Women of the world look ahead to Beijing Plus Five in June

This year's Commission on the Status of Women wrestled with difficult issues in assessing world progress for women since the 1995 Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing.

UNITED NATIONS - For the better part of March, the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) worked to assess progress for women around the world since the 1995 Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing.

The goal was to prepare for a Special Session of the United Nations General Assembly scheduled for June 5-9, which seeks to produce international agreement on the next steps towards implementing the Beijing Platform for Action, the ground-breaking plan for the worldwide advancement of women adopted by the Beijing Conference.

Although the 45 governments that compose the CSW were successful in negotiating many points, agreement was not reached on numerous passages in the draft document that will be adopted at the June Special Session, which is known colloquially as "Beijing Plus Five" and officially as "Women 2000: Gender Equality, Development and Peace for the 21st Century."

The key points of debate involved sexual and reproductive rights, human rights, economic issues related to globalization, and the unwillingness of governments to provide the amount of funding for international development that was agreed on at previous UN conferences. In the lingo of the UN diplomacy, passages concerning those points were left with many "brackets" - meaning they will be edited or changed later, in special conferences before June or at the June event itself.

Nevertheless, a number of positive points emerged from the Commission's annual meeting, held from 3-17 March. For one thing, it was decided that new non-governmental organizations (NGOs) can apply for accreditation to the Beijing Plus Five meeting in June. In addition, many speakers highlighted the importance of women's equality in a broad range of international issues.

The president of the UN Security Council, for example, spoke about the essential role of women in the maintenance of peace and security. In an address on 8 March, International Women's Day, Ambassador Anwarul Karim Choudhury said that women must be "empowered politically and economically, and represented adequately at all levels of decision-making" at every stage of the process of establishing and maintaining peace.

Felicity Hill, director of the UN office of Women's International League for Peace and Freedom, said she was "thrilled" by Amb. Choudhury's comments. "All the issues that we're very concerned about, including the inclusion of women in peace-building, peace-negotiation and conflict reconstruction work were very clearly articulated by the president of the Security Council and this is a big first," said Ms. Hill.

Bani Dugal-Gujral, director of the Office for the Advancement of Women of the Bahá'í International Community, said this year's meeting was also notable for the degree to which the importance of "partnership" between women and men was highlighted. "I heard governments talking about the importance of the involvement of men, and I heard NGOs talking about it," said Ms. Dugal-Gujral. "This is important because on so many issues of concern to women, progress will not really be possible without the full cooperation of men."

Increased Access for NGOs

Another significant development was the decision to allow newly formed NGOs to participate in Beijing Plus Five. The General Assembly decided on 15 March that any NGOs, even those without previous consultative status to the UN or accreditation to the 1995 Beijing Conference, could apply for accreditation to the Special Session. It was also decided that a limited number of NGOs with consultative status will also be allowed to make statements to the main meeting of the Special Session.

While the Commission stated that these arrangements would not "create a precedent" for General Assembly special sessions, many viewed the decision as another sign that the atmosphere at the United Nations is increasingly receptive to NGO input.

"I think there's no question but that the NGO community has been really heartened by the decision to expand the possibilities of NGO participation," said Susana Fried, Beijing Plus Five Advisor for the United Nations Fund for Women (UNIFEM).

Some 1,300 NGOs participated in this year's Commission meeting, the most ever. Many, for the first time this year, were from groups with a strong position against abortion - something that created its own dynamic among NGOs.

An estimated 400 delegates were registered under the accreditation of various North American NGOs - groups such as the International Right to Life Movement, the Franciscan Friars, the Movement of Mothers, United Families, the Couple to Couple League - that stood against abortion and took the plainly stated goal of re-opening discussion on elements of the Platform for Action, a viewpoint that is opposite to the majority of NGOs that have typically attended past Commission meetings.

The result was a number of uncomfortable interactions, especially since many of the newcomers seemed unfamiliar with the procedures and protocols at UN meetings.

"They're mostly young people out on spring break, most of whom have no understanding at all about the UN nor the CSW nor the Platform for Action nor the outcome document - no understanding of why they're here except to push one issue, which is traditional families and pro-life issues," said Shireen Lee, coordinator of the Youth Caucus. "They were present in large numbers and some of the leaders would sit off to the side and refuse to identify themselves, kind of as monitors. It was really intimidating."

Members of the pro-family coalition admitted they did not know much about UN protocol, but nevertheless wanted to make their point. "We did come here in large numbers," said Elizabeth Daub, a member of the World Youth Alliance, a Virginia-based group accredited to the conference under the National Right to Life Committee. "We felt that was one of the ways we'll be heard."

The draft document

Organized into four sections, the draft document that will be presented at Beijing Plus Five reaffirms governments' commitments to the goals stated in the Platform for Action, summarizes the achievements and the obstacles in implementing each of the 12 critical areas, presents current challenges to implementation, and suggests actions and initiatives to overcome obstacles and achieve full implementation.

The 12 critical areas of the Platform, as they relate specifically to women, are: poverty; education and training; health; violence; armed conflict; the economy; power and decision-making; institutional mechanisms for advancement; human rights; the media; the environment; and the girl child.

Among the achievements noted in the draft document was a wider recognition that critical issues such as poverty, health, and armed conflict, among others, affect women in specific ways; an acknowledgment of the need to mainstream a gender perspective; and an overall increase in the participation of women at all levels in addressing these issues.

Specific achievements highlighted include the success of microcredit, progress in education and literacy, more government-initiated policy reforms and services for abused women, international policy support for eradication of female genital mutilation, the recognition of rape as a war crime, and the adoption of policies and mechanisms to protect women's human rights.

Lack of funding and resources topped the list of obstacles in all the areas and discriminatory practices and attitudes continue to obstruct women's advancement worldwide, the document reported. It said that insufficient attention is paid to the link between women's education and labor market dynamics, and poverty is increasing among women. Gender biases continue to hinder educational and employment opportunities, and the weak response of legal officials to violence against women continues to leave them vulnerable to abuse.

- Reported by Veronica Shoffstall