Beijing+5: No going back

Published : Jun 24, 2000 00:00 IST

The Outcome Document of the U.N. session on women and development deals with the impact of globalisation on women in a serious manner, unlike the Platform For Action that emerged from the Beijing Conference.


I was first to break the golden chains no puppet to your fisted strings I was the first rebel on your earth I was first - "Eve Speaks to God", Kabita Sinha

THE women's decades, from Mexico in 1975 through Copenhagen and Nairobi to Beijing in 1995, saw the powerful assertion of women's historic heritage of rebellion and a reaffirmation of the resolve to retrieve the freedom appropriated from them over severa l centuries in the name of identity, culture, tradition and femininity.

The recent United Nations' General Assembly Special Session (UNGASS) titled "Women 2000: Equality, Development and Peace for the Twenty-First Century", organised in New York between June 5 and 9, was, however, not meant to be another tortuous process of hammering out a compromise out of conflicting commitments of member-states - consultation, lobbying and caucusing, in diplomatic parlance - on gender issues, as in Beijing. Nor was it to be a celebratory event for the masses of women from all over the gl obe, converging in a show of strength and solidarity on the scale of the Beijing event, as this time only non-governmental organisations (NGOs) accredited to the U.N. were allowed to attend the G.A. sessions. It had, in fact, the crucial task of assessin g the mid-term implementation of the Platform for Action (PFA) adopted in Beijing.

In the event, however, the review process of the PFA, right from the stage of the Preparatory Committee meetings for Beijing+5, turned out to be a repeat of the Beijing experience. It was almost a reopening of the Beijing text and the bickering over it, in effect a task for which the Preparatory Committee had no mandate. Consequently, one witnessed the unusual happening of the conference not closing at the scheduled time, but spilling over to the wee hours of the next morning before the Final Outcome Do cument could be adopted.

Critical of the manner in which the document was prepared and discussed, Gita Sen of the Development Alternatives with Women for a New Era (DAWN) said: "The main problem was the way in which this was handled by the U.N. Implementation of a document ought to be evaluated by its implementers only. But here, those who reviewed it were those who had little to do with its implementation. Why should The Holy See, which had nothing to do with implementation, be associated with its review? This should be an acc ountability forum. The U.N. must review how the evaluation of implementation is being done." The absence of this rigour gives a handle to those with very weak commitments to gender equity - religious fundamentalists in this case - to attempt to weaken fo rmulations accepted earlier.

One of the positive aspects of the Outcome Document is that it deals with the impact of globalisation on women in detail unlike the 1995 PFA, which referred only briefly to the impact of globalisation on the increasing inequalities between men and women and noted that "more analysis needs to be done on the subject". While conceding that "the gender impact of these changes had not been systematically evaluated", the Beijing+5 Outcome Document notes: "In a large number of developing countries... changes h ave adversely impacted the lives of women... The benefits of the growing global economy have been unevenly distributed, leading to wider economic disparities, the feminisation of poverty, increased gender inequality including deteriorating work condition s and unsafe working environments, especially in the informal economy and rural areas. While globalisation has brought greater economic opportunities and autonomy to some women, many others have been marginalised owing to deepening inequalities among and within countries."

The document says further: "The application of certain economic policies have had such a negative impact that increases in women's employment often have not been matched by improvements in wages... and working conditions. In many cases, women continue to be employed in low-paid part-time and contract jobs marked by safety and health hazards..." The quaint phrase "certain economic policies" was inserted on the insistence of the North in an attempt to blunt the criticisms of globalisation and structural a djustment policies in the text. Another such North-South verbal tug-of-war yielded this: "Negative consequences of Structural Adjustment Policies (SAP), stemming from inappropriate design and application, (the dilution formula of the North) have continue d to place a disproportionate burden on women, inter alia, through budget cuts in basic social services and health." In other words, it was only the folly of the developing countries' "inappropriate design" and not the concept of SAP that led to budget c uts. Quite inconveniently, just when this issue was being hotly debated in the U.N., a national strike in Argentina, against a 2 per cent cut in the government budget to meet the requirements of the International Monetary Fund (IMF), made headlines.

The delegate for St. Vincent and Grenadines did not mince words in expressing her concern: "The well-being of our small island-state has been rendered vulnerable and more at risk by the adverse effects of globalisation than by natural disasters such as a n active volcano or a hurricane." Even the First Lady of the United States, speaking in a panel discussion at the U.N., noted that "the benefits of globalisation have not reached everybody, including in our country."

