The significance of and outcomes from the Fourth World Conference on Women will be gauged from a number of perspectives. From each perspective arises a complex set of expectations when a meeting like the FWCW is convened. Criteria for measuring success and failure shift between the actors according to their roles, level of participation, and initial relationship to the agenda. Some focused on the documents that emerged from the FWCW, others on the commitments States made, and still others on the process involved and what it represents in the global agenda for women's equality.
THE BEIJING DECLARATION AND PLATFORM FOR ACTION: The attainment of a consensus agreement on the Platform for Action, which deals with, identifies, analyzes, and invites action by Governments, was one baseline of success for some participants. While fundamental differences over some of the language in the draft Platform emerged at the 39th Session of the CSW, over the word "gender" for example, the facility for entering reservations to selected portions of the document was always likely to provide dissenters with a mechanism for living with the elements they found disagreeable. The large number of reservations on health and sexuality reflect abiding political and cultural differences that the FWCW exposed and reflected, but could not realistically be expected to resolve. The combination of consensus language and reservations can be viewed as a status report on those issues for women in different parts of the world.
Compared to the exchanges at the 39th Session of the CSW, the atmosphere at the informal consultations in August and in Beijing was more cooperative. Some key players appeared to shift from earlier positions and signaled an early desire to reach agreement. For example, the Holy See gave an early assurance that it did not wish to unravel any existing agreements to counter highly publicized claims that it was seeking to re-open debates from the ICPD. A conference officer suggested that the poor publicity itself might have been a factor, along with negotiating strategy.
Time was a constraint, given the large number of outstanding issues and their content, and forced an acceleration of the negotiating pace that generated some objections. At one stage, the Chair of the informal group discussing the section on health, Mervat Tallawy (Egypt), offered to resign when delegates claimed that she was forcing the agenda. For the most part, work progressed at a slow but steady pace. Long hours were required, but a final agreement was never in serious doubt. As one member of the Secretariat commented on the final day, "This was a Conference that could not fail."
In addition to the baseline objective of a consensus document, many saw this conference as an opportunity to consolidate and reaffirm commitments made at other UN conferences in a single document focused on the role of women. Of particular importance was the integration of the references to gender in each of these prior agreements into the Platform for Action and Beijing Declaration. A common topic in FWCW debates was where the language ranged in relationship to agreements reached in prior conferences. Delegates cited prior language to defend political territory claimed in Vienna, Cairo or Copenhagen and to prevent expansion of their principles. In fact, the FWCW extended a number of established commitments.
Among the expansions was a call to protect human rights activists working in environments where freedom of assembly and freedom of speech are restricted. Delegates also declared that systematic rape during armed conflict is a war crime and, in some cases, a crime against humanity. They recognized the rights of women to exercise control over their sexual and reproductive health and decision-making. Recognition was made that parental rights and responsibilities must be qualified to ensure that adolescents and children enjoy respect, privacy and access to counseling and other health-related services when required, and that the best interests of the child are a primary consideration. References to how unremunerated work could be measured were expanded. Treatment of some macro-economic issues and their effect on women drew praise from NGOs and developing country delegates and reservations from developed country delegates. Despite these advances in language from other UN conference documents, the FWCW did not make significant strides relative to the UNCED women's agenda. Delegates, NGOs and observers complained that their environmental issues were given relatively little attention in Beijing and that accepted concepts and language were being challenged or ignored.
CONFERENCE OF COMMITMENTS: The FWCW became a "Conference of Commitments" thanks to a 1994 Australian proposal, supported by NGOs, to invite participating States to use their Plenary speeches to announce undertakings consistent with the objectives of the Platform for Action. The idea gathered momentum during the 39th Session of the CSW in New York and found a place in the Platform for Action. During negotiations, however, an Australian suggestion that the commitments should be recorded by the Conference Secretariat and included in an annex of the FWCW report was dropped. Opposition to the recording of commitments came from States concerned that specific commitments on a limited number of the "Critical Areas of Concern" in the Platform would detract from the wider agenda. Instead, NGOs monitored the Plenary speeches. In her comments throughout the FWCW its preparatory process, Secretary-General Mongella spoke of the analysis-laden agenda of the women's movement and the need to proceed to action. For leading delegations and NGO representatives, the commitments became the first tangible indicators of substance. For its part, the UN has been invited to consider a high level official at the level of the Secretary-General's office, and to continue and enhance its programme of mainstreaming gender throughout its activities.
For those who have heard enough words and demand action, the "Commitments" proposal provided a push toward implementation; an opportunity not only to monitor but to apply pressure by ensuring that delegations and observers alike would have no doubt about who was doing what, and who wasn't. NGOs found that the proposal also provided a strategic "hook" during pre-Conference regional gatherings, creating a tangible rallying point for new and existing constituencies around the world. One of the NGO organizers responsible for monitoring the Commitments explained that the important thing would be to "bring Beijing home." The Commitments, alongside the Platform and Declaration, will provide national lobbying efforts with additional weight, contributing to NGOs' ability to propose specific examples of initiatives to their governments when they begin to jointly work out national strategies for implementation.
