Is this an international feminist movement that is being launched, reborn or solidified as many are saying here? Is it business as usual for the United Nations, that business being anything but feminist, with women's rights being shoved aside in favor of the politics of rhetoric, confrontation and one-upmanship?
There is not, it seems, anyone connected with the events of the past few weeks here who has not been asking and answering these sorts of questions. Often they are concluding that their differing perceptions are not mutually exclusive.
The world meeting for non-governmental organizations to discuss the close of the U. N. Decade for Women ended last week. The official two-week U. N. conference to review and appraise the achievements of the Decade for Women ends Friday.
Thousands of the 14,000 women who attended the non-governmental organizations forum at the University of Nairobi have returned to their homes or gone on safari. They ended their forum without marching on the U. N. delegates across town, as had been urged by one ad hoc group.
Dame Nita Barrow of Barbados, the forum convenor, had talked them out of it, asking that they not embarrass the Kenyan government that required, and enforced strictly, permits for public marches and demonstrations.
They had wanted to challenge the delegates to respond to their concerns, present them with petitions and resolutions that had come out of their workshops or organizing efforts, and urge them not to get bogged down in traditional U. N. issues at the expense of women's issues. And, at the same time, some of women who wanted to march, had some political demands of their own for statements about international tensions, such as apartheid, the status of Palestinians, of migrant workers and refugees.
They did not march. But now they are lobbying the delegates and watchdogging the proceedings. A considerable number of Forum women remain here, many of them leaders of non-governmental organizations that have consultative or observer status with the U. N.
To step into the plenary hall where the line-up of nation after nation has been delivering status reports, or replying to another nation's insults or challenges, is to hear women's condition discussed. However, it is often to hear women's condition described as oppressed and problematic the world over with the exception of the country at the podium--where enormous progress, even though it wasn't needed, has been made. Or if problems are acknowledged to exist at home, they are often blamed entirely on outside forces.
In addition to the plenary session, two committees have been debating paragraph by paragraph, at times word by word, the central document of the conference, the "forward-looking strategies," a plan of action for the years 1986-2000. As the conference began, about 87 of its 372 paragraphs were "bracketed," unresolved at regional preparatory meetings. They have been adopting, amending, entertaining new resolutions, and often, referring matters to a closed negotiating committee. Their deadline was midnight, Wednesday, and few people thought that committee--where most of the more controversial sections are under consideration, such as women and children under apartheid, Palestinian women and children, and resolutions on terrorism and Afghan refugees--could possibly reach consensus.
Women are proving that longstanding political tensions and grievances concern them as much as their male colleagues. (Alan Keyes, the only male in the U.S. delegation, and ambassador the to U. N. Economic and Social Council, is the main U. S. negotiator for this committee although Maureen Reagan, the chair, is often in the room, and has said that nothing is negotiated without her sign-off.)
For all of the acrimony and stalling, however, even here progress is made, paragraphs and sections adopted, consensus reached. The members are down for the count now on the subjects everyone knew would be difficult from the start.
In fact, few here are calling the conference or the decade a failure. Quite the opposite. And among those most positive, are those who have been most involved for a long time.
"I hope we reach consensus," Kathy Bonk, an attorney for the National Organization for Women's Legal Defense Fund in Washington said. "But even if we walked out of here with those unbracketed paragraphs, there's a lot there we could work with. It's encouraging. . . . In a bigger perspective, this is truly an international women's rights movement. History has been made here. Women are committed to seeing it happen."
To understand what has been going on in Nairobi, it is necessary to know what has been happening in the decade.
The United Nations Commission on the Status of Women, established in 1947, provided the impetus for the General Assembly's proclamation of an International Women's Year (IWY) in 1975. In doing so it called for action to promote equality, the involvement of wome1847617902recognition of women's role in strengthening peace and promoting friendly relations among nations.
The main event of IWY was the world conference on women held in Mexico City, attended by more than 1,000 delegates representing 133 nations--speaking and voting as countries and not individuals.
A world plan of action, drafted by the Commission on the Status of Women, setting forth minimum goals--such as the eradication of illiteracy--to improve the status of women was debated, amended and adopted at the conference.
Helvi Sipila of Finland, secretary general of the Mexico conference, assessed its significance here in Nairobi on the eve of the current meeting.
"It was a time," she said, "when women in the world started to make world policy. They formed the majority of the delegations, 75% and 85% of the delegation heads were women."
The plan incorporated almost all of the recommendations that the commission and grass-roots organizations around the world had been working on for 30 years, she said.
"It was the first socioeconomic program that humankind has had in common," Sipila said, concentrating on women, but improving the situation for everyone.
The General Assembly adopted the plan in December, 1975, established 1976-1985 as the U.N. Decade for Women: equality, development and peace, and called for a mid-decade conference.
The conference also approved a draft convention on the elimination of all forms of discrimination against women, subsequently adopted by the General Assembly in 1979 and, to date, ratified by 76 countries.
The U. S. signed the convention in 1980 and President Carter then submitted it to the Senate for ratification. It remains there, undergoing analysis.