The Outcome Document identifies the high costs of external debt servicing, declining terms of international trade, and the non-achievement of the target of 0.7 per cent of the gross national product (GNP) of developed countries for overall official devel opment assistance as reasons for the increasing feminisation of poverty.

A group of NGOs, forming the 'Linkage Caucus', consider that the Outcome Document has strengthened earlier formulations relating to making maternal mortality a health sector priority, education programmes to enable men to practise safer sex, health secto r reforms, honour killing, forced marriage and marital rape, and addressed for the first time issues such as equal participation of women in macro-economic decision making, the right to property and inheritance rights, gender-related grounds for giving a sylum, equality between men and women migrants, increased recognition of specific needs and rights of indigenous women and quotas and other measures to increase women's participation in political parties and parliaments.

Gita Sen finds the stronger actions recommended in the case of so-called honour crimes and marital rape, as well as the reference to the Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), which al lows individuals to bring in complaints about specific violations, to be important breakthroughs achieved in this conference. Another positive development she finds is "the emergence during these negotiations of a new grouping of mainly Latin American an d Caribbean countries (with support from some African and Asian countries), the so-called SLAC countries, which attempted fairly successfully to take positions favouring both economic justice (in South-North terms) and gender justice. SLAC emerged becaus e of the inability of G-77 to withstand the pressure from the conservatives opposing gender justice within G-77."

A favourite formula for poverty eradication canvassed by the North and by international financial institutions - the setting up of micro-credit groups - was the theme of a high-profile panel discussion, which included Hillary Clinton, Ila Bhat of the Sel f-Employed Women's Association (SEWA) and Muhammad Yunus of Grameen Bank fame among others. Hillary Clinton was euphoric, citing the case of a woman in Chile who could not stop kissing the sewing machine, which was bought on a loan and which gave her a s teady income. A more sober assessment of the reality found expression in a seminar on "Globalization, Poverty and Violence in India" in New Delhi last year by several women's organisations. It was noted at the seminar: "We see micro-credit as one of seve ral strategies required to push for women's economic advance and assertion. At the same time, given the inhospitable context provided by the structural adjustment policies, ...such efforts have to be linked to a more holistic approach towards women's eco nomic rights."

For all the high-profile speeches of the U.S. delegates at the conference and its committees, it is worth noting that the U.S. government is yet to ratify CEDAW, adopted by the U.N. in 1979. The Convention, which provides for equal rights for women in po litical, economic, social, cultural, civil and other fields, was ratified by the former Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) and China within a couple of years and by India in 1993.

The Indian government's assessment of its own implementation of the PFA was on expected lines. Conceding that women's access to agricultural land is often the determinant of their income status, the country report critiques the gender inequalities in lan d inheritance and ceiling laws and goes on to promise that effective command over land will be one of the new priorities of the Ninth Five-Year Plan. Lest anyone should imagine that a vigorous implementation of land ceiling laws is on the cards, the docu ment specifies amendments to tenancy and inheritance laws as the solution - a thinly veiled attempt to mask the failure of the Indian land reform effort, which has rendered millions of Indian women extremely vulnerable to poverty and violence.

The government document goes on to claim that "a system of food subsidy is an essential element of food security strategy" - this, in the midst of an all-out attack on the Public Distribution System (PDS). On education, the report admits India has not ye t fulfilled its commitment made at Beijing - that 6 per cent of the GDP would be allocated to education. The proud assertion that 27 public sector banks follow the Central government's credit policies and programmes targeted at specialised sectors and ca tegories and that "it is an encouraging sign that financial institutions are becoming increasingly sensitised to the needs of women and an enabling atmosphere is being created", raises the pertinent question - what will be the response of these banks whe n they are privatised as part of the government agenda?

The government claims credit for the move to provide quotas for women in Parliament - an unjustified claim when it has repeatedly failed to bring up the bill concerned for vote. The government needs to note that Bangladesh has 9.1 per cent representation for women in Parliament, higher than India's 8.9 per cent. Equally, it should note that, according to a study by a U.N. agency, women's share of parliamentary seats in 17 developed and developing countries increased because of positive governmental acti on and quotas.

