S ome seventy Cambodian women will attend the NGO Forum this September in Beijing
which will run parallel to the official United Nations Fourth World Conference
on Women. This is a cause for great celebration. It is obvious to the donors
sponsoring these women that women's emancipation is an essential condition for
successful development in Cambodia.
Cambodian women from grassroots to
the halls of government have little skill and technical know-how to access
resources to increase their standard of living. The conference in Beijing will
provide an opportunity for them to learn from thousands of others. These women
from all over the world have developed important strategies over the last two
decades to advance the status of women. For example, what did Tanzanian rural
women do in order to be in control of the transport system so that they could
bring their produce to the markets without having to walk long distances? What
did Sri Lankan women do to successfully increase women's literacy
While Cambodian women are looking forward to this experience, the
preparation for Beijing at the international level has encountered some
resistance as witnessed at the final Preparatory Meeting (PrepCom) in New York
in March 1995. The aim of the PrepCom was to produce a revised and final draft
of the Platform for Action which will be debated and ratified in Beijing by all
UN members. The Platform for Action specifies concrete steps to be taken by
governments, the UN, international financiers, and NGOs for achieving women's
equality in eleven areas, including poverty alleviation, education, health,
human rights, access to economic structures and resources, decision making,
media and the environment.
The negotiations over the Platform for Action,
however, were dominated by contradictions between fundamentalists (religious,
political and economic) and advocates for the recognition of women's human
rights. So much so that 40 percent of the 70-page draft Platform for Action
requires further discussion in Beijing. This means that there is a lot of work
still to be done between now and September.
The European Union (EU) and
the international financial institutions, for example, were rigid about the
issue of debt reduction and cancellation - a commitment previously made at the
Social Summit in Copenhagen. Weaknesses in the economic analysis of the initial
draft of the Platform for Action has enabled the EU to play down the adverse
impact of structural adjustment on women in the Third World.
of debt and structural adjustment are new to Cambodian women. But there are no
shortages of examples in neighboring countries that point out the adverse impact
of debt and structural adjustment. And in small ways economic reforms are
already beginning to be felt in Cambodia, with increasing prostitution, child
labour, child prostitution, landlessness, etc. It is good for Cambodian women to
be aware of these issues as there exists the potential for these to get out of
hand. Still bracketed in the Platform for Action is the call for international
financial institutions to review policies and programs to ensure benefits for
women; increase the number of women in high level positions; train staff in
gender analysis; and consider the impact of lending programmes on women and
The word "gender" was also challenged by fundamentalists who are
known as the "Holy Alliance". They proposed the word "sex" in its place. They
wanted to bracket the word "gender" for fear that it recognises the perspectives
of homosexual, transsexual and bisexual persons, a view circulated widely by
conservative US and Canadian Christian organizations. Led by Australia, and
including the U.S., Cuba and the EU, there was an insistence that the use of the
word gender was non-negotiable. An NGO-prepared response stated that: "We will
not be forced back into the 'biology is destiny' concept that seeks to define,
confine and reduce women and girls to their physical sexual characteristics...
The meaning of the word gender has evolved as differentiated from the word 'sex'
to express the reality that women's and men's role and status are socially
constructed and subject to change. The infusion of gender perspectives into all
aspects of UN activities is a major commitment approved at past conferences and
it must be reaffirmed and strengthened at the Fourth World Conference on
The Chinese hosts have been difficult over the site of the NGO
Forum by placing it far away from Beijing. The dispute has been seen by the NGO
Forum on Women as an attempt to distance and, therefore, undermine NGOs'
influence on the conference. Cambodian women joined others from all over the
world in sending thousands of letters of concern to the UN Secretary
Another issue is how to transform the Platform for Action into
action. There is the need to mobilize action and financial commitments within
existing ministries. The Platform for Action calls for more effective national
machineries at the highest political levels.
Australia proposed a vitally
important amendment which would make Beijing a "conference of commitments" and
invites governments to define and then publicly announce specific priority
actions they plan.
In the final analysis, the success of the document
will not be measured by words but by deeds. Cambodian women must learn how women
from around the world have used the previous Platform for Action, the Nairobi
Forward Looking Strategies, to enhance women's interests in their
At the very least this current Platform for Action - which is
not a legally binding document - will become a key political tool for
governments and NGOs in the mobilisation of resources and politics to achieve
greater power and equality for women. Hopefully it will serve as a foundation
for transforming the social, economic and political structures that continue to
oppress women around the world.
- Boua Chanthou has been writing about Cambodian women since 1980. She is
currently a consultant to the Secretariat of State for Women's Affairs and a
gender officer for CDRI. This article was written in a personal capacity.