THE GLOBAL PROCESS: For many, the global process of the FWCW will be the rich and complex criteria adopted to assess its success. Members of the Secretariat and the NGO community have characterized the process in a number of interesting ways, with many noting the perception of being at the threshold of a "Century of Women." There is a sense that women will not only be seen to take power but use it to participate in a re-definition of economic, political and social life and re-make peace and development in the image of a more balanced and just humanity. A senior member of the FWCW Secretariat said the UN's world conferences had literally changed women's lives. In Beijing, an Arab women's human rights group had addressed the Plenary, which would have been unthinkable just a few years ago. The process has begun to lift the veil on new ways of thinking. Between Nairobi and Beijing, the women's agenda became a gender agenda. Men's opportunities for different roles as nurturers must also be enhanced.
The transition to a universal agenda was captured in Beijing by the reaffirmation of women's rights as human rights. In Nairobi, the agenda was taken beyond national welfare programmes for women towards the development of global feminist consensus building. The President of the European Women's Lobby, Anne Taylor, said that an evolution has taken place in the women's movement between Nairobi and Beijing, with women around the world "occupying a different space" today. She suggested that objectives are clearer and commitment to implementation of the Platform resolute. Governments have become comfortable with the language but have yet to discover the powerful voice behind it. Some participants are already calling for another world conference in five years time. The proposal is already under active consideration in the CSW and the UN Secretariat.
Within the UN system, the conference will be viewed as the latest stage in a process of supporting and developing a global agenda for women's equality. The FWCW is a product of the UN system's advanced thinking on women's issues, which has contributed to a recognition that gender is an indispensable component of its cross-cutting programme of world conferences on the environment, population, human rights, and social and economic development. For the member States, the UN's conferences on women (Mexico 1975, Nairobi 1985) and agreements (Convention for the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination against Women, 1979) serve as a powerful mechanism, mediating between the demands of a worldwide network of women's movements in civil society and national legislators. Governments' attitudes toward women's participation and the politics of gender vary immensely, as was witnessed during the FWCW. For the vanguard of the women's movement(s), the UN process has fostered the internationalization of their issues and provided unique opportunities for face-to-face networking, agenda development and mobilization. With an interest in accessing and influencing both the intergovernmental negotiations at the formal FWCW and maintaining their power to mobilize and exchange ideas, NGOs will assess both the formal negotiations and the parallel NGO Forum at Huairou. Through the eyes of the women at Huairou the two conferences express all the essential dimensions of the process. In all, over 50,000 people took part in the two events, the largest UN world gathering.
At the heart of the process of which the FWCW will become a milestone is a process of struggle, learning and consensus building around achievable objectives.
Most delegates attending UN meetings and conferences are obliged to apply themselves to issues, sometimes for the first time. Within the G-77/China this was acknowledged by one of the senior delegates from the Philippines at the 39th Session of the CSW. The learning process is one of the less tangible outcomes. Nevertheless, those who have followed the process report that issues that were once beyond the pale for some delegations at international fora, including domestic violence and sexual rights, are now firmly on the agenda. Some feel that the FWCW initiated what will be a continuing discussion on new issues, specifically "sexual orientation" in the context of non-discrimination and human rights. Informal discussion on this and issues related to sexual rights were described as open and frank, although positions did not change on the text.
A number of NGOs who are well acquainted with the issues have informed themselves about UN negotiations and are developing professional lobbying techniques and strategies to create one of the most effective branches of global civil society. The gap between those in the know and those accustomed to viewing power at a distance, however, was evident and contributed to tensions among NGOs at the FWCW. Those who prepared well in advance were satisfied with their input and the results of their lobbying. The mechanism adopted to provide daily monitoring and feedback was a representative group called "Equipo." This team coordinated NGO procedural matters with the UN Secretariat. The response from government delegates to NGO efforts varied according to political cultures and the negotiating environment. At the 39th Session of the CSW, Secretary-General Mongella commented that governments had invited their NGO guests into their "living room, but then disappeared into the kitchen and failed to reappear until a late stage in the evening."
A similar process occurred at the FWCW, especially when critical issues were finally decided by the high-level group. The large number of amendments and contentious issues during the first reading of the draft Platform in Beijing necessitated the formation of informal working groups to deal with the detail. This created difficulties for some NGO representatives in terms of monitoring and lobbying. Inevitably, some felt excluded from the decisive exchanges. The UN is currently conducting a review of its procedures for NGO access to its negotiations. The evolving relationship between NGOs and the UN reflects the more global movement in which women are setting their own agenda, taking action and encouraging governments to follow.
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