Women's conference ends in compromise

The UN Women's Conference adopted the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action after intense debate over cultural issues which ended in compromise at five in the morning of the last day. Many countries stated their reservations on the closing day's plenary sessions. This is an account of what happened.

by Yvette Collymore

AFTER delicately balancing religious and cultural sensibilities, the world community on 15 September 1995 launched a pact to advance the quality of women's private and public lives. But while 189 countries applauded themselves, the fine print in the new Platform for Action could fill a book.

Countries broke new ground on measuring women's unpaid work and fudged the issue of funding for the global plan with a convenient compromise. But on women's sexual rights, sexual health and freedom, the lines drawn reflected largely religious grounds.

Much to the disappointment of Canada, the EU, New Zealand, Israel, Switzerland, Slovenia, Cuba, the United States, Barbados, and South Africa, references to women's sexual orientation were scrubbed from the text.

Carefully crafted

'While this document may not fully meet the expectations of everyone in this assembly, we believe it represents a carefully crafted compromise which provides a direction towards women's full empowerment into the next century,' said Filipina Senator Leticia Shahani on behalf of the 132-member Group of 77 developing countries.

The G77 countries and China -society, the Platform for Action falls short in recognition of its contribution'.

Guatemala, Ecuador, Peru, Nicaragua, the Dominican Republic, Benin, Malta, Indonesia, and Mauritania also registered their difficulties with the document.

One of the most common concerns was the paragraph in the health section of the document which promoted the concept of women's sexual rights. Though the term was not stated explicitly, the Platform states that women should have 'control over and decide freely and responsibly' on matters related to their sexuality, free of coercion, discrimination, and violence. But many countries said that married couples, not individuals, should take such decisions.

Islamists also voiced objections to the document's call for the equal right of men and women to inheritance. Its approval of the girl child's equal right to succession and ensure equal right to inherit was opposed by Islamic countries. 'There are certain ambiguous terms which we have accepted only in a spirit of compromise,' said Iran. 'Although the family is the basic unit of society, the Platform falls short in recognising its contribution.'

The document calls for the creation of an educational and social environment in which all are treated equally and in which freedom of thought, conscience, religion, and belief are respected. It asks governments and educational institutions to break down barriers to sexual and reproductive health education.

The US added its own unique reservations to the document. While the Palestinians welcomed the document's acknowledgement that human rights violations occurred in territories under foreign occupation, the USA was not happy.

The US delegation said while it agreed that violations did occur in occupied territories, it did not like the implication that foreign occupation was necessarily a human rights violation.

The Beijing Declaration urges governments to assure peace for women and to take steps towards complete disarmament. The document also calls for a universal and verifiable nuclear test ban treaty. This requirement held special meaning for Liberia, a country that is currently observing a peace accord, following a war that has killed 160,000 people and made 800,000 homeless.

'The women are against armed conflict,' said the Liberian delegate, calling for the international community to 'do something against countries that are supplying arms.'

The bulging fine print tacked on to the Platform for Action also takes the form of interpretive statements rather than outright objections to language, as government delegates minded their local politics.

Malaysia let it be known that its delegation was not signing on to promiscuity - a reference to the concept of sexual rights. The reservations tagged onto the Platform were so numerous that countries shouted their relief when India claimed the floor at the closing ceremony to declare that it had no objections to the document.

'We have no reservation on the declaration... and the Platform for Action,' said the Indian delegate. 'This is a historical moment... when we are looking at the structures of the society... We have discovered the girl child. Let us change the mind set of people so that this social order changes to one conducive to development.'

Girl child

The document's treatment of the girl child is applauded as one of the major success stories by those fighting child abuse, trade in girls for prostitution, and arranged child marriages.

The UNICEF helped achieve a balance in the rights of children against the responsibilities and rights of parents, thereby reinforcing the spirit of the 1990 UN Convention on the Rights of the Child.

'There is a revolution,' said South Africa at the adoption of the Beijing documents. 'There is no going back.'

The North-South wrangling over funding arrangements which plagues international agreements put in its usual appearance: developing countries wanted fresh funds to finance the social programmes they agreed to; but rich countries, for the most part, said there would be no new money. 'This is a classical and very important debate' that has been going on for three decades at every international conference, Norwegian Prime Minister Gro Harlem Brundtland told reporters at Beijing. (Third World Resurgence No. 61/62, Sept/Oct 1995)

[c] Yvette Collymore is a journalist with Inter-Press Service. She wrote this account of the last day of the Beijing conference for IPS.