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Lessons to be learnt in Beijing

Lessons to be learnt in Beijing

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.

These issues

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.


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