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Friday, June 09, 2000

Feminists and the fine print
Progressives and conservatives travel to the corridors of the UN to lobby over the wording of today's statement
Luiza Chwialkowska
National Post

Stan Honda, National Post
"We are insisting on the indivisibility of rights. Economic and social and civil rights," says Suki Beavers, director of the Feminist Alliance for International Action, which has been co-ordinating the Canadian feminist non-governmental organizations at the conference.

UNITED NATIONS - The battles of global feminism have been taking place underground this week.

In a maze of tunnels and corridors below the United Nations compound on the easternmost edge of Manhattan, where sunlight and cellphones barely penetrate, the culture wars are being fought.

In their leather sandals and their high heels, saris and silk scarves, thousands of women have travelled from all ends of the planet to huddle over pages of text and to hold the pen that will set on paper a list of rights for women and commitments for governments. The statement will update the program to achieve equality of the sexes formulated at the 1995 international women's conference in Beijing.

The facade of the UN building harkens back to the era of Cold War confrontations, but inside at the Beijing +5 conference the talk is modern rights-speak of "gender mainstreaming" and "globalization," of human rights, women's rights, and the "right to life."

In the General Assembly hall above, ministers from more than 180 governments take turns making polite and solemn declarations.

"Let us reaffirm faith in fundamental human rights, in the dignity and worth of the human person, and, indeed, equal rights for men and women," said Dr. Gage Geingob, Prime Minister of Namibia.

But no one is listening. They are all straining to hear what is going on down below.


The basement hallways are strewn with the detritus of feminism: pamphlets on the horrors of female genital mutilation, newsletters on development and peace, and AIDS. There are government publications too. One booklet featuring the grinning face of President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt sets out Presidential Decree No. 90 on the creation of a National Women's Council. Status of Women Canada has produced a bilingual package of information assessing its achievements and priorities. The Quebec government sent its own materials.

By day, there are press conferences, films, panels and studies released during the week.

Hillary Clinton rallied the troops on Monday. Jane Fonda came by, and even Jordan's Queen Noor.

But with the cameras gone, and the dignitaries whisked away in limousines, the real battles are only beginning.


At 10 p.m. some two dozen women and two bearded, paunchy and highly conspicuous men sit outside conference room three. Inside the room is the "contact group on health," the name for the negotiators for a group of countries that hash out the most controversial language of the declaration that is supposed to be adopted today.

Countries like Canada, the United States, Poland, a handful of Latin American countries and Egypt, care strongly enough to send their delegates here at this hour.

Among other touchy issues, they consider language on whether health-care workers should be required to learn to perform abortions despite their religious beliefs and whether women should have the right to decide the size of their families.

In the hallway outside sit activists who believe that if they leave this corridor at this moment and go home to sleep, one of the negotiators might give away their human rights, sacrifice them on the altar of traditional culture or national sovereignty, or trade them for some lesser good.

"The Polish delegation is very, very bad," says Wanda Nowicka from the Federation for Women and Family Planning in Warsaw.

"They are taking the hardest position on sexual rights, sexual orientation and abortion," she says, noting that after 40 years of abortion access, the post-communist government criminalized the procedure in 1993 without funding family planning or sex education.

Ms. Nowicka's delegation has refused to meet with her. The negotiations are behind closed doors.

"So what do we do? We sit in corridors," she says.

Her ideological opponents also fear leaving. If they go home now they might wake up and find the world has decided to promote the wholesale murder of unborn children.

"At this conference we've seen an increasing attack on the family," says Tanya Granic, a pro-life activist from Toronto.

"The Canadian delegation seems to be very, very radical, introducing language on things like sexual orientation," she says.

She hopes her presence will limit Canadian credibility with other countries.

"We're here as youth from Canada saying this delegation does not speak for us," she says of the World Youth Alliance, a pro-life youth group to which she belongs.

Each night, the activists wait for negotiators to emerge, to approach them, to offer them "language" or prayers, to hear whether the room is swaying in favour of the progressives or the conservatives.

