Background of the NGO Forum and Overview of the Family and Economic Transformation: Problems and Strategies

By Tinker, Irene; Summerfield, Gale | Review of Social Economy, Summer 1997 | Go to article overview

Background of the NGO Forum and Overview of the Family and Economic Transformation: Problems and Strategies


Tinker, Irene, Summerfield, Gale, Review of Social Economy


BACKGROUND: THE NGO FORUM OF THE FOURTH WORLD CONFERENCE ON WOMEN

The Fourth UN World Conference on Women, held in Beijing, September 6-15, 1995, and the accompanying NGO Forum, August 30-September 9, are over. Estimates of participants run from 20,000 to 25,000 at the NGO Forum and 4,750 [with some overlap] at the official meeting, itself growing as the UN membership has reached 185 countries. In the final stages of preparation, the NGO Forum was moved to Huairou [an hour's drive from Beijing] to reduce any influence the representatives might have on the uneasy political situation in China. The resulting confusion prevented many registered NGO participants from getting their visas because they did not have confirmation letters from hotels that were being built in Huairou. Still, this was the largest of the four UN conferences on women: Mexico in 1975 had 6,000 NGO participants and 2,000 at the official meeting; Copenhagen in 1980 had 8,000 at the NGO forum; and Nairobi in 1985 hosted 14,000 from NGOs and 3,000 at the official meeting. The geographic location encouraged more Asians to participate; new were the NGO women from Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia, many financed by the Ford Foundation.

China as the Site

Emerging from its self-imposed isolation from the international community, China had sought to host the Olympics in order to increase its global prestige. Failing in this attempt, the country hosted the Asian Games in its Olympic Stadium and offered to host the Fourth UN World Conference on Women. Hosting these large conferences of official delegates from governments and UN agencies is expensive in itself with the high cost of simultaneous interpretation in six or seven languages; the continual expansion of the parallel Non-Governmental Organization [NGO] Forums adds greatly to the price tag; no other Asian country offered and it was that continent's turn.

From the beginning some countries objected to the choice, citing human rights transgressions. Many feminists supported the selection, believing the issues raised would assist the Chinese women who were striving for greater equality in their own country. Both concerns stem from the Chinese government's predilection for controlling its citizens; its attempt to control international participants at the NGO Forum, as it did control those from China, resulted in extremely negative press. Whether this media attention deflected the coverage of women's issues or gave greater visibility to the meeting is still debated.

The Panels and Issues

The plethora of panels running for 1.5 hours each all day encompassed academic presentations, religious prayer meetings, reports from grassroots groups, and motivational sessions; their format ran from formal papers to show-and-tell to fancy agency handouts. Economics was a key area of focus as most of the participants live is countries undergoing structural adjustment or similar economic reforms.

"Human rights are women's rights and women's rights are human rights" was the slogan that dominated the conference. It is the NEW issue for women, a direct assault on patriarchal privilege that allows men to batter and even kill wives within the family under customary law protection. Bolstered by recognition at the Human Rights World Conference in Vienna in 1993, this concept was inserted in the Platform of Action as well. Hillary Clinton raised it in her speech to the official meeting, which was studiously ignored by the Chinese press because she said women's rights included their right to decide on how many children they wanted: no forced abortions [China] and no preventing family planning [Vatican]. It was a nice way to balance these opposing views and put them into a new framework.

Inheritance rights to land and house have traditionally been governed by customary law as well. The concept of equality in the phrase "women's rights are human rights" implies this should change. The Islamic countries opposed the idea of equality since the Koran designates that women get half of a man's share of assets because men have the responsibility of caring for women - a principal of equity, or fairness.

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