Conference of Commitment

 

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Category: Women Date: 25 Sep 95


According to Reddock, the Caribbean led the demand for recognition of family forms which did not conform to the traditional nuclear family. This included, for instance, single mothers, extended families taking care of children, the women as wage earner.

 

In early September, 30 women from Trinidad journeyed to China. For almost three days they travelled, taking connecting flights through Toronto, New York, Amsterdam. Simultaneously, 30,000 women around the world, old and young, some qualified and some self-taught, in saris, suits, khangas, skirts, hijabs and shorts, left behind offices and villages, husbands and homes, children and care, packed their bags and boarded planes to Beijing. Their mission was to ensure that discrimination against women would be eradicated by the year 2000.

 

Among the Trinidadian women were Dr Rhoda Reddock, chairperson of CAFRA and senior lecturer at the Centre for Gender and Development Studies in UWI, and Roberta Clarke, an attorney-at-law. The women are not yet back and so the final document is not yet drawn up, but Clarke and Reddock agreed to an interview on their impressions of the conference.

 

According to Dr Reddock, of the NGO forum in which the some 25,000 - the vast majority of the women - participated, and the official UN government format attended by some 5,000 women made up of national delegations, the latter would hammer out a consensus for the UN document.

 

 The NGOs turned out in such overpowering numbers because, as Reddock explains, “The women’s movement began with NGOs. The UN meeting is governments’ response to it.”

 

 They arrived in Beijing, “a consumers paradise,” as Dr Reddock calls it, evoking images of Alladin’s lamp - jade and silk and perfume.

 

 But there was no time for shopping. Reddock recounts the barrage of complaints that were beamed around the world via CNN. The NGOs who were the vast majority of the women were housed an hour and a half away from Beijing in the Hairou resort centre.

 

 The “budget” accommodation, which many women had opted for, was incomplete. There was no hot water and concrete particles flew about. When it rained delegates had to sludge through mud to roughly constructed tents where they attended forums and the world heard news of protests against the conditions, protests against China’s terrible human rights records and protests of the venue.

 

  Dr Reddock said many women were “disgusted” with US coverage of Beijing, particularly CNN, which she claims distorted events by highlighting demonstrations against Chinese authorities and trivialising those issues really pertinent to women.

 

 “The Women in Black demonstration against violence and women against US imperialism on the day Hillary Clinton attended got no airplay at all. Neither did demonstrations for food security for Third World countries or the demand for the decriminalisation of lesbianism. The US media picked out only demonstrations against Chinese authorities.”

 

 CNN blew the complaints over conditions out of proportion. The reports, says Reddock, “trivialised important political and networking activity taking place.”

 

 “Although the Chinese authorities appeared inflexible they did try to make changes every day. And everything was overshadowed by the way in which women rose above problems.”

 

 Roberta Clarke shares this view. “It was energising being with so many like-minded women. I wish more women at community level can be part of it. I saw a lot of women from South East Asia, rural women. They didn’t have time to bother with the comforts that their Western counterparts were used to. They were just glad to be there and sharing the experience.”

 

 When one considers the sheer logistics of hosting an influx of what amounts to the population of a small country, one can only sympathise with the Chinese authorities who, as Clarke says, “went through a lot of effort to put this conference on and this can’t be denied.”

 

 As for the CNN debate over Hillary Clinton attending the conference due to China’s reportedly bad human rights record, Clarke says, “There are concerns about China’s human rights but in fact China has made good strides in equality between women and men under communism.”

 

 “Domestic violence and murders of women everywhere are just some examples of human rights abuses. They are related to inequalities between men and women. Women need real access to redress such as shelters and alternative housing when under the threat of violence. The education system needs to concentrate on gender equality and non-violent resolutions of problems.”

 

 There were other misleading reports. Reddock says: “A recent article suggests sexuality and reproduction issues overpowered everything else. It didn’t. It simply took its rightful place among all other issues such as environment, intellectual property rights, the role of women in non-independent states who could only participate through their colonial rulers.

 

 “For instance, Puerto Rican women could only be part of the US delegation, women of Anguilla had to speak from the British delegation.”

 

 For Clarke, a primary issue was the battle to establish that some rights are universal. That violation of these rights amounts to human rights abuses. “Women, are entitled to human rights no matter where they are. Governments and people cannot use culture to justify discrimination against women. This view met a lot of opposition who wanted language to the effect that women’s rights are recognised culturally.” The forum eventually agreed that “no matter where you are culturally there are a basket of rights that belong to all people. Culture was rejected as a justification of violation of these basic rights”

 

 Reddock said that the position of domestic workers was high on the agenda, as well as women’s unwaged work, lesbian rights, women rights, human rights, the need for women control over their sexuality. The impact of structural adjustment and economic liberalisation was seen as a form of violence against women.

 

 The issue of the African girl child was the focus of NGO workshops and an entire section of platform. According to Reddock, action taken included “rights to inheritance, strongly resisted by some countries, resistance to genital mutilation, equal access to education, rights for continued education for girls who become pregnant at school. Some of the measures were resisted by some governments on a religious basis such as Catholics or Islamic countries.”

 

 According to Reddock, the Caribbean led the demand for recognition of family forms which did not conform to the traditional nuclear family. This included, for instance, single mothers, extended families taking care of children, the women as wage earner. “This was resisted by Catholic, Islamic and Northern countries. A compromise was reached on that issue in that even though the family accepted as basic unit recognised family could have variety of form.”

 

 For both Reddock and Clarke, Beijing went beyond a mere conference. It was inspiration to continue their work in the Caribbean.

 

 In recent times, the women’s movement has suffered setbacks says Reddock - “religious fundamentalism, conservatism, economical policies which tried to turn the clock back on affirmative action.”

 

 “The NGO meeting revived and mobilised the women’s movement worldwide. Many of us were impressed at the breadth and depth of the women’s movement. What also came out clearly is the women’s movement is truly international and no longer dominated by West Europeans and North Americans. A lot of networking was taking place even within the region and among those living in the diaspora.”

 

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All Articles Copyright Ira Mathur