Analysis : Women’s Conference Ends With Plans for the Future

Times Staff Writer

Shortly before dawn last Saturday, Margaret Kenyatta picked up her gavel and looked out one last time at the plenary hall of the conference center that bears the name of her father, Jomo Kenyatta, Kenya’s founding father.

The room was filled with several thousand exhausted people who had been there, or in the corridors outside, since 10 a.m. Friday. The floral arrangements surrounding the dais had wilted and died. The last fresh air had been let in from the back doors at 6 p.m. The floor was a sea of trampled resolutions, documents and scribbled notes. The tables were littered with Coke bottles and candy wrappers, overflowing ashtrays, souvenirs of Nairobi or the conference, defunct earphones and headsets for translation, and more draft versions of documents suddenly not worth the paper they were printed on.

Conference Ends

Out of sight, in an upstairs corridor off the hall, an Iranian woman had stolen away from her delegation and sat, sunken in a deep leather chair, shoes off and navy blue-socked feet on the coffee table in front of her, her black chador pulled down over her face, dead to the world.


As president of the proceedings, Kenyatta said, “I now declare the world conference to review and appraise the achievements of the United Nations Decade for Women: Equality, Development and Peace over.” Her gavel came down, and the delegates made their way out, too spent for much cheering or tears, but with the weary satisfaction of those who had weathered a storm.

Scheduled to conclude at midnight, the conference had raged on. Consensus (a unanimous vote) had long since stopped seeming anything more than a quixotic dream. A walkout by Israel or the United States had continued to loom as a distinct probability since Thursday. There had been moments Friday and early Saturday, in fact, when it seemed that the good will and productive work of the first week or so of the two-week-long conference might fall apart altogether.

And then, about 3 a.m., the central document under consideration, the “Forward Looking Strategies of Implementation for the Advancement of Women for the Period up to the Year 2000,” was adopted by consensus.

That done, the delegates turned to the 105 resolutions introduced during the proceedings. Some had been debated, amended and approved in committee, some remained in dispute, some had merely been introduced into the record. By 3:30 a.m., the conference had agreed by consensus to take the entire lot and list them as unfinished business in the final draft of the Forward Looking Strategies and report of the conference, and advise governments to take appropriate action.


All that remained were the thank yous and congratulatory remarks. Leticia Shahani, the conference secretary-general, declared the conference “a triumph both for the United Nations and for the world.” In spite of the hour, it seemed every delegation there would find the strength to utter something.

Denmark, the country that had hosted the mid-decade conference, proposed that the Forward Looking Strategies be known hereafter as the Nairobi Forward Looking Strategies for the Advancement of Women. Zambia so seconded, mentioning in the process that the outcome of the conference “was a proud moment for Africa.”

And the Africans cheered and the others cheered for them. And Margaret Kenyatta delivered some remarks she had written that made the same point in more detail.

What had been perfectly obvious from the beginning began to make itself fully felt--what an important occasion this had been for Kenya, and for Africa. Kenya had a lot riding on this conference. It had taken a risk, hosting what could have been a debacle or a nightmare, or simply the world at its diplomatic worst.

A Success

Nairobi was like Los Angeles the morning after the Olympics. More than 15,000 people, most of them women, had come to this city for what was being called the largest meeting of women in history. The conference had gone off without incident. It had gone so well, in fact, that history had been made, and the Kenyans had played on-stage and behind-the-scenes roles in bringing it off. It was a success.

Everyone declared themselves, and the women of the world, winners. The Israelis emerged with a historic precedent--for the first time since 1975 the “infamous resolution” calling Zionism a form of racism would not appear in and was deleted from a U.N. document. The Palestinians emerged as statesmen for not insisting on a reference to Zionism, and for persuading the Iranians follow suit.

Egypt got high marks for leading the Group of 77 (an alliance of developing nations) through some intricate negotiations and introducing some compromise procedures. Pakistan was another skillful negotiator. Even the Soviet Union, insistent at one point on the Zionism paragraph, was acknowledged by Group of 77 members as having helped secure its deletion. Canada was a lucid, focused presence. Kenya came through and was credited with using its position as host to save the day.