"Our signing it was not an insignificant step," Rebecca Cook, a staff attorney for Columbia University's development law and policy program, said here recently. "The U.S. has signed and ratified so few international conventions. Signing means a state can't act contrary to the principles of the convention.
Once ratified, Cook said, the nation has to pursue all appropriate measures to adhere to it and report back to the U.N. on its progress. The American Bar Assn. recommended its adoption last year, with reservations, she said: Certain articles should be subject to the authority of state and local government.
"Do I expect we'll ratify it?" Cook asked. "Not within our lifetime. Although maybe they might with these reservations."
A third document, "the declaration of Mexico," was adopted, laying out principles on which actions should be based. Although most of its principles were acceptable to the U.S., it rejected it since it called Zionism racism.
It was this latter controversy that claimed much of the world attention focused on the Mexico City conference. The word politicized became permanently, and usually pejoratively, attached to the decade. On a more positive side, so did "consciousness raising."
As would later be the case at the mid-decade conference in Copenhagen and end decade one in Nairobi, a parallel conference for non-governmental organizations took place in Mexico City at the same time. About 6,000 women attended.
Arvonne Fraser, senior fellow and director of the Women, Public Policy and Development Project at the University of Minnesota's Hubert H. Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs, was an adviser to the U. S. delegation at Mexico, a member of the delegation at Copenhagen and is here at Nairobi as an non-governmental organizations participant, with the International Human Rights Program. She has studied, commented and written extensively on the Decade for Women. She has called the forums freer and more wide-ranging than the more conservative governmental conferences, and described a forum as "a place for networking . . . at the NGO forums, new leadership emerges."
At the first forum there was much exchange and confrontation between women from different regions of the world. It was immediately and accurately described as the world's largest consciousness-raising session.
While it was described as a learning experience by many who attended (Gracia Molina Pick of San Diego, who has been at all three forums, would later say of Mexico, "we had a good fight"), a real perceived commonality of interests seems to have eluded participants, who saw some of each other's concerns as off the point or not related to theirs. The polarities remained.
Plan of Action
One of the problems addressed in the plan of action was the scarcity of research available of the status of women. That situation improved sufficiently during the next five years that when the mid-decade meetings were held in Copenhagen, the bad news was available:
"While women represent 50% of the world population and one-third of the official labor force, they perform nearly two-thirds of all working hours, receive only one-tenth of the world income and own less than 1% of world property."
There were also some achievements to note. An international institute for research and training for the advancement of women was established to study what kind of development women needed. In addition, the U. N. voluntary fund for the Decade of Women was created to assist women in developing nations. By 1980 it was supporting 300 projects with $22 million. Today the projects exceed 400.
The Copenhagen conference drew 1,326 delegates from 145 states. Another 8,000 women attended the forum. These were the most volatile of the decade's conferences, especially regarding the conflict between Palestinians and Israelis. Palestinians and their supporters attended in large numbers and raised their issues at every opportunity. Israelis and their supporters, especially American Jews, described themselves as "outnumbered" and came away "traumatized"--a commonly used word to describe the experience.
A program of action was adopted, adding subthemes of employment, health and education to the areas of concern.
Feminist Agenda Broadened
"The international feminist agenda was considerably broadened," Lucille Mair of Jamaica, secretary general of the Copenhagen conference, said here in Nairobi. It called for the establishment of "national machinery" such as bureaus and commissions and offices to promote the status of women. (The United States did not establish such machinery, although there are hundreds of state, county and municipal commissions.) As is evident from the Nairobi meetings, numerous such agencies now exist. There were resolutions on the elderly, disabled, young, drug abusers, refugees, prostitutes and battered women. The boundaries of sisterhood were being expanded.
It was an agenda the United States could not support, due, once again, to references about Zionism as a form of racism. Along with Israel, Canada and Australia, it voted against the program. There were 94 yeas and 22 abstentions.
Mair was positive about the conference in her remarks here, especially about the work leading up to it. One of the most significant features of these world meetings, she said, and other observers of the decade have singled out the same phenomenon, is the preparatory work. Numerous regional conferences involve agencies, women and governments forcing attention and focus on the issues, and drawing women into their countries political processes.
Whatever the outcome in Nairobi , does it matter? Nothing to come out of the United Nations is legally binding or enforceable.
"What we know has happened is that we are beginning to set standards," Willie Campbell, president of the Overseas Education Fund International and an observer here, said. "We are beginning to know what standards are. Men in governments who don't know what women believe--now those governments and organizations are beginning to look, to change their ways of thinking and concepts of issues and, eventually, structures."
She was no less positive than Arvonne Fraser, who said, "This decade has been worth about 100 years. It's a quantum leap women all over the world have taken, and at the NGO Forum where 60% of the women were from the Third World, we came together here. There's a new respect for diversity.
"The power of women is understood by every government. They see us as a political force now. They recognize us as serious people, not crazy ladies. There is a toughness here . . . and for women, an Indian woman said it best to me. She said all women have come to understand that in terms of the world, women are developing all over the world. For women, the whole world is the developing world."