Beijing in New York:
U.N. Conference on Women Promises Progress and Polemics
NEW YORK — They’ll come in droves. Dressed in a colorful array of suits, saris and African kangas, women from around the globe will converge on New York City March 1-11, eager to take their place and make their mark at the United Nations’ Beijing+15 Conference.
Hosted by the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women, Beijing+15 is the third international conference of its kind, organized as a follow-up to the United Nations’ 1995 World Conference on Women in Beijing. Previous to Beijing, other world conferences on women were held in Mexico (1975), Copenhagen (1980) and Nairobi (1985). Their set goal was greater equality and opportunity for women worldwide.
The focus of the March meeting will be a point-by-point review of the “Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action,” the concluding document of the 1995 conference. U.N. member states, agencies and non-governmental organizations are expected to participate in the session. The focus will be on sharing experiences and practices of implementation of the “Platform for Action” in order to identify obstacles and overcome challenges, especially in 12 critical areas of concern: women and their relationship to poverty, education, global health, violence, armed conflict, the economy, power and decision-making, institutional advancement, human rights, the media, the environment, and the girl-child.
As with previous U.N. conferences, there are concerns about the promotion of anti-natal policies. Jeanne Monahan, director of the Center for Human Dignity at the Family Research Council in Washington, attended the Beijing+10 conference in 2005. When asked about expectations for Beijing+15, she responded, “We are eager to support all authentic endeavors toward the betterment of women, especially those of the developing world. These include microfinancing, health-care initiatives, access to education and legitimate human-rights concerns.
“But unfortunately, in 2005 we experienced the undeniable hostility of some groups and delegates toward positions that simultaneously embrace human rights with the right to life and the rights of the traditional family,” she cautioned. “My fear for the 2010 conference is that we will find these hostilities still largely intact, and perhaps more entrenched.”
Susan Yoshihara, vice president for research for the Catholic Family & Human Rights Institute (C-Fam), agrees with Monahan. “One of the main concerns of C-Fam is to see that language and policies that recognize and respect the rights of the traditional family are included and maintained,” she told the Register. “In any U.N. document, binding or nonbinding, the traditional family should be protected. We want to make sure that kind of language shows up.”
The Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches: “Marriage and the family are ordered to the good of the spouses and to the procreation and education of children” (No. 2201).
Yoshihara has another concern: “The European Union and the U.S. delegation, under the new administration, may try to use Beijing to promote abortion. Since 1994 folks have used the Beijing and Cairo ‘Programs of Action’ to argue a ‘human right to abortion.’ This is completely false. One thing we do is remind people that no such ‘right’ came out of those U.N. meetings. We also remind people that the conclusions of those meetings were nonbinding on states. They were voluntary guidelines. Even as such, there is no ‘human right to abortion’ in those documents.”
In fact, Kirsten Sherk of Ipas, an international NGO dedicated to protecting women’s health and advancing reproductive rights, told the Register, “We will be present at Beijing+15 with the specific goal of achieving universal access to affordable, quality health care and reproductive-health technology for all women around the world. This is our specific mission.”
Concern on the part of pro-lifers goes back to the original Beijing Conference. Mary Ann Glendon, a professor of law at Harvard and former United States ambassador to the Holy See, led the delegation of the Holy See to the 1995 conference. She has been critical of certain aspects of it.
“The heart of the ‘Program for Action’ consists of many provisions that are consonant with Catholic teachings on dignity, freedom and social justice,” Glendon commented in a 1996 article in First Things. “Those dealing with the needs of women in poverty; strategies for development, literacy and education; ending violence against women; building a culture of peace; and providing access for women to employment, land, capital and technology.”
Glendon also noted other worthwhile provisions of that platform, addressing things such as discrimination against female fetuses through abortion, reform of the international economic order and promotion of partnership and mutual respect between men and women.
Yet, according to Glendon, the document has its flaws. For one, it barely mentions marriage, motherhood and the family — except as impediments and as associated with violence and oppression. And she highlighted the fact that the document addressed women’s poverty under the narrow terms of a mere problem of inequality between men and women, downplaying the influences of the breakdown of the family and unjust economic structures.
“The women’s health section focused disproportionately on sexual and reproductive matters, with scarcely a glance toward nutrition, sanitation, tropical diseases, access to basic health services, or even maternal morbidity and mortality,” Glendon commented.
She also remembered raising an eyebrow at the idea of fighting for women’s rights without recognizing and supporting their role in child rearing. “There can be no real progress for women, or men, at the expense of children or of the underprivileged.”
One consideration added to the agenda will be the impact of the current global economic recession on women around the world.
According to Patricia Licuanan, who was chairwoman of the main committee at the 1995 conference, which drafted the Program for Action, the impact of the economic crisis has been particularly severe on women in three major areas: loss of jobs and decreased real wages and benefits; reduction of social services as government budgets are used to rescue bankrupt firms; and increased work burden and stress resulting from unpaid responsibilities in the household and community.
“The economic message of Beijing+15 is that we need to make economic stimulus packages work for women and communities in the short term. In the long term, governments have to use the financial crisis as an opportunity to move from profit to provisioning, and must create a new financial and economic architecture that includes a gender perspective,” Licuanan, who is president of Miriam College in the Philippines, proposed on the website Economica: Women and the Global Economy.
U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon recently called on world leaders to boost progress toward achieving the goals the U.N. set for itself in 2000’s “Millennium Development Goals.” The target date for the achievement of those goals is 2015. They include issues of central importance to Beijing+15, including the eradication of poverty and hunger, universal access to education, improvement of maternal-child health, environmental stability, disease control and gender equality.
“We can and must do more, especially given the growing impact of climate change, increasing global hunger and continuing fallout from the economic and financial crisis,” the secretary general recently said in a statement to all delegates. “We are ready to act, ready to deliver, and ready to make 2010 a year of results for people.”
The Hope for Progress
When women from around the globe converge on New York next month, most will arrive with the hope that sustainable improvements can be secured in assuring a safer, more just and accessible world for women, especially those in developing nations.
“Many different spaces will be available for participants to express themselves and try to build strategies for women’s rights. The outcome of these meetings should be a vision for the substantial improvement of women’s lives,” explains Paola Salwan of Ecumenical Women at the United Nations, an international coalition of church denominations and organizations that has status with the Economic & Social Council at the United Nations.
“Women are homemakers, more often than not bread earners, mothers, sisters and pillars of the family and of the society,” she said. “To violate and abuse them is to violate and abuse the society as a whole. Beijing+15 will be a platform to fight this battle. We need more of those.”
Kirsten Evans writes from Washington.