The progressives eat potato chips, low-fat yogurts and nuts. The conservatives put away popsicles and ice cream sandwiches. They all smoke cigarettes and wait.


"Since coming here I have learned the power of a single word," said Samantha Singson, a 22-year-old who drove eight hours from Toronto with four other members of Campaign Life Coalition Youth, stuffed in a small car, and is living for the week in a sleeping bag on a friary floor in Harlem.

"It's like a game of Scrabble, You get points for getting certain words in. Like the difference between health 'care' and health 'services,' " she says. "One word can mean millions of unborn children can live."

The semantic parsing that is the lifeblood of UN negotiations makes Bill Clinton's lawyers look amateur.

"We all carry the language in our heads," says Katherine McDonald, director of Action Canada for Population and Development.

The Language, as its called, means phrasings of paragraphs that will appear in the final document to emerge from the conference.

Both sides watch the debates and urge their preferred "language" on the delegates.

"It gets very boring, with them going on and on, but if you turn away for a few seconds and miss a word, it could have enormous implications," says Luke Jalsevac, 22, who came with Ms. Singson.

"This is a world idea emerging by consensus," says Anna Halpine, a pro-life Canadian ex-pat living in Brussels.

"It's a whirlwind," says Mr. Jalsevac.

Ms. Granic nods. "It's like a game."


Outside the negotiating room, Ms. Nowicka fears her country's hard line could backfire in negotiations to join the European Union.

"What does this mean for the process of accession to the European Union if the Amsterdam Treaty includes protections for sexual orientation," she asks.

This is precisely what bothers Ms. Granic, her ideological opponent, who says that rich countries are bullying poor ones into accepting radical social policies.

Each side of the sexual rights debate laments that the other side is obsessed with an ideological agenda over reproduction while around the world women are being abused, and dying of poverty and disease.

"I don't understand why they are pushing language on sexual orientation when we should be focused on women in developing countries dying of malaria," said Ms. Granic, shaking her head.

"Absolutely not," responds Suki Beavers, director of the Feminist Alliance for International Action, which has been co-ordinating the Canadian feminist non-governmental organizations (NGOs) at the conference. "We are insisting on the indivisibility of rights. Economic and social and civil rights."


By one in the morning, delegates emerge from the contact group.

There is a clatter of high heels as they come out, each bee-lining for their friendly NGOs. The Canadians are gone before they can be approached. But they are rarely approached, anyway.

"We don't approach the Canadians, " says a representative of Concerned Women for America, a conservative group. "They know what they want."

A young woman from the U.S. State Department is hailed by the Canadian progressives to update them on the impasse.

"We don't agree and we're not going to agree," she says. "There was nothing more we could do today."

The corridor clears as the NGO retreat to their hotel rooms. The only women who remain wear pale blue smocks and head to mop up the ladies room.


In the mornings, NGOs take stock of the defeats and victories.

Ms. Beavers is not pleased.

"We're disappointed about some of the things that have been already traded away. Like 102.j," she says.

The lobbyists speak in paragraph numbers. 102.j included condemnation of discrimination against lesbians.

"It is a big defeat," she says. "It actually had the word lesbian in it."

Erin McGinn searches the halls for the Canadian delegates to talk about language.

She is worried about paragraph 115.f.bis, which deals with providing young people with education, information and services on "reproductive health."

Lobbyists from both sides are preparing to observe the negotiations until four in the morning.

Will it make a difference?

"It's hard to gauge," says Ms. McGinn. "You don't know how things would have been different if we didn't come."

(Each link opens a new window)
  • United Nations: Beijing+5
    The main site for the conference otherwise known as "Women 2000." Also check out this PDF document discussing strategies for implementing the five-year-old Beijing platform.
  • Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action
    What was agreed upon in Beijing.
  • Status of Women Canada
    The Beijing+5 page of the ministry headed by Hedy Fry.
  • Canadian Feminist Alliance for International Action
    A critique of the Beijing+5 conference.
  • WomenWatch
    The UN agency attempting to advance women's rights across the world.
  • Holy See
    The official web site of the Vatican, a criticized participant in the talks.
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