North-South differences in perception on Beijing

The Beijing women's meetings revealed the prejudices of the international media which highlighted the abuse of women in China and other Southern countries, whilst ignoring problems faced by Northern women. There were also some differences in interest and emphasis between women's groups in the North and South, although everyone agreed on the need to fight discrimination and violence against women.

BOTH the UN Women's Conference and the NGO Women's Forum meetings took on a controversial hue as some Western governments and many women's and human rights groups, predominantly from the Northern countries, took the opportunity of the meetings being held in Beijing to attack the Chinese organisers and the Chinese government. From the international media coverage, it often appeared that the meetings were more about the human rights situation in China, rather than about the problems of women worldwide.

This was the most unfortunate aspect of the NGO Forum, for in reality the many thousands of women who went there found it to be a very useful meeting, where they could discuss a very wide range of issues relating to women's position in society. For many women who came from developing countries there were few complaints about the way the Conference was run.

This is in contrast to the picture painted by the Western media agencies that the participants at the NGO Forum were being constantly harassed by the Chinese and were having a frustrating time. In fact, according to over 700 women's groups that prepared an Open Letter of Thanks to the hosts, an overwhelming number of the meetings took place without any problems whatsoever, and the host country showed warm hospitality. These grassroots women participants have criticised both the media and some groups for being insensitive to other social systems, and for possible racism and prejudice against the Chinese. Theirs was an important message for it provided an antidote to the one-sided media portrayal.

'China bashing' by Western media and groups

Even before the Conference began, there was a spate of publicity, mainly fuelled by Western human rights groups, about China's human rights record, its crime wave and the abusive treatment of girls and women. During the Conference, much of the news from Beijing focused on protests against the Chinese organisers for their poor facilities and the lack of freedom of the participants.

It is true that China's record on civil and political rights leaves much to be desired. Also, the pressures now faced by the Chinese government on this score may contribute to human rights improvements in future. However, there is also a large element of deliberate 'China bashing', which presents an unbalanced picture of Chinese reality.

The fact that the Chinese have made great strides economically and socially over the past five decades, and that the status and conditions of girls and women have risen significantly, is well documented. Of course, as with other things, this too can be improved on.

Yet there was hardly any report (either from human rights groups or from Western journalists) on the good aspects of China's development and its positive impact on human rights (especially social and economic rights) and on the status of women.

The bias against the Chinese may reflect the political values of the Western-based groups. In looking at the issue of human rights, they place such a high priority on the political and civil rights of individuals, whilst neglecting the social and economic rights of the people as a whole.

This prejudice against China may also be due to the perception by some Northern governments that China is emerging as a potentially troublesome economic rival, and that thus non-economic instruments like human rights could be used when conducting economic negotiations with China. It is thus useful for them to highlight (or even exaggerate) the bad human rights record of China.

Double standards for rich and poor nations

When the Earth Summit was held in Brazil, the focus was on global environment issues, and not on Brazil's human rights, social or ecological problems (and Brazil did have many such problems in acute form).

No one made such a big fuss about the facilities for NGOs either at the Rio Earth Summit (although the NGO activities were 40 miles away from the main conference) or at the Copenhagen Social Summit (which was also some distance away from the official meeting).

And at the numerous UN conferences or meetings held in New York, human rights groups did not highlight or protest against the deterioration in the rights or condition of disadvantaged groups in the United States, such as continued discrimination against the black community, the removal of affirmative-action policies, and the rapid increase in poverty and homelessness.

Recently the New York Times carried a full-page advertisement placed by several social and women's groups protesting against how the welfare cutbacks intensified under the Republican-controlled Congress are adversely affecting the health and condition of poor women (including mainstream white women) in the US.

There are many groups that are fighting for the rights of these women in the US. Some of them were present at the Beijing meetings. But their work, and the deteriorating condition of disadvantaged women in the US, were not been mentioned in international news reports on the Beijing Conference or its preparatory meetings.

Highlighted instead were the stories of how girls and women are exploited in the Third World: female infanticide in China, female circumcision in Africa, sex tourism in Asia.

Unbalanced media projection

Of course there is a whole range of major problems suffered by girls and women in the Third World, many of which are criminal and must be fought against tooth and nail. And hopefully the Beijing conference gave a much needed boost to groups fighting against these abuses.

But there are also negative effects in the way the unbalanced media projection of the Beijing meeting may contribute once again to 'demonising' the Third World, whilst portraying the Northern groups and governments as advanced and enlightened saviours with a mission to civilise the backward South.

