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What, exactly, do they mean when saying 'yes' to women?

Following is the eighth in a series of articles on the U.N. Fourth World Conference on Women. Earlier articles were written from the Peace Train traveling from Helsinki, Egnland, to Beijing, China. Chittister, author and lecturer, is a member of the Benedictine Order and lives in Erie, Pa.

The longer I'm in Beijing, the more my respect is growing for the biblical story of the Tower of Babel. I think I'm also beginning to understand a little better now what destroyed it.

In Babel "the language was confused." Everyone shouted to be heard in a language that no one else could comprehend. At the halfway point of the Fourth U.N. Conference on Women, women from around the world are clamoring for action from their governments but the clamoring takes a variety of accents.

Coming to an understanding among the governments of the world about the kinds of programs needed to improve the living conditions of the women of the world makes Beijing a far more volatile place than were the three U.N. Women's Conferences that preceded it.

It is one thing for groups to agree on principles for action as the governments of the world did at the women's conferences in Mexico City, Copenhagen, Denmark, and Nairobi, Kenya. It is another thing entirely for diverse groups to commit themselves to the specific practices designed to make those principles real. Everybody here, for instance, says yes to women but not everybody here says yes to the same things for women.

Issues that brought the delegates of 180 governments around the world to Beijing for the Fourth U.N. Conference on Women seem almost boringly obvious now.

It is 25 years since the first U.N. Conference on Women convened in Mexico City. The issues identified there have only gotten worse since then. The feminization of poverty, personal and public violence against women, political disenfranchisement, disempowerment and personal disregard mark the lives of women everywhere, are everywhere considered normal, even godly for women.

Everywhere women are "respected' and then respectfully overlooked.

Speaker after speaker drives home the point that the time of analysis is over, that lip service to the equality of women is not enough, that progress for women is progress for men as well. But lurking behind, masked beneath the affirmation of concern for women, are other kinds of concerns as well -- social, political and religious -- that demand delicate negotiations in some cases and create outright conflict in others.

In the end it is hard to know what is really being heard here: the needs of women around the world or the fears of the men who must face changes themselves in order to honor their stated resolves to respond to women in truth as well as in poetry.

The problem is not goodwill. The problem is that what looks essential to one part of the world often sounds threatening to another. The United States, as well as multiple other countries, for instance, is strong in its support of reproductive rights -- a position called "pro-abortion" by Muslim fundamentalists and Catholic groups who, in the Vatican's words, see such a move as "an attack on the family and religion."

Others see the position as a necessary contribution to population control and a statement that repudiates forced sterilizations and government abortion programs in the name of one-child families like the one in place in China itself. At the same time, the United States remains resistant to any talk of reshaping structural adjustment programs in such a way that the most vulnerable members of debt-ridden societies do not bear the burden of the cutbacks in social service programs that national governments are forced to make to meet their international debt payments to the World Bank.

Clearly, the living-conditions of women cannot possibly change until governments release the resources to provide the kinds of services -- educational, medical and technological -- that women need if they are ever to arrive at a higher standard of living in less-developed areas of the world.

Western nations, too, argue strongly that parental rights supersede the right of an underage girl to receive birth control advice, abortion information or counseling for incest independently of family guidance and consent.

Many African groups, on the other hand, argue that a parental consent clause will make it impossible for girls in those areas to escape the control of fathers who use the sexual alliances of daughters to enhance their own position and will, perhaps, condemn girls to death in places where sexual involvement, particularly of daughters, constitutes a family disgrace punishable by execution.

In some areas of the world, buying, selling and trafficking in children is a heinous crime. In others, it is considered a right for parents to dispose of their children any way they see fit.

Compromise is the major characteristic, the charism, the blessing and the bane of U.N. conferences. Balancing needs, ethical considerations and religious sensibilities in an attempt to arrive at universal standards for women's rights plagues the conference at every step. "We have come here to evangelize as well as to negotiate," Mary Ann Glendon, chairwoman of the Vatican delegation to the conference, said as her opening remark at a private meeting of NGO delegates.

Religion permeates the conference at every turn. The Vatican is not alone in its ardor for ethical monopoly. Philosophical questions rage everywhere on this issue. Is the genital mutilation of young girls an unacceptable violation of a human being or a sacred act of religious significance? And conversely, is denouncing it a moral necessity or just one more instance of "cultural imperialism" in a multicultural world being smothered by Western standards?

Is motherhood the basic definition of womanhood around which all other considerations must be constructed, or is womanhood alone the prior and determining concept to be used when defining the rights and roles of women? Is gender simply the consciousness that role definitions emerge out of cultural conditions and so differ from culture to culture, or is it, as some critics argue, the devious ruse of depraved groups to "create another gender," the androgyne, with its destruction of macho men and excessively feminine females?

The particular questions are far more difficult to separate and resolve than the agreement on overarching principles of the equality, human rights and dignity of women. The problem is that the principles men espouse about women are just as often a smokescreen for abuse as they are a guarantee of equal rights. In too many situations, equality becomes something that women are promised in this world but gain only in the next. Human rights becomes a code name for the civil rights that men decide to give them. Dignity, "the special nature of woman," becomes a euphemism for motherhood, unpaid work and hat-tipping.

The purpose of the Beijing Platform for Action is to separate one use of principles from the other. Therefore, the Beijing Platform of Action is dangerous to the status quo in a way no statement before it has been.

Though most of the delegates to the conference are women, most of the governments that must deal with the results of this conference are composed almost entirely of men. And therein lies the problem that underlies the problems emerging in the conference.

But all is not lost. Whatever the resolution of all the philosophical questions here, when everything is said and done, three elements will measure the success of the Fourth U.N. Conference on Women. The first is attention to specific national commitments. The second is the allocation of resources to make possible the action platform adopted here. The third is gender sensitivity.

At this point of the 109 speeches made in defense of women's rights, only 47 governments making the speeches have agreed to define specific national priorities and commitments. In addition, many countries, like the United States, which is dealing with a Congress intent on dismantling the compassion of the country, refuse to allocate additional resources to insure that those commitments will really be kept.

But one thing remains to secure the authenticity of the conference process. Basic to each segment of the Platform for Action is the call for "gender sensitivity," the notion that every single social action and piece of legislation in a country must first be tested for its effect on women and girls.

Gender sensitivity is the measure of national sincerity that takes no money to honor and requires no commitment to specific programs over a given period of time. Gender sensitivity costs no government a penny; gender blindness costs every woman her life. That's the criteria to keep an eye on.

Gender sensitivity is the concept which, in the end, will separate national commitment from national consciousness. That's the one that unmasks lip service to the U.N. Conference on Women and makes it an idea whose time has come. Will the governments of the world, our own included, and the Vatican itself, which functions in the United Nations as a city-state, critique every policy, program and allocation from the point of view of its effects on women? Or has it all been simply babbling?

Come to think about it, that's probably why the Tower of Babel did not endure. What was at issue was not language, it was truth. No one checked to see if what was being said was really real or simply doublespeak, and doublespeak always undermines an institution.
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Title Annotation:1995 World Conference on Women
Author:Chittister, Joan
Publication:National Catholic Reporter
Article Type:Column
Date:Sep 22, 1995
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