Women: Two Steps Forward, One Step Back?
Katha Pollitt
Nation, June 26, 2000

Five years ago, the United Nations' Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing produced a remarkable Declaration and Platform for Action. Adopted unanimously, the documents link women's rights to human rights for the first time in UN history and lay out detailed and ambitious plans for the advancement of girls and women on twelve fronts, including health, political decision-making, education and economic opportunity. The platform calls for universal access to family planning, sex education, equal inheritance rights, and the prevention and punishment of rape and domestic violence, and it condemns job discrimination, forced marriage, coercion in family planning and population programs, female infanticide, female genital mutilation, unsafe abortion (although the right to abortion itself is not mentioned), dowry-related violence and other harmful and unjust practices. It connects women's rights to poverty, environmental degradation, global inequality, warfare and various evils that affect women disparately. The declaration and platform are just pieces of paper--there is no real enforcement mechanism--but as such things go they are pretty strong, and where women have been able to hold their governments' feet to the fire, they have made a difference. Bear in mind too that the Beijing documents represent a consensus produced in the teeth of stern opposition by a handful of reactionary Muslim and Roman Catholic countries. The resistance was orchestrated by the Vatican, which (unlike any other religious organization in tile world) holds permanent-observer status, entitling it to participate in negotiations, although not to vote.

As I write, the UN is meeting in a General Assembly special session in New York to assess the implementation of the Beijing agreements. As in Beijing, thousands of women representing hundreds of nongovernmental organizations have come from all around the world to lobby, compare notes and share information on everything from grassroots radio to globalization. A panel attacking religious fundamentalism was crowded with women in veils, chadors, African dress and office wear. I hung around afterward and eavesdropped on a meeting of African women strategizing against sexism in their Protestant churches back home while a member of Ecumenical Women, a Presbyterian group, filled me in on the denomination's growing antifeminist contingent here in the States.

If at Beijing the dominant mood was one of excitement at the prospects for mainstreaming global feminism, in New York it's mostly wariness. The latest UN statistics show some bright patches -- most regions have seen declines in early marriage and childbearing; the number of female legislators has increased dramatically in India, Argentina and other countries with gender set-asides and quotas; the gender gap in primary and secondary education is slowly closing. But the overall picture, in that and other studies, is not a happy one: staggering rates of poverty, domestic violence, suicide. Particularly depressing to me was the confirmation of a disconnection between education and income levels: In numerous countries -- Jamaica, the Philippines, some Latin American nations -- women are better educated than men. But nowhere does that fact result in on-the-job equality.

Some of the major forces threatening women's progress -- the widening gap between rich and poor, the shredding of social safety nets to service debts, the explosion in forced trafficking and sexual slavery, the burgeoning AIDS crisis, war -- are complex, intractable, hugely costly to solve. That makes it all the more reprehensible that governments have dragged their feet on legal reforms that cost no money, only political will: changing marriage laws that mandate wifely obedience and divorce laws that permit men, but not women to dissolve the union at will or whim; removing restrictions on basic freedoms, like the right to travel, study or work without permission of a male "guardian." Nigeria permits husbands to "correct" their wives through physical punishment; Costa Rica and at least five other countries allow rapists to avoid prosecution if they marry their victim. In Saudi Arabia women still can't drive. In Kuwait they still can't vote.

Our own government's record is nothing to crow about. The feminist group US Women Connect issued a Platform for Action report card giving this Country mostly Bs, Cs and Ds with a big fat F for welfare reform. Underscoring the spotty performance of' governments is the threat to the conference itself, which comes from the same fundamentalists and zealots who impede women's progress in their home countries. Once again the Vatican has teamed up with a handful of states -- Algeria, Iran, Pakistan, Sudan, Libya -- to weaken the language of the Beijing documents. This time around, the US religious right, which has historically opposed the UN's very existence, is joining the fray. That supposedly Christian organizations seem to have more in common with Muslim countries where women are stoned for "adultery" and beaten by police for showing a strand of hair than with the liberal members of their own denominations speaks volumes about their priorities. At the beginning of the twenty-first century, must women still fight the battles of the seventeenth? The way Beijing Plus Five turns out will tell us part of the answer to that question.

What can you do? Join the 541 women's and human rights groups that support the See Change campaign of Catholics for a Free Choice. Attempting to pander to the Catholic vote after his disastrous Bob Jones University visit, George W. Bush has attacked See Change as a bigoted attempt to kick the church out of the UN. In fact, it merely seeks to deprive the Holy See of its permanent-observer status, which is based on the fiction that Vatican City is an actual functioning country and not a tiny masculine enclave like San Quentin or the Knicks. The Catholic Church should be welcome to apply for NGO status and lobby to its heart's content but not to sit at the negotiating table and endlessly stall and shred the delicate consensus process. Contact Catholics for a Free Choice at 1436 U Street NW Suite 301, Washington, DC 20009.