Victoria Tauli-Corpuz, coordinator of the Asian Indigenous Women's Network, and convenor of the Indigenous People's Tent in the NGO Forum in Beijing said: 'Women's rights issues are being used to project different images of North and South. The US is now seen as the champion of women's rights and women's empowerment, whilst the host country China is portrayed as the foremost violator of women's rights and human rights.

'This image bashing extends to the whole of Asia, so the "barbaric" and "savage" customs and practices of Asians and other Third World people are again being focused on.

'The powerful Northern countries that are intensifying their hold over the world economy at the South's expense are again let off the hook. Their role in perpetuating and increasing poverty, which is the key problem for most of the world's women, is glossed over.

'The role of the North in promoting or imposing policies in the South that then lead to women's problems such as increasing treatment of women as commodities, increasing crime and violence resulting from social breakdown, is not projected and discussed sufficiently.

'Sex tourism, child prostitution, export of female labour are prevalent in Third World countries because they are caught in the foreign debt trap and because of their distorted economic structures. These structural causes, in which the North bears a large part of the blame, must be highlighted, and not just the graphic examples of the abuse of women in the Third World.'

Differences between Northern and Southern groups

The Beijing conference also brought out important differences between women's groups in the rich countries and the developing countries. Northern groups tend to focus more on individual rights of women, whereas many Southern groups whilst recognising the importance of these individual rights also stress the problems faced by women as a whole due to social, structural and global factors. (To be fair, there are also a number of Northern-based women's groups that take up these structural and global issues).

Practically all women's groups in the South as well as the North would agree on the importance of fighting against rape and violence against women, trafficking of women, sexist portrayal in the media, and discrimination on the basis of sex. They champion the improvement of women's status in health, education and work.

These are indeed the nitty-gritty and daily issues that define the identity and activities of most groups fighting for women's rights, and rightly so.

However, many Southern-based women's groups also place their struggle against gender inequalities within the overall context of social and global problems and inequities. They see issues such as poverty, lack of jobs and basic facilities, exploitation at work, and social inequities at national and global levels as critical.

Top-down economic policies

Central to their concerns are the adverse effects of top-down economic policies on both ordinary women and men, the present overemphasis on the market and profits, and a globalisation process that rewards the powerful whilst marginalising a big part of humanity. Fighting for women's rights, in this context, would also encompass the battle against social wrongs overall.

A prominent proponent of this approach is Dr Noeleen Heyzer, director of UNIFEM, the New York-based United Nations agency that is playing a critical role in the Women's Conference. A Singaporean, Dr Heyzer worked for many years in Kuala Lumpur at the Asian Pacific Development Centre before taking on her new job late last year.

In her view, the first stage of the women's struggle was fighting for recognition of the equal rights of women. The second stage was building the capacity of women and women's groups to improve their status and well-being through better education, health, social and economic projects.

'But even if women have improved their status vis-a-vis men, the condition of many women in the world has deteriorated as a result of worsening economic and social conditions overall,' she said in an interview.

Among the reasons she cited are the debt crisis and the structural adjustment policies imposed by international agencies, which have led to cutbacks in social services and worsened poverty.

'The globalisation process will also marginalise ordinary and poor women further, together with ordinary men,' she added. 'Therefore women need to develop their movement to a new stage, to take the lead in changing the world itself, in line with the values that we have as women, so as to reduce these global and social problems and inequities.'

Victoria Tauli-Corpuz, says the goals of equality, development and peace set by the 1975 Women's Conference in Mexico are 'becoming more elusive each day to the majority of the world's women.'

According to Victoria, central problems like poverty, inequality and the development crisis are linked to wrong national policies as well as the continued domination of Northern countries and Northern-controlled global institutions on the South.

'The Beijing conference overemphasised gender to a point where poverty and inequality between nations, classes and people are obscured,' she added.

'It gives an illusion that if women have equal participation, then somehow the situation will radically change for the better. In reality, it will get worse unless the dominant global policies and structures themselves are changed.'

Victoria concludes that focusing on gender relations alone is insufficient to bring about the liberation of women. 'Third World women should take the lead in defining the women's movement and what should be on its agenda.

'Solidarity with Northern women's groups is important, but the Northern women's groups must also be willing to broaden their framework to include issues not only on gender but also social, economic and global inequities in general.' (Third World Resurgence No. 61/62, Sept/Oct 1995)