason given for this is the mandatory 55-year-old retirement age for Chinese women, a requirement not imposed on the men. At a time when women have mastered their professions, their children are grown and they have the time and the knowledge to move ahead they are required to retire.
There were many similarities between the U.S and Chinese women. Both groups recognized the need to work together to turn the tide on discrimination and human rights violations of women and children worldwide.
NOW's part in the U.N. Fourth World Conference on Women becomes more evident upon return to the U.S. The fact that the Platform for Action is not legally binding means NOW and other organizations must call for its implementation. "The NGO's are the ones who make the document happen. We can push for our governments to follow through," Johnson said, a point that Hillary Rodham Clinton stressed in her speech in China.
To continue the momentum of Beijing, Johnson says holding town meetings and regional meetings in the U.S., now that there is a larger network to assemble, would be productive. Johnson also says pushing for a mid-decade conference to take place in the year 2000, rather than waiting until 2005 for another U.N. women's conference, would be advisable.
In addition to the platform, thousands of women have returned home with a real sense of "the many women working in their own communities to make the world a better place to live," Johnson said. "People are saying that this conference helped increase their resolve as activists and highlighted the importance of activism."
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