Justice still eludes women
The Hindu (India), June 21, 2000

The growing role of the NGOs as watchdogs of the U.N. process and of their own governments lends credibility to events such as Beijing+5.

THE 23RD Special Session of the United Nations General Assembly (UNGASS) to review the implementation of the Platform For Action (PFA) of the 1995 Beijing Women's Conference - popularly known as Beijing+5 - took place during June 5-9 this year. Attended by thousands of government delegates and non-governmental observers, this was truly a mega event. However, women round the world may ask: do such mega U.N. events, full of sound and fury, signify anything at all to them? Can they lead to any change?

One answer could be that within the unipolar world of today, the U.N. still seems to serve a purpose, if only to give credence and weight to certain ideals and concerns for which struggles are being waged throughout the world. Further, the growing role of the NGOs as watchdogs of the U.N. process and of their own Governments lends credibility to events such as Beijing+5.

What is the role played by the NGOs in this high drama? Do they 'do their country proud' in the international arena, or do they stay committed to gender justice?

For the NGOs, the behind-the-scenes actors in the U.N. drama - only five of them were allowed to address the Assembly very briefly - the PFA was not just an international document to pay lip service to, as it is to most of the political delegates, but was the "culmination of women's struggles for justice in their diverse contexts around the world and an embodiment of their vision and hopes for a society that recognises women's rights as human rights," as an NGO at Beijing+5 put it. One example of the NGOs asserting their independent judgment, going against the state authorities, is the position taken by the Catholics for a Free Choice, that while the Church builds women's capacity through education, education is not always truly empowering, and a feminist critique is required for the development of methods that combat socialisation, both secular and religious, that undermines women.

The NGO field level experience of the impact of globalisation and structural adjustment policies on women the world over was reflected in the grim observations made in the NGO Alternative Global Report presented to the UNGASS. The report identifies the policies that aggravate feminisation of poverty: privatisation of public services, trade liberalisation, deregulation of economies, withdrawal of subsidies, downsizing of government, substitution of food production by cash crops and failure to monitor and regulate the inflow of foreign capital and enterprise. The final document of Beijing+5 too broadly reflected the same findings. This document can come in handy for member-states and the U.N. to strike hard bargains with international financial institutions and influence their funding policies.

Canada, which tops the ranking among all nations in the Human Development Index, is credited by the Canadian NGO report with a situation where its women continue to experience a "persistent and entrenched economic, legal, social and political disadvantage". It says 17.9 per cent of Canadians live in poverty, a disproportionate number of them women. Single mothers and other "unattached women" are most likely to be poor, with poverty rates reaching as high as 57 per cent for single mothers under 65, and 43 per cent for unattached women over 65. The report claims, "During the 1995-2000 period, women were hit by restructuring of social programmes at both the federal and provincial levels. This has exacerbated the pre-existing condition of women's disproportionate poverty. This is a bitter irony for women... far from implementing the steps set out in the PFA, measures have worsened the situation of Canadian women."

The Alternative Report of the U.S. Sub-region is unsparing in its criticism of the U.S. Government: "A high priority of the PFA is the creation of an enabling environment for women to build and maintain sustainable livelihoods, but despite the current unprecedented period of economic growth in the U.S., too many women and children continue to live in poverty, particularly minority and rural women. More women are working than ever before, but they are working for low pay in insecure jobs where they don't earn enough to adequately support their families. Government policies of the last five years have not only failed to address this issue, but some policy decisions have actually exacerbated the situation."

On the scandalous situation of the U.S. not having ratified yet the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), adopted in 1979 by the U.N. General Assembly, the report says that while the U.S. legislators are out of step with most other governments in the world on this ratification, women advocates in San Francisco have been successful in lobbying for its provisions to become an official part of city functioning on a day-to-day basis - a 1998 city ordinance is expected to positively impact on how San Francisco hires women, how money is spent on them and how services are provided to them. The CEDAW has been taken more seriously by American women's groups than by their Government.

The NGO Alternative Reports show a keen sensitivity to the far- reaching fallout of political events in the regions for women. The new challenges confronting women in the former socialist countries of Europe are captured in this comment in the Central and Eastern Europe report: "The economy in transition, the process of privatisation in the sub-region, has often had negative impacts on women - both in terms of gaining access to assets and in terms of practices of the new private sector. Following the collapse of communism and lack of a new identity, a sudden upsurge of nationalism is threatening diversity, tolerance and peace in the... region. These forces have already proved to be destabilising."

The NGOs have been assessing and monitoring not only Government measures aimed at gender equity but also the funding policies of the World Bank. 'The Women's Eyes on the World Bank', launched in Beijing, is engaged in a study of the Bank's compliance with the commitments it made there in relation to gender equity, participation and consistency. On this evaluation, critical reports on 10 Latin American countries were presented at a symposium as part of an NGO event at the U.N.

The Asia-Pacific report was equally strident in its critique of the "lack of political will to empower women beyond statements of policy and legislation, and the all-too frequent reliance on micro-schemes and initiatives to address macro, systemic or structural problems" of the member-states of the region. The African report claims Africa now is worse off than it was five years ago in terms of armed conflicts, rendering women more vulnerable to violence, HIV and AIDS.

This 'Political Declaration' of the 'Women's and Feminist Movements of Latin America and the Caribbean' is proof that the NGOs that authored the Alternative Report have come of age in terms of their depth of understanding of the dynamics of gender justice: "XXI Century will be the century of women only if it is also the century of democracy, politically, economically and socially but also culturally, privately and intimately... With democratic Governments... and strong civil societies... we shall be able to assume the challenges of the new millennium."

It is such NGOs that learn from one another and go back with increased resolve to build on the civil spaces in their globalising societies that give hope that the sound and fury of such formal U.N. events is not all in vain.