Consensus on Women's Rights Cleared the Skies in China

Article excerpt

THE most significant development at the United Nations' Fourth World Conference on Women, held in Beijing earlier this month, may well be the one that has received the least comment. Mid-way through what sometimes seemed like endless round-the-clock negotiations, a working session finally agreed to recognize that the human rights of women include the right to exercise control over their own sexuality - free of coercion, discrimination, and violence. With this consensus, the vast majority of the world's governments acknowledged that previous guarantees of political and economic equality remain hollow so long as women are unprotected from physical violation and sexual abuse in the home and outside of it. For international diplomats to take on such sensitive subjects - and to assert that full equality for women requires "mutual respect, consent, and shared responsibility for sexual behavior and its consequences" - is a historic breakthrough. But just as important as the substance of these agreements was the process by which they were determined. Naysayers and many ostensibly objective press reports alike would have us believe that the introduction of explicitly sexual subjects into the UN deliberations is the devious work of way-out Western feminists. But Bella-bashers and other skeptics should understand that these provisions were hammered out under the skillful leadership of a seasoned Egyptian diplomat. She, in turn, authorized a conference committee to resolve differences. It was chaired by a Caribbean representative from Barbados, who worked beside officials from Africa, Asia, Latin America, and the Middle East, as well as from Europe and North America. With representatives of the European Union holding out for even more exacting standards - and with US delegates reticent, in deference to the political power of the conservatives back home - the debate on sexual rights was carried forward by delegates who are neither white nor liberal nor necessarily feminist. Testimony was poignant. Delegates from sub-Saharan African nations were especially concerned about protecting women from the spread of AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases. Latin Americans spoke forcefully of the desperate need to give governments power to intervene in domestic violence. For decades, discussion of sexuality has been kept off the international agenda by countries opposed on moral or ideological grounds to intruding on what were widely considered to be matters of individual conscience or national custom. Now as it celebrates its 50th birthday, the UN has finally come of age by recognizing that, for women especially, the personal is necessarily political. The watershed agreement reached at the International Conference on Population and Development in Cairo last year committed the international community to a wide range of policies and programs addressing the complex relationships between the social status of women and global well-being. For the first time the reproductive and sexual health of women was linked directly to considerations of sustainable population growth and economic development. In Beijing the equation was extended to explicitly affirm women's rights regarding sexuality. …