And the United States left with what it said it had come for--a document adopted by consensus that did not include a pejorative reference to Zionism.

U.S. Was Tough

The United States had played hardball, not compromised its policies, entered its reservations (a diplomatic way to avoid a roll call vote without affecting the consensus) preferring equal pay for equal work rather than comparable work; pushed for a roll call vote on a paragraph regarding coercive economic and political measures against sovereign states (it was understood to be a veiled reference to U.S. actions against Nicaragua) and then abstained with the rest of its allies.

It had insisted on a vote regarding the new international economic order (a redivision of the economic pie in favor of the Third World), refusing the direct request of Margaret Kenyatta to register the U.S protest in the form of reservations in order to save time. Maureen Reagan, head of the U.S. delegation, had snapped at Kenyatta in response, “Our reservations will be reflected in the vote.” It had voted against the section on Palestinian women and children, which called for Palestinian self-determination, criticized Israeli occupation of disputed territory and Israeli policies toward Palestinians. It had stood alone among nations, to the dismay of many Americans not part of the official delegation, on the section condemning apartheid. It had voted against the condemnation, because it said, it violated U.S. policy on economic sanctions.

(Reagan, in a press conference Wednesday after her return to the United States, criticized Western allies for failing to publicly support the United States at key times during the conference. “I think the West Europeans by and large let us carry the ball a great many times when it would be very nice if they would join us,” she said. But Reagan said the women’s conference resulted in victory because the Forward Looking Strategies did not have a paragraph equating Zionism with racism. “We came home . . . with a document, and it doesn’t say Zionism, so we think it’s a first-class win . . . .” She also said she believed that the final document reflected “the very best dreams and ambitions of women.”)

U.S. Got What It Wanted

To many of the other nations, the United States, the country that had urged a spirit of compromise, compromised very little itself. They tended to see the American delegation as throwing its weight around. Clearly the United States was “king of the mountain” and got what it wanted. But it was a performance many thought lacked grace. Afterward, Leticia Shahani, was heard remarking to Betty Friedan, “if only they could have been more gracious.”

It was over. Outside, taxi drivers stood in the dark, waiting. Moments later, one young man turned to his quiet passenger and said, “well, we have been waiting to hear all night. How did it end? Did they adopt by consensus?”


After being brought up to date, he sighed and said, “How we are going to miss having you here.”

The Kenyans had had their guests for three weeks. And guests and Kenyans alike seemed to sense they had been witness to something extraordinary as the world gathered to assess the Decade for Women.

At the very least they had witnessed a fascinating political drama in which the nations of the world had negotiated effectively, kept sight of the larger goal and committed themselves to a strong plan of action for women.

More than that, however, they had been witnessing for three weeks a dramatic illustration of what had been happening with women during the decade.

Perhaps a small percentage of the world’s women are even aware that there has been a decade dedicated to their advancement. Whether they are aware, the decade in question, 1975 to 1985, has seen events drastically counterproductive to women’s progress. As was noted frequently at the meetings, almost to the point of being a collective consensus, a rise in fundamentalism in all the world’s major religions is at times on a collision course with feminism. The world economy has worsened, and its negative effects on women’s employment and living circumstances have been drastic. The world is not at peace, and while women are in the forefront of citizen efforts to promote peace and disarmament, they are not at the table where war and peace are negotiated, where decisions are made to send in the troops. Rather they are victims--killed, injured or dislocated in the process. The decade has seen the world refugee population grow to 10 million--about 80% of whom are women and children.

In assessing the decade at one point during the conference, Leticia Shahani said it had served as a mechanism and a symbol. It had given governments and private agencies a set of standards and a time frame, it had encouraged the establishment of bureaus and commissions to implement and monitor progress and served as a mechanism for reporting regularly at five-year intervals, measuring and reassessing progress.