The Outcome Document was almost sabotaged by the hue and cry raised by the unholy alliance of fundamentalists with the support of a few others - tyranny of the minority, as it was called in the NGO sessions - over references to the sexual and reproductiv e health of women. The document in its draft referred to "increased attention to sexual and reproductive health and reproductive rights of women as adopted in the report of the International Conference on Population Control (ICPD)", with the obscurantist forces objecting to the word 'rights' and to the reference to the ICPD conclusions. A compromise had to be worked out.

Making a further assessment of the implementation of the PFA, the draft document says: "There continues to be a lack of information on and access to appropriate, affordable and quality health care... including sexual and reproductive health care... while some progress has been made, many countries have not reviewed laws containing punitive measures against women who have undergone illegal abortions nor provided post-abortion counselling, education and family planning services, which would help avoid rep eat abortions. The fact that in circumstances where abortion is not against the law, some countries still do not provide abortion and post-abortion services" was watered down. Such obscurantist stance dismayed several NGOs. A lead article in a newspaper noted: "For centuries, a feeling that sexuality and reproduction were indivisible and guided only by a static and linear version of morality, prevailed. This appropriated from women decisions about their bodies and lifestyles. The search is for democracy in private life and the key concept here is autonomy...This will eliminate obligatory heterosexuality, sexual violence, imposed marriages and forced reproduction - the last one, one of the principal causes of mortality and morbidity in the world."

The delegate of the Holy See was pushed to the defensive as he addressed the General Assembly: "... in the end, the Women 2000 document, like the Beijing Platform, would emphasise seemingly endlessly, one issue - sexual and reproductive health - to the d etriment of a holistic view of the health of women and their families, which is so desperately needed to alleviate women's fears." Frances Kissling, President of Catholics For Free Choice, had earlier commented: "We need to apply the implementation of th e PFA to the country called the Holy See. And here we see that enormous strides still need to be made within the Church in terms of recognition of women as people - as competent, capable, moral agents - as equals in the discipleship of Christ."

The Outcome Document emphasises the need to establish time-bound targets, effective monitoring mechanisms and gender mainstreaming in all budgetary processes by member-states to accelerate the process of implementation.

What infused life and vibrancy into the review sessions was the participation of NGOs and women's groups and their live contact with the official mechanisms. The NGOs were committed vigilant groups, watching the sessions keenly and interacting closely wi th U.N. officials and their government delegations. They had produced 100 alternative reports engaging in public debate about what needed to be done.

More than 100 events were organised around the UNGASS where problems of marginalised sections such as indigenous women, women trapped in areas of armed conflict, victims of trafficking in women, women subjected to religious oppression - a documentary on four women stoned to death in Iran was shown - and lesbians subjected to discrimination were discussed. At the end of the session, when there was concern that positions adopted earlier could get compromised, hundreds of women demonstrated outside the U.N . wearing T-shirts that said: "No Going Back".

The fact that the delegates could not even agree on a document within the prescribed time shows how deep-rooted gender equations are at the global level and how revolutionary a concept women's liberation still is. Now all women know not only how powerful their enemies are within the world community but also how empowering their goal would be when realised. This awareness redoubles the vigour of the movement to forge ahead.

The statement issued by the NGOs of Linkage Caucus on the last day of the session ended thus: "It is women's movements that have placed women's empowerment and rights on the world's agenda over the past 25 years. Once more women have come to this review in record numbers as we did for the World Conference in Beijing... We welcome support and partnership with men, with governments, the United Nations and other institutions as we continue the struggle to realise economic justice and all human rights for a ll women in all our diversity in the next decade."

India's Devaki Jain, who opened her speech to an NGO audience, wondering whether she should feel guilty or pleased at having attended all four NGO conferences from Mexico on, drew thunderous applause when she suggested that a conference be organised by N GO women, to which government and U.N. representatives should be invited as observers.

An international women's movement with deep roots in the countries of the world has to monitor continuously the realisation of the Beijing promises. The movement has to remind itself constantly of the rebel status that Eve claimed of god.

Mythily Sivaraman is working president of the Tamil Nadu unit of the All India Democratic Women's Association. She attended the Women 2000 conference.

Sign in to Unlock member-only benefits!
  • Bookmark stories to read later.
  • Comment on stories to start conversations.
  • Subscribe to our newsletters.
  • Get notified about discounts and offers to our products.
Sign in


Comments have to be in English, and in full sentences. They cannot be abusive or personal. Please abide to our community guidelines for posting your comment