IT WAS exciting to see the General Assembly of the United Nations filled almost
entirely with women this week.
Wearing tailored suits and pumps, work dresses and high heels, roomy pants
and comfortable shoes, filmy Indian saris and billowing African robes and
headdresses, nearly 10,000 women delegates and some men from more than 180
countries attended a weeklong special session of the General Assembly known as
Five years after the international women's conference in Beijing put
women's rights on the world's radar screen, women from places as obscure as the
Republic of Moldova and as notorious as Zimbabwe reassembled to measure how
much progress they've made, and how short they've fallen of their goals.
A surprising number of delegates hold high-ranking government jobs.
Wandira Kazibwe, vice president of Uganda; Deputy Prime Minister Laurette
Onkelinx of Belgium, and Onechanh Thammavong, vice president of the Lao
national assembly, were among the delegates who addressed the conference
Some countries we consider Third World seem to have more women in top
government posts than some of the more developed countries. India, Pakistan,
Great Britain and Israel have all had female heads of state, while the United
States can't seem to get beyond white males.
So, has the condition of the world's women improved since Beijing? The
bottom line is that women are still catching hell all over the world. Despite
the platform for action signed by 180 countries in Beijing, in India baby girls
are still aborted or killed after delivery, and women are still murdered
because their families can't pay their dowries.
In Bangladesh, hundreds of women a year are burned with acid by scorned
husbands or lovers. In many African countries, girls are still subjected to
In Iran, women still wear the chador in public and in Afghanistan, well,
forget Afghanistan. Under the fanatical Taliban, women and girls can be beaten
or killed for going to school or leaving the house.
In countries all over the world, women and children make up the majority of
the poor, and girls are the majority of children not attending school.
The basis of the Beijing agreement was that its signers would revoke all
their laws that discriminated against women.
Five years later, however, 12-year-old girls can still be legally married
off in Colombia, dowries are required in Sudan, husbands are the legal heads of
households in Turkey and Yemen and wives are required to obey them; Kuwaiti
women are barred from voting; French women (at least on paper) are barred from
working at night; in Nepal, only male children can inherit property; and in
Ethiopia, rape isn't a crime if the rapist marries his victim.
Meanwhile, in the United States, domestic violence is a huge problem and
there's still a wage gap. On the upside, every delegate who spoke yesterday
told of improvements in women's lives.
In Uganda, official documents must now refer to "she" as well as "he." More
than 3 million girls are now in primary school, compared with 800,000 three
years ago, and women now account for 30 percent of local government officials.
There's been progress. But, as speaker after speaker confirmed, poverty,
limited access to education, lack of economic independence, patriachal
traditions, lack of medical care, exposure to HIV and AIDS, and a growing world
traffic in women for prostitution and slavery plague the lives of millions of
Delegates to "Women 2000" are debating a new document that will outline
where their countries need to go in the next five years. But, amid all the talk
about documents, protocols, resolutions, policies and statements of principles,
one feels that they're a substitute for action.
"What we've been hearing is a lot of rhetoric from the government
delegates," says Monique Widyono, co-executive director of Equality Now, an
international women's rights group based in New York City.
"They're just negotiating words," she says. "We've done all of this before."
What women need from these governments now, she says, is "clear political
will and commitment. Why in the year 2000 are we still negotiating over the
need to eliminate discriminatory laws?"
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