It was up to governments to implement the guidelines, she said. Legal progress has been made, but much of it remains de jure equality and not de facto . Data had been collected, she said but it was not yet being used to formulate policy in implement programs.

What had begun as a fairly general set of goals at the Mexico City conference in 1975 and progressed to more programmatic outlines at the 1980 Copenhagen conference, she said was more concrete and specific in Nairobi. Many areas of special concern had been identified, such as refugees, migrants, disabled, aging and women under occupation.

That is what has shown up in the documents of the decade. Beyond that, something has been going on with women during the decade--the evidence was unmistakable at Nairobi. The consensus seemed to be that in the course of the decade as was evidenced by the three world gatherings, women had become more sophisticated, politicized and, in a word, feminized. By the time they reached Nairobi, they saw an international commonality to their issues. Their issues were political, and political issues were their issues. They would discuss them. They would resist efforts by governments, as one black woman from New York said, to “kitchenize the issues.” The decade had been described over and again as a time of consciousness-raising and networking that had gone on as a continuance, not in three isolated events. At Nairobi, the evidence was there, that what was taking place was work in progress.

At the University of Nairobi, where the unofficial forum for non-governmental participants was held from July 10-19, the final day was a continual illustration of this consciousness-raising networking and work in progress.

At a workshop on the “convention on the elimination of all forms of discrimination against women,” run by Arvonne Fraser, director of the Women’s Public Policy and Development Project at the Hubert Humphrey Institute in Minnesota, people were discussing the implementation of the convention that has been ratified by 77 nations to date. A similar workshop had been held each day of the Forum, and each day women packed the classroom sitting on the floor between desks.

A discussion got under way at one point between a woman from Ireland, another from Nigeria and a third from Zambia. The speaker, Monica Barnes, a member of Ireland’s parliament, Dail Eireann, was explaining that in her traditional conservative country they had not been able to sign and ratify the convention because of women’s rights within marriage. “We’re a member of the European community,” she said, “but we have strong laws on employment and labor and enforce them. But women’s rights within marriage--there’s an awful lot to do.”

When she described a piece of legislation that had been introduced recently, that would remove the status of illegitimacy from children and apply equal rights to all children, a woman from Nigeria raised her hand, she was as concerned as the Irish woman about the problem, but afraid the law would encourage infidelity. Barnes disagreed, saying she thought it would increase the male sense of responsibility. Then the lawyer from Zambia got up, equally caught in the dilemma, and raised the problem of what if the illegitimate children ended up impoverishing the widow, by taking her inheritance. Nothing was resolved among the three women. All that was obvious was their mutual concern and their mutual laughter when Barnes remarked, “I have a feeling people don’t read statutes prior to their actions. What I’m concerned about is the welfare of the children.”

Impact of Multinationals

Downstairs, in the same building, a workshop on the impact of multinational corporations and alternate development projects lent much to the definition of what is meant by networking and where it may be taking women who are committed to the long haul.

A speaker for Isis International, a Rome-based computerized information service and clearinghouse, was telling how they were “mobilizing women into a global women’s movement.”

She was followed by a speaker from the Latin American Women and Health Network, at work holding regional meetings and organizing groups around such topics as reproduction, abortion, breast feeding, labor, family planning, pregnancy, mental health.

After her, the representative from the Latin American Network for Women in Communication described her organization as an “alternative to the international system of communications that is trying to transform women into one type, an international feminine model. Our efforts are to break away from this hegemony.”

Next came the Women’s Network on Global Corporations, whose representative said, “Women’s goals are being frustrated by multinationals. We’re trying to build a network in six industries. Three are where women are highly concentrated--electronics, textile and garments, and agribusiness and food production. Three are where the women’s movement is strong--media, pharmaceuticals, and tourism. There are many networks in the Third World that are dealing with prostitution and tourism. We’ve had an impact. We helped organize the Nestle campaign (against infant formula exports to Third World countries). We’re going to fight against nuclear weapons industry.”

Hazardous Work Conditions

Collectively, what this workshop was up to, as the resolutions indicated, was action to come down on industries for hazardous working conditions. Another resolution urged that they “hook up” the international debt crisis to women’s issues. This resolution, offered by the Debt Crisis Network of Washington, D.C., was collecting specific information regarding a situation of women and the debt crisis, the speaker said, “to give concrete examples to Congress to offset the testimony from the State Department and the Agency for International Development.” A woman from Mexico, offered her testimony on the debt crisis on the spot. She talked about inflation, low salaries, family disintegration and child labor, equally concerned about lending nations and borrowers who borrow for development that never happens.

There was more testimony from the Committee for Asian Women Industrial Workers, from the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, from the Pan-African Women’s Trade Unionist Organization.

They ended discussing the feasibility of highlighting one multinational corporation per year, launching a campaign to improve the situation for women workers in that corporation and to improve other activities of the corporations.

Outside, Sissy Farenthold, a former Texas Democrat, and 40 women from 15 countries who call themselves the Feminist International for Peace and Food were getting ready to dismantle the Peace Tent. It had been one of the most praised features of the Forum.

Peace a Feminist Issue

Farenthold had described it earlier as a feminist alternative to men’s conflict and war, saying that peace is a feminist issue and that peace is not going to be neglected at this conference.

People gathered at the Peace Tent in the mornings to meditate, took brief breaks there during the day when it was quiet and not in use. They sang “no more war” type songs there, planted a tree there on African soil, with soil from the United States and the Soviet Union, held a Hiroshima-Nagasaki rememberance there, and confronted each other over some of the world’s most volatile issues. There was a dialogue between the United States and the Soviet Union, a dialogue on peace given by Latin American women, a dialogue between Palestinians and Israelis.

They dealt with those volatile issues in an alternative way. The ground rules--no applause, no cheering; thumbs up for agreement, thumbs down for disagreement; after after five speakers, a song; a 10-minute limit per speaker.

Nothing in the Peace Tent had been more tense, more moving and possibly more effective than the Palestinian and Israeli dialogue. After it was over, Sissy Farenthold, eyes bloodshot, and tired looking, smiled gently and admitted, “I had three sleepless nights over it. I wanted the opportunity for everyone to talk and be listened to, I hope that was achieved.”

Amid the last day of the Forum, inside Taifa Hall, one who helped organize that dialogue was telling the closing panel about it.

‘Dialoguing With Israelis’

Sawzia Hassouna, a Palestinian from Washington, D.C., said, in reference to the dialogue at the Peace Tent, “I started dialoguing with Israelis here. It was the first time. I want to follow it up with a meeting in Geneva between Palestinian and Israeli women--before it is too late for that and we have a nuclear war.” Hassouna said that “before we were undermining each other. Then we moved from that to confrontation. The next stage, where we are now, is dealing with each other equally. We have come to realize that our oppression is all manufactured by the same phenomenon of patriarchy. Nobody is more liberated than another.”

At that same closing panel of the Forum, one had only to be there when a Maasai woman came forward to speak to sense just how far-reaching have been the effects of this decade.

Her youth gone, but not yet old, she belongs to one of Kenya’s least developed tribes. She was wearing the traditional stiff, circular beaded collar of Maasai married women over a cheap lavender acrylic cardigan and sarong-style skirt, and she had a knit hat on her head.

She stepped up to the microphone, adjusted it to her height and started speaking in Swahili, her strong dry voice filling the hall, her tired face taking on animation as she talked and smiled, revealing her broken teeth. The translation system had been experiencing difficulty, and only some people caught the full text of her remarks. Many more listened to the rhythmic, repetitious pattern of her Swahili. Something about her had placed a hush on the room.

It was said later by people who had understood or caught the translation to be a speech about the need to organize politically and come together. Those who had only heard the sounds, had heard her repeat amani over and over. Amani is a word that means peace, security, safety, confidence.