Depoliticising gender in Beijing

A disturbing facet of the Beijing Women's Conference (1995) was the attempt by major Northern governments to depoliticise the issue of gender inequity. A key lesson from Beijing is that the struggle for women's rights must be conducted in the context of fighting at the same time against the inequities between nations, classes and races.

by Victoria Tauli Corpuz

THE Fourth World Conference on Women has left many feminists and women activists both affirmed and confused. Some of those who had been involved with the whole process starting from the regional meetings expressed feelings of frustration and cynicism.

However, for those involved with grassroots-based women's movements in the Third World, the Beijing conference reinforced their views and positions in relation to the roles they should play in bringing forth structural changes.

The attempts of some Northern governments to depoliticise gender issues, abetted at times by some women's groups from both North and South, were also very revealing.

The obstructionist and arrogant posture assumed by the incompetent non-governmental organisation (NGO) Forum secretariat was a major source of the frustration felt by many women. In fact, the performance of this secretariat was one of the tragedies of the Beijing conference.

Dealing with governments at home and in the international arena may have its own difficulties, but these at least are to be expected. It is even more frustrating when NGOs and women's organisations have to squabble at every point with a body which was supposedly set up to facilitate their full participation. So much energy and time was wasted because of the incompetence of this secretariat. It did not even set up an efficient central information centre to service participants. An evaluation should be conducted on the behaviour and performance of this secretariat.

Low level of government commitment

Most disappointing was the very small number of heads of government who turned up. While it had the distinction of being the UN conference which had the biggest participation of NGOs, it also will be known as the UN conference with least attendance by heads of states. Whilst over a hundred heads of state or government went to UNCED in Rio and the Social Summit at Copenhagen,only two (Norway's premier Gro Brundtland and Peru's President Fujimori) came to Beijing. Instead, many countries sent the wife of the President or Prime Minister as delegation chief, and even they did not stay to the end. Since this was not a conference of women but on women, there was no reason for male heads of states not to be present.

Many members of government delegations were not necessarily those directly involved in addressing women's concerns. They were sent because they were women. The huge number of women from NGOs is an indication of how marginalised women still are from decision-making bodies in the government and the private sector. Thus, their energies are channelled to women's organisations and NGOs.

The active participation of women from NGOs ensured that key women's issues like gender-based violence, recognition of women's unpaid work as having economic value, reproductive and sexual rights, were integrated into the PFA. However, there were major gaps in addressing the roots of women's problems.

NGO caucuses were formed around issues and sectors such as the environment, human rights, economic justice, trade unions, and indigenous women. Depending on the issues being discussed, two or more caucuses joined forces to lobby.

IPR and economic justice issues revealed Conference's politics

The NGOs' experience in lobbying on intellectual property rights revealed some of the politics behind the different governments' positions at Beijing. The environmental caucus and indigenous women lobbied together for a better text on this issue, in paragragh 253 (c) of the PFA. They fought to include a paragraph which explicitly acknowledged the intellectual property rights of indigenous women over their traditional knowledge, innovations and practices, technologies and biodiversity resources.

The G77 had already agreed to adopt the proposed language by the NGO caucuses and even improved on it. However, the US delegation blocked the passage of the paragraph and diluted it to ensure that it did not detract from the trade-related intellectual property rights (TRIPs) clause of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT).

The compromise language in the end called for '..intellectual property rights protected by existing national and international legislation..' But the NGOs in the two caucuses found this outcome most unsatisfactory: it has always been the contention of indigenous women that there is no existing, effective and appropriate intellectual property rights legislation at the international level to protect the IPRs of indigenous peoples.

During the negotiations in the working group the US delegate even went to the extent of charging that the Tongan delegate who was pushing for the G77 position was not really a government delegate but that of an NGO. The Tongan delegate came from an NGO but she was part of the official government delegation. Hence this comment was uncalled for. It just demonstrated the hypocrisy of the US, which tried to project an image of being the most friendly government to NGOs.

The economic justice caucus came up with a statement expressing disappointment over the failure of the PFA to address the root causes of women's poverty and marginalisation. While feminisation of poverty is an oft repeated phrase in the PFA, the analysis of why this is so was sadly lacking. The statement by the Caucus accused the US and EU of consistently refusing to accept language in the PFA which directly linked economic policies to poverty. From the second to the last day, a big group of NGOs led by Latin Americans made a short noise barrage at the Conference to demonstrate their demand for economic justice issues to be accepted in the text.

Hard issues versus 'women's issues'

During the 1980 Copenhagen Women's Conference it was reported that the US delegation had received strict instructions that its mission was to 'keep politics out of the conference and instead concentrate on women's issues.' This was still the order of the day for Beijing, as shown by the consistent US and EU moves to block language which linked economic policies to poverty.

At one of the NGO workshops at Huairou, Ayala Lasso, the High Commissioner for Human Rights, admitted that there had orders from the UN General Assembly that human rights issues should be depoliticised.

This stricture did not however apply to Hillary Clinton who came to Beijing to lambast the Chinese for their human rights violations. Human rights activists applauded her, conveniently forgetting the role played by the United States in perpetuating some of the most repressive military dictatorships in the Third World. If this is what 'depoliticising human rights' means, then it is time for NGOs and the world public to critically review how popular phrases such as 'universality of human rights' and 'women's rights are human rights' are being co-opted and misused by the powerful.

Anti-imperialist rally

Indeed, at the NGO Forum, some groups raised this issue of hypocrisy and double standards. GABRIELA, a national coalition of women's organisations in the Philippines, staged an anti-imperialist rally while Hillary Clinton was speaking at Huairou. The Asian Women's Human Rights Council and Vimochana sponsored a forum questioning the misuse of the concept of 'universality of human rights'.

One of the strengths of the women's movements, especially those in the Third World, lies in its ability to demonstrate the link between economic structures and policies and the appalling poverty of women.

Extensive research has been done by women's organisations in Asia, Africa and Latin America on how external debt and structural adjustment policies have intensified women's poverty. During the NGO Forum on Huairou and in the official conference, many meetings were held on these very issues.

UNIFEM was one of the few UN agencies that organised roundtable discussions on the effects of economic restructuring on women. But Northern governments did not pay much attention. The World Bank on its part aggressively tried to counter such positions through its own workshops and spokespersons.

Gender is important, but is it enough?

The PFA recognises the reality of gender-based violence which is an advance from the Nairobi document. It asserts that women have the right to the highest standard of physical and mental health, and reaffirms the right of women to control all aspects of their health, particularly their own sexuality and fertility. It also calls for 'gender-sensitive' development policies and the recognition of 'women's unpaid work' as having economic value that should be reflected in the accounting system. The controversy over the term 'sexual orientation' was resolved when the chairperson moved that this be deleted from the PFA. For many women's groups, especially the lesbian organisations, this was a major setback, but for the Vatican and the Muslim countries this was a victory.


The Northern countries took a very strong position on reproductive health, sexual orientation, gender-violence and gender equality in general. However, their reluctance to link these issues directly with economic policies was particularly painful. The North's continued global domination is a major cause of poverty. Even in Northern countries, there is increasing poverty and unemployment.

Many governments have enshrined gender equality in their constitution and laws. The question still remains, what equality are we talking about, when the majority of the population are in dire poverty because governments do not have the political will to become more self-determining in defining their own economic and political policies in favour of the majority of their citizens? The Philippines is an example of a country officially championing the gender cause yet having the reality of women enduring much suffering. At the Beijing conference it had the distinction of having a Filipina as the Chair of the Commission on the Status of Women.

The NGO Forum secretariat was headed by another Filipina. Presently it occupies the G77 chair. Yet, it also exports very large numbers of its women as domestic helpers, entertainers, or prostitutes. These women suffer the worst forms of gender-based violence imaginable. Next to Thailand, it has the second largest number of child prostitutes.

A major cause is that its economy is still largely foreign-dominated, it is debt-ridden and follows the dictates of the Bretton Woods institutions. It cannot provide the jobs its citizens need. Its bid to have migrant workers rights recognised at the Beijing conference was frustrated. The PFA merely 'recognised the migrant workers' contribution to the economy of the sending country' and called on governments to introduce measures to protect and promote the welfare of women migrants.


It is in this context that we should affirm that women's movements and organisations should not allow 'gender equity' to be used to obscure the inequity between nations, classes, and races. We should ensure that the various issues confronting the majority of women in the world are not reduced only to the issue of gender discrimination.

The Indigenous Women's Network released a statement in Beijing entitled 'Gender Equity vs. Self-Determination', which says: 'Indigenous women challenge women from throughout the world to begin serious dialogue on the premise of gender equity... The "gender equity assumption" merely serves to perpetuate the existing power structures of the industrialised countries... The global strategy of the women's movement should be enunciated in terms of the "self-determination of women" rather than gender equity.

'The primary assertion is that the right of all peoples to self-determination which is well-established in international law cannot be realised while women continue to be marginalised and prevented from becoming full participants in their respective societies. "Self-determination" is an inclusive concept which incorporates issues of vital concern to indigenous women and women of colour. "Gender equity" is a narrow concept which focuses on sex-based discrimination and which has been manipulated by nation-states to avoid issues of racial, environmental, civil, political and cultural inequities.. It fails to acknowledge or challenge racism, economic disparity, and environmental injustices. It presupposes that the goal is achieved if women get their share of power and resources. Typically, this means women of the "dominant culture" get their share of power and resources.

'Indigenous women and women of colour have been and continue to be victims of racism, colonisation, and imperialism. We believe that empowerment of women must be achieved within the context of "self-determination", and we call for a dismantling of all forms of global oppression. The struggle for "gender equity" takes place outside the context of decolonisation and inherently precludes us from attaining true liberation.

The privileges of the dominant civilisations have been gained at the expense of indigenous women and the cultures and societies and peoples of other impoverished nation-states. True gender equity can only be achieved within an anti-colonial, anti-imperialist framework.'

The Beijing conference once more spelled out to us that the fragmentation of the different issues confronting oppressed peoples all over the world will mean the further perpetuation of an unjust world order. We should not allow women's issues to be depoliticised as the powers-that-be wish.

The road towards achieving gender equity will be a long one. But if we insist on addressing holistically all the oppressions based on race, nationality, class, and gender, we can make the road shorter. More dialogues and struggles within the women's movement need to be done. Beyond this is the healthy partnership which women's movements should build with other social movements.

We should not allow the women's movement to be co-opted. The PFA should not be used to justify the further imposition of conditionalities to countries who do not wish to be homogenised with the inequitable rules of the New World Order. The diversity of organisations and issues which women have advanced is a rich base from which we can build upon to confront the existing power structures perpetuating the poverty and discrimination of women. -(Third World Resurgence No. 61/61, Sept/Oct 1995)

Victoria Tauli Corpuz is the convenor of the Asian Indigenous Network and is representative of the Third World Network in the Philippines.