Academic journal article Journal of International Women's Studies

Learning to Organize Globally

Academic journal article Journal of International Women's Studies

Learning to Organize Globally

Article excerpt

Introduction

Between 1975 and 1995, four world conferences on women took place under the sponsorship of the United Nations. They involved all governments and activists in multi-level multi-year processes of policy debates, formulation, and implementation. Undoubtedly the most ambitious type of global organizing for gender equality, they grew out of surprisingly modest intentions. In 1972, the United Nations General Assembly proclaimed 1975 International Women's Year to commemorate the 25th anniversary of the Commission on the Status of Women--the intergovernmental body in charge of global women's issues. Holding a world conference on women occurred as an afterthought. Several international women's organizations pointed out that all the other International Years had been celebrated with world conferences, and demanded the same treatment for International Women's Year (Pietila, 2002). Their demand was endorsed and forwarded by the Commission on the Status of Women to the United Nations General Assembly for a vote. The first world conference on women was subsequently organized in Mexico City in 1975.

A few months after the world conference in Mexico City, the United Nations General Assembly designated 1976-1985 United Nations Decade for Women. A mid-Decade world conference was scheduled in 1980 to review progress since 1975 and sustain the momentum forward. It was to take place in Teheran, Iran, but the Shah government was toppled by the Islamic revolution in 1979. Denmark stepped in during the last minute, and hosted the world conference in Copenhagen.

The third conference took place in Nairobi to mark the end of the Decade in 1985. It recommended that the United Nations explore ways to hold world conferences on women on a regular basis and preferably every five years. Alongside this bold demand, it asked at least one world conference be held before 2000. In 1991 the United Nations decided to hold the Fourth World Conference on Women. Notably, this conference was named after its temporal location--the fourth--in the series of world conferences on women. It thus assigned retroactively a serial number to the three previous world conferences on women. (1) The serial number is convenient for comparative purposes and used in this paper, but should not conceal the role of contingency in bringing about the world conferences.

Women activists from around the world responded to the world conferences with enthusiasm and high expectations, which has been well documented (e.g., Fraser, 1987; Pietila, 2002). What was even more telling, the United Nations conceded ownership of the world conferences to women activists. Its official document claimed that the first world conference on women was history's largest consciousness-raising session (United Nations, 1996). The second world conference was about networking, the third witnessed the revival of the international women's movement, and the fourth provided impetus for the international movement to mature and shape global gender policies in important ways. In other words, the world conferences were natural components of the international/global women's movement. (2)

This essay reexamines the relationship between the world conferences and the international/global women's movement. The world conferences were sponsored by the United Nations. Indeed, it was up to the United Nations and member states to decide whether or not to hold a world conference on women. And a world conference on women had two integral parts: the intergovernmental meeting, and a parallel NGO Forum that was open to any non-governmental organization. (3) For these reasons, the world conferences could be more accurately characterized as bureaucracy-sponsored global organizing for gender equality, and distinguished from non-sponsored transnational campaigns. Only the latter are natural components of the international/global women's movement. To reflect the difference, this paper uses women's global organizing and intends it as a generic